The distance of the first race of the World Cup finals may have been unfamiliar, but the pair of names atop the results sheet on Friday were anything but.
Though rarely raced on the World Cup, the 3.3/2.5k prologue was just right for Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, as each skied to a convincing victory in the first of three races held in Falun, Sweden.
Cologna finished five seconds ahead of Mats Larsson (SWE) and Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS), and the key to his win was the pacing.
The defining feature of the course was its brutal climb, known as the Mordarbacken (which translates to “murder hill”)—some 500 meters long and cresting just after the one kilometer mark.
On it, Cologna said that he stayed in control, saving enough to “push hard on the downhill and the last part of the race.”
“I think that was the key to win today,” he said.
By no means was Cologna dogging it, though: At the checkpoint at the top of the climb, he was sixth, just three seconds out of the lead.
But 3.3 kilometers is a tricky distance, and some skiers held too much back going up the Mordarbacken.
Canadian Devon Kershaw tweeted after his race that he started “WAY TOO SLOW,” and the splits confirmed that. He was already 17 seconds out at the time check just one kilometer in, which left him 47th in the field of 53. He moved up to 29th by the finish, but clearly wouldn’t have minded if the race had been twice as long.
Petter Northug, who has already wrapped up the World Cup overall, was fourth, ten seconds behind Cologna. He told Norwegian newspapers before the race that he was worried about his arms after double poling all three of his heats in the sprint in Stockholm on Wednesday, but the result from today still leaves Northug in the hunt. After the prologue, he is positioned second in the finals standings, seven seconds behind Larsson.
Andy Newell led the way for the American men in 48th, 45 seconds behind Cologna and just a half second behind the Norwegian sprinter Ola Vigen Hattestad. Alex Harvey (CAN), Ivan Babikov (CAN), and Brian Gregg (USA), the three other North American competitors, were 21st, 46th, and 53rd, respectively.
The top three in Friday’s race were awarded bonus seconds in the overall World Cup finals standings: Cologna got 15, Larsson ten, and Vylegzhanin five.
Tomorrow, racers will start the 20 k pursuit based on those standings, which means that Larsson will go first, seven seconds ahead of Northug. Emil Joensson (SWE) and Cologna follow, 20 and 26 seconds behind, respectively, while all but two skiers in the rest of the field are within two minutes. Harvey is the closest North American in 27th, 1:21 back.
Larsson, a sprinter, will have a hard time to hold off Northug, Cologna, and the rest of the pack. Most likely, it will be Northug stretching things out from the gun, with Cologna and Marcus Hellner (SWE) the only strong distance skiers within striking distance.
With those latter two fighting it out for the third position of the World Cup overall, tomorrow’s race is especially important, and the competition between the two could reduce their incentive to keep Northug under wraps.
The Mordarbacken was all but built to Kowalczyk’s specifications, as her lithe and wiry is suited to steep climbs. Indeed, she said that she had made the prologue her goal for the finals.
Strong in both sprinting and in longer races, Kowalczyk said that 2.5 kilometers is her best distance. On Friday, she showed why, putting on a clinic to win over Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Charlotte Kalla (SWE).
Bjoergen was the only woman to stay within ten seconds of Kowalczyk, and Olga Savialova (RUS), in fourth, was way back, nearly thirty seconds behind.
Over eight minutes, that’s a staggering margin. To put it in perspective, if the race had been a 30 k, the proportional gap to fourth place would have been more than five minutes.
With the 15 bonus seconds she earns for the win, Kowalczyk will begin tomorrow’s 10 k pursuit with a 16 second advantage over Bjoergen, and nearly 40 over Sweden’s Anna Olsson.
Bjoergen and Kowalczyk have dominated the distance races over the last month, and the other women in the pursuit will be hard pressed to keep the pair close. Kalla has the best chance of catching the two, but even she starts thirty seconds behind Bjoergen and 47 after Kowalczyk, so it looks to be another Norway-Poland duel for the win.
Kikkan Randall (USA) was the top North American finisher in the women’s race, finishing 36th, 1:08 back, and Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova was 45th. With her 15th place in the sprint in Stockholm, Randall will be starting 30th in the pursuit, just over two minutes behind Kowalczyk.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.