To say Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) owns the Tour de Ski might be an understatement at this point. The event embodies the Pole’s career, mirroring her overall success while illustrating the adage that defines her body of work — “the harder the better.”
For the fourth consecutive year, Kowalczyk made her laborious way up the famed Alpe Cermis, crossing the line with little energy for celebration, but well ahead of her pursuers.
In seven years of Tour racing, there have been only three winners, the last non-Kowalczyk being two-time champion Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) back in 2009.
Since that year, when she placed just off the podium in 4th, Kowalczyk has had a stranglehold on the event, even as venues and formats have shifted.
More sprints, fewer sprints, bonus seconds, nine stages or seven stages — the one constant has been Kowalczyk.
“Once again, it’s been a fantastic Tour de Ski. For the fourth time I sit on the first spot and I’m so happy,” Kowalczyk said after the race.
After a strong performance in Saturday’s mass start, where she picked up 45 bonus seconds in addition to her 33-second margin of victory, there was little doubt as to the overall outcome.
From the start of the Tour just over a week ago, Therese Johaug (NOR) was seen as the one woman who might challenge Kowalczyk, at least with Norwegian Marit Bjørgen out of the picture with an irregular heartbeat.
The conventional wisdom was that if Johaug could stay within a minute, she would have a good shot at the top spot.
The climbing champion had won the Final Climb the past two years, putting 50 seconds on the field last year, and over a minute the previous season.
But the mass start and Kowalczyk’s classic prowess proved too much for Johaug, and she started the day over two minutes back.
To her credit, Johaug still generated some excitement, though she ultimately ran out of hill.
On the flats alone, prior to the start of the climb, Johaug knocked a full 40 seconds out of Kowalczyk, and with the course switchbacking up the Alpe Cermis, she had a visual to work off of.
While Kowalczyk stuck with a slow tempo, methodically V1-ing up a pitch that reached a maximum pitch of 29%, Johaug opted to single stick the hardest parts, relying on her light tempo.
“I saw the hope of taking her to the ground,” Johaug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
She continued to close, and by the finish the gap was down to just under 30 seconds, and Johaug was once again the Queen of Alpe Cermis.
“I took it second by second, and finally I saw Kowalczyk…I felt really good today, but it was not enough,” Johaug said to NRK.
She did take a moment to engage in hindsight, wishing for another ten seconds in the Toblach prolgoue and the mass start.
With Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) off by herself in third, none of the podium spots would be closely contested.
Steira had an impressive Tour, surprising even herself with a freestyle sprint finals appearance in Switzerland, and consistently strong results throughout.
Steira won the Final Climb back in 2010, on her way to 5th overall, so she has proven her ascending chops.
She started the day just ten seconds behind Johaug, but never got any closer. Steira put time on the tailing chase group on the flats, holding a minute plus at the base of the climb.
She bent somewhat on the hill, but never broke, and the woman who has an uncanny ability to finish fourth, held her bronze position.
“I had fun each day since the beginning of the Tour, especially the sprint competition in Val Müstair,” Steira said after the race. “It’s been a fantastic Tour de Ski…and I think I’m in a good shape at the moment.”
Steira finished a shocking third in the Tour sprint standings, behind Kowalczyk and Randall.
The most drama on the climb, however, was in the group just behind.
Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN), Charlotte Kalla (SWE), Astrid Jacobsen (NOR), Kikkan Randall (USA), and Anne Kylloenen all started within 12 seconds.
The first three quickly came together, with Randall systematically closing down over the flats.
Kylloenen, starting simultaneously with the American, couldn’t hang initially, but did close the gap in her own time before the start of the hill.
Lahteenmaki, who came on strong in the later stages of the Tour, did much of the early work, pushing the pace on the flats. Kalla, who skied an impressive race in the 15k pursuit back in Toblach, took her turn at the front as well, with the other three content to ride behind.
As is usually the case, the early portion served only to setup the real competition.
It didn’t take long for the composition of the chase group to change. First Kylloenen, and then Randall, disappeared off the back, and when Jacobsen moved to the front with 900 meters to go, Kalla could not respond.
The seemingly irrepressible Lahteenmaki, would not go away however, and she staged her own attack with less than 400 meters to go, skiing clear to fourth place.
Another Norwegian, Heidi Weng, has been charging up the field, and she mowed through the fading Kalla to give Norway four of the top six spots in the race.
Kalla told Swedish broadcaster SVT that she simply ran out of legs on the hill and was never able to find her stride.
The 2008 Tour Champion was hoping to fight for the podium but will need to be content with 7th and some strong individual days.
American Liz Stephen substantially bettered her 8th place in the Final Climb a year ago, posting the second fastest time of the day, 39.5 seconds behind Johaug, and 30 up on Weng.
Stephen picked up seven spots to finish the Tour in 15th, just three spots behind teammate Randall, who slipped to 12th.
Despite overcoming Bjørgen last year, and holding off Johaug this time around, Kowalczyk points to her first win, a tight battle with now-retired Slovenian star Petra Majdic, as the toughest.
After seven races in nine days, a happy Steira voiced a sentiment that had to be running through the minds of all finishers.
“Now it is good to be done,” she said.