Val di Fiemme, Italy – Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) won the 3rd annual FIS Tour de Ski in impressive fashion, holding off a late attack by teammate Aino-Kaisa Saarinen.
Kuitunen, who has won the last two overall World Cup titles, held a 32 second lead starting the race, but could not feel comfortable. last year she entered the Final Climb with a 40 second cushion on young Swede Charlotte Kalla. Kalla was unable to make up any ground until the the steep pitch up the Alpe Cermis, and then proceeded to gobble up the tiring Finn and claim victory.
This year ultimately would be different. Kuitunen started relaxed on the nearly six kilometers of rolling flats, actually extending the gap on Saarinen. Meanwhile, Petra Majdic (SLO) the third starter, chipped away at Saarinen’s 17 second lead.
At 6.9 kilometers, just into the 2.5k of climbing, Kuitunen’s lead stood at 42.4 seconds over Saarinen, with Majdic only another 4 seconds back. Kuitunen looked strong, and it appeared she was in position to claim the Tour victory.
But the situation changed rapidly. Majdic caught Saarinen on the first steep pitch of the climb, just after the 6.9 mark, and made an aggressive move, attempting to pull away. Saarinen was able to respond and the two maintained a fast pace. Saarinen attacked back, passing Majdic, and was able to open a small gap. Just a half a kilometer later, Kuitunen’s lead had slipped to 17.4 seconds, and a repeat of last year had become a distinct possibility.
Saarinen continued to charge hard, and Kuitunen’s lead quickly evaporated. The two were even as the last kilometer approached, and Saarinen attacked hard, just as Kalla had done a year ago. But this time Kuitunen had enough to hang, and Saarinen was unable to open a gap. As the half-kilometer mark approached, Kuitunen, sensing Saarinen beginning to struggle,Majdic was 3rd made a move of her own, and quickly skied away to victory. Saarienen maintained her position to claim second, +7.4, with Majdic 3rd, +34.5.
Said Kuitunen following the race, “The plan was to not give away any seconds before the up hill. I was a little bit unsure about my back, and I tried to skate as well as I could. When I saw Saarinen and Majdic, I knew that they would catch me, and in the end I saw that Saarinen was a little bit tired and I knew that it was the moment for me to attack for the victory.”
“My goal was to do my own skiing and try to ski as relaxed as possible,” said Saarinen. “At the moment I feel a little bit disappointed, I tried to beat Virpi but she was too strong but overall I am happy with my position – it is the best ever for me in the Tour de Ski.”
In addition to her 3rd place overall, Majdic won the Tour Sprint cup.
”I am very happy with this 3rd place,” she said. “My goal was to finish the climb and I am alive after today’s race! I did not feel anything, I just tried to survive. I caught Saarinen in the uphill. I felt strong and I tried to attack, but then I had a little hollow and could not hold on to her. Today my skating was really good and that is a surprise for me. For me it was not such a big surprise that I finished 1st in the Sprint Tour, I have won three sprint in the World Cup and I have improved my skating this year. I am satisfied with the start of this season, the World Champions is coming but I will not focus on that yet. Tonight I will just relax and do not think anymore of the Tour de Ski.”
Justyna Kowlaczyk (POL) who considers herself a better classic skier, performed admirably, skiing up from 6th to 4th, and posting the 4th fastest time of the day. Marianna Longa (ITA) pleased the home crowd, maintaining her 5th place position.
Therese Johaug (NOR) won the stage victory, posting a time of 35:07 on the 9km course, 8.7 seconds ahead of teammate Kritin Stoermer Steira (NOR). Her performance moved her from 11th up to 6th, while Steira finished 9th.
Marit Bjoergen (NOR), who started in fourth, and was in position to make a run at the podium, struggled mightily and slipped to 10th overall, posting the 29th time of the day. After yesterday’s 10km Mass Start, Bjoergen told Norweigan newspaper Aftenposten that she was tired, and her body was not responding when she asked for a little extra.
Canadian Sara Renner, starting the day in 12th, slipped a few places and finished a still-excellent 15th. She now ranks 17th in the overall World Cup rankings.
– Valentina Shevchenko (UKR) who won this stage last year, was third today.
– Former Olympic Champion, Julija Tchepalova (RUS) had the biggest improvement, moving up 8 places from 31st to 23rd.
– Bjoergen dropped the furthest – 6 places form 4th to 10th.
– 37 women finished the Tour de Ski, 7 of whom are Russian.
– Norweigans Astrid Jacobsen and Marthe Kristoffersen and German Evi Sachenbacher Stehle did not start today. All were ranked within the top 22.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.