As the World Cup circuit heads towards its Christmas break, Marit Bjoergen is still in a class by herself.
After breaking away from the pack less than five kilometers into the La Clusaz 15 k freestyle on Saturday, along with her teammate Kristin Stoermer Steira and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, Bjoergen easily matched challenges by her opponents on the last of six laps, then turned on the jets on the homestretch to pull away for the win.
Kowalczyk was second and Steira third. Americans Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola both had their best performances of the year, finishing 18th and 19th, respectively.
“It was incredibly fun. It was an awesome race, but tough,” she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
Indeed, Bjoergen did appear vulnerable for the first time this season, biding her time until just a few hundred meters before the homestretch to make her move.
She skied nearly the whole race with Kowalczyk and Steira, the trio having left everyone else behind before they had even skied a third of the 15 k distance.
All three took turns at the front, and the gap to the chasers, led by Italians Arianna Follis and Marianna Longa, kept going up—it was more than a minute at the finish.
None of the leaders dared to try anything before the last few climbs. Steira was the first to launch, putting in a few hundred meters of high-tempo, aggressive climbing, but it wasn’t nearly enough to drop Bjoergen or Kowalczyk.
Kowalczyk was the next to go, but Bjoergen held on, then used what appeared to be a faster pair of skis to pass on one of the final descents. She shifted into a new gear as the course pitched uphill into the finish, crossing the line with a comfortable, one-second cushion.
While the International Ski Federation credited Bjoergin with 42 victories, those don’t include overall stage race wins, or results at World Championships and the Olympics, which would push her up to 49.
Regardless, the win was Bjoergen’s fifth in six races this season. (Her only loss came in the handicap start event in the Kuusamo mini-tour, which, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t count.) After racing the relay on Sunday with her Norwegian teammates, she’ll get a well-deserved break of nearly a full month off, since she plans on skipping the 2011 edition of the Tour de Ski.
Stephen and Arritola skied most of the race together, with Stephen ultimately coming out on top in a head-to-head drag race to the line.
It was Arritola’s best career result, and it was the top finish for Stephen since the 2009 World Championships in the Czech Republic. They came just in time, too—after both struggled in the early races this season, the La Clusaz race was likely their chance to prove themselves on the World Cup until February.
Neither Arritola nor Stephen were available for comment, but in a press release, U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said that Stephen fell at the start, leaving her as the second-to-last woman in the race.
“But when they met up, they skied together, pushing each other, as they have done a million times,” he said. “I am so proud of these gals; most of all, they were patient out there, and they worked together.”
After fighting illness early this week, Kikkan Randall elected to skip the events in La Clusaz and remain in Switzerland, where she plans to spend Christmas in advance of the 2011 Tour de Ski.
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.