If there were any doubts left after last year, they’re gone now: Marit Bjoergen has it figured out.
Bjoergen, who won five medals at the Vancouver Olympics, annihilated the women’s field in the 10 k freestyle in Gallivare, Sweden on Saturday morning, winning by more than 40 seconds over Charlotte Kalla (SWE) and Italy’s Arianna Follis.
“She’s the queen right now,” said Kikkan Randall, who was the top American finisher in 19th.
Kalla, the winner of this event at the Olympics last year, started a minute ahead of Bjoergen and set best times at each intermediate checkpoint, just ahead of Follis and Norway’s Kristen Stoermer Steira.
In the post-race press conference, Kalla said that the “fantastic” home crowd buoyed her along, and that the “atmosphere in the stadium and tracks was amazing.”
But any excitement that had a chance to build among the Swedes was short-lived, as Bjoergen led wire-to-wire. Her time at the first checkpoint, just two kilometers into the race, was already 12 seconds ahead of Kalla, while at seven kilometers, Bjoergen was half a minute up.
Kalla ended up 41.1 seconds adrift, with Follis another 10 seconds behind. Steira was fourth, 58 seconds back, ahead of her teammates Marthe Kristoffersen and Vibeke Skofterud, which made for four Norwegians in the top six, and six in the top 11.
“The Norwegian women were just impressive today,” Randall said.
The victory was the 38th of Bjoergen’s World Cup career, and her sixth in the last nine season-opening races, including last year’s in Beitostolen, Norway.
Justyna Kowalczyk, a pre-race favorite and last year’s overall World Cup winner, was seventh, over a minute behind Bjoergen.
Kowaczyk had two wins at this distance last year, but she was never close on Saturday. Before the start, Kowalczyk had said that she would like to finish in the top five, but noted that the course “was not my favorite one.” She never challenged Bjoergen—at the first checkpoint at two kilometers, Kowalczyk was already 20 seconds down, and she ended up more than a minute back at the finish.
In the past, Kowalczyk has expressed her preference for courses with lots of vertical, but according to Randall, the demands of the loop at Gallivare were more technical, with tight downhill corners that allowed for minimal recovery.
“It’s a deceptively challenging course,” she said in an interview Friday. “You don’t have monster climbs, but at the same time, there’s not a lot of really good rest.”
Kowalczyk, a notoriously poor descender, may have struggled to find her top gear, but Randall was up to the challenge. She skied the whole race by herself, but still held a relatively consistent pace, sitting in 23rd and 20th at the time checks before stopping the clock in 19th—1:45 behind Bjoergen and two places better than her finish at last year’s season opener.
“It was a good one,” she told FasterSkier after the race. “I think it was a really good effort.”
However, Randall added that she still has room for improvement, having done few hard 10 k-type efforts this year.
“I got to the finish line and was definitely tired, but I definitely know that I had some more in the tank,” she said. “I felt like maybe if I’d had someone right next to me…I could have definitely responded and gone with it.”
After mixed results at tune-up races last weekend in Muonio, Finland, Liz Stephen started her season off with a bang, crossing the line in 25th, just ahead of Germany’s Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle.
With just that one race, Stephen has already topped the number of top-30 World Cup finishes that she had last year, when she struggled with injury and overtraining. The race was tight—ten seconds would have netted her five places.
Morgan Arritola, the third member of U.S. squad in Gallivare, started slowly and never got going—she ended up 60th, nearly than three minutes back. Randall said that Arritola “wasn’t satisfied,” and that “she still feels like she’s getting that race gear.”
Along with Ida Sargent, the three Americans will all compete in tomorrow’s relay—the first time the U.S. women have contested the event on the World Cup in some 10 years.
In her first-ever World Cup start, the 22-year-old Sargent will scramble, giving her one heck of an introduction to the circuit before she tags off to Randall.
“She’s a good sprint skier, she’s scrappy,” Randall said.
Arritola will ski the third leg of the relay, while Stephen will be the anchor.
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.