After skiing together and taking turns leading through the first 9 k, the final stretch to the finish became a three-way thriller between the usual suspects among the Norwegian women where Therese Johaug eked out everything to beat Marit Bjørgen to the line.
For Johaug, winning the sprint finish in the 10 k classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy, was a huge victory in a Tour de Ski that has been a bit off for the defending champion. Johaug crossed the line in 33:10.4, just over 1 second ahead of Bjørgen and 5.5 seconds ahead of Heidi Weng in third place.
“I was determined to stick with Marit (Bjørgen) up the last hill, and I knew I had great skis, and my double-poling was really strong toward the end of the race,” Johaug said to NRK reporters after the race. “It was amazingly fun to win today. It feels so good after struggling a bit so far in the Tour de Ski. Now I felt my body was with me, and I love these courses here in Val di Fiemme.”
The podium trio had a huge gap to Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland, who clocked in 1:13.1 behind Johaug. Liz Stephen delivered a strong fifth place, 1:39.6 behind Johaug; Polish star and classic specialist Justyna Kowalczyk was disappointed in seventh place.
A clan with a plan
The Norwegian women, who have been dominating the podium so far in this Tour de Ski as well as in the World Cup season as a whole, had a plan prior to the sixth stage today.
Bjørgen’s plan was to conserve energy and prepare for the final stage up Alpe Cermis tomorrow. Johaug, who has been struggling more this Tour, was told to hold back – at least on the first lap. She managed to stick to the plan exactly one lap. Two meters into the second lap, Johaug was in the lead and set the pace. And the trio already had a huge gap on the rest of the field.
But group plans had to go out the window because of the presence of sprint “preems”: bonus seconds awarded to each of the first skiers across the line at two intermediate points during the race.
The time didn’t mean much to Bjørgen, who already had a roughly two-minute lead in the Tour de Ski after winning every single previous stage. But each second counted dearly for Weng and Johaug. Before today’s stage Weng sat in second place and Johaug in third, but Johaug is an expert at the final stage climbing up the Alpe Cermis. She wanted to narrow the gap to Weng so she could be sure of passing her; Weng wanted to widen the gap to prevent that from happening. It all came down to the bonus seconds.
At the 5 k mark, Weng was in the lead, 0.4 seconds ahead of Johaug and 0.8 seconds to Bjørgen. Approaching the sprint, Bjørgen predictably let Weng and Johaug fight for the bonus seconds. Johaug had the longest toe across the sprint line, collected the 15 bonus seconds and reduced the overall gap to Weng by 3 seconds. Weng cashed in 12 seconds and Bjørgen received 10 seconds in the sprint.
Thriller sprint finish
Bjørgen pulled the group of three into the final kilometer, looking confident going into the finish. She turned on the turbo on the last hill, but lost the sprint finish to Johaug after, perhaps, a tactical mistake. Johaug was able to stay in Bjørgen’s draft all the way down the hill, and was still tucking behind her as Bjørgen started double-poling. When Bjørgen decided to switch tracks before entering the finishing lanes, she handed Johaug the opportunity to pass her.
In almost every other time the pair has faced off in a sprint finish, Bjørgen has won – so it may not have seemed like a big deal. But Johaug turned it up to an extra gear and pulled away from her older teammate, stopping Bjørgen’s Tour de Ski winning streak.
It wasn’t an accident.
“I worked yesterday with my coach on my classical technique,” Johaug said in a FIS press release. “I knew Marit would be strong on the last hill but I could follow her.”
The effort was taxing: Johaug collapsed in the snow before sitting up and screaming in victory. She was excited and almost as surprised as anyone else.
“Shit, I’ve got more speed than her,” Johaug told NRK she thought as she drew even with the Tour leader.
Weng stuck with Bjørgen and Johaug all the way to the finish chutes, but had to settle for third place for the stage. She is still solidly in second place overall, and with a good day tomorrow, her 39 second lead to Johaug could be enough to defend that second place to the top of the monster hill Alpe Cermis.
Neither Saarinen nor Stephen of them was able to make up time on the final kilometer.
It was by far the best result all season for Saarinen, who struggled with a foot injury in the off-season.
“This was no longer a step, but a leap forward,” she told Finland’s Helsingen Sanomat newspaper. “I have received what I went for… It is a pretty good performance. Yes, it is on the way up and I’m beginning to seriously think about properly profiting at Falun [World Championships].”
As for Steven, on paper it was her best classic result yet. (With less than a full World Cup field present at such a late stage in the Tour – for example teammate Sadie Bjornsen dropped out of the seven-stage event – the race might have been less competitive than some others. On the other hand, the Norwegians didn’t seem to treat it that way, and Saarinen, like today, finished fourth in this event at the 2014 Olympics.)
“I had great skis today. It’s so warm and it was perfect klister skiing out there,” Stephen in a USSA press release. “These courses really suit the way I ski, steep hills and long hills. I really liked being in Val di Fiemme with the memories of World Championships.”
Stephen beat Norway’s Ragnhild Haga by 10.9 seconds, and has thereby made herself a serious threat to Haga’s fourth place in the overall Tour de Ski. Stephen, known as one of the best climbers on the circuit, sits less than a minute behind Haga in sixth place in the overall standings.
“It’s my favorite event of the whole year,” Stephen said in the press release. “It’s just you and the mountain, the gates and the people. I won’t sleep much tonight because I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, a four-time Tour winner who has dominated the classic ski stages in previous editions of the event, finished in seventh place, 1:47.2 behind Johaug. She sits in fifth overall, but more than seven minutes back from Bjørgen. It’s a huge change from previous seasons, and even Kowalczyk can’t put her finger on what went wrong.
She initially tried to go with the Norwegian trio, and indeed lasted almost a kilometer longer than every other woman. But then she was dropped, and after a few more kilometers could not hold onto fourth place.
“At some point, I disconnected the electricity,” she told the Polish media. “Then I learned about what it’s like to be a skier on tour with fatigue.”
She slipped through the field; by the finish, she looked crushed and despondent.
“It’s hard for me to analyze at the moment the cause of my poor performance skiing,” she told Eurosport Poland. “If it wasn’t the Tour de Ski, I might not have finished. There was even talk about that. What kept me alive was only thinking how foolish it would be to abandon when there is still a chance of a good placing in the event. My goal is to finish the Tour de Ski.”
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting