Rocket boosters? Tiny electric motors? Cutting the course?
The World Cup women’s field is going to have to come up with something, because it’s pretty clear that plain old training and technique isn’t going to be enough to beat Norway’s Marit Bjoergen any time soon.
In Saturday’s 10 k classic in Davos, Switzerland, Bjoergen won for her fourth time in five races this year, skiing to a 30-second victory over her Polish rival Justyna Kowalczyk. Therese Johaug (NOR) was third, 40 seconds back, but nobody else was even close: Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen was the next finisher, nearly one minute and 40 seconds behind. Kikkan Randall (USA) was the top North American finisher, far off the pace in 47th.
“Everything worked perfectly today,” Bjoergen told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race.
Bjoergen’s win in Davos was her 40th career victory on the World Cup, according to NRK. After a few days of heavy snowfall, some had predicted chaotic racing conditions, but precipitation appeared to taper off by the time the women started.
Saarinen, back from a shoulder injury that kept her out of the first three World Cup weekends, showed that she wasn’t far behind the eight-ball, setting the fastest intermediate times out of the early starters.
It looked like the race would be tight, as Saarinen held just a few seconds on Marianna Longa (ITA) and Masako Ishida (JPN) at the halfway point. But as soon as Johaug came through, it was clear that there was another class of athletes still to come—she arrived at the 5-kilometer marker 20 seconds ahead of Saarinen, a gap that widened over the second half of the race.
Johaug said afterwards that she has never skied well at altitude, and she typically struggles in Davos—her best individual finish there prior to Saturday was 20th place, back in 2007. But her quick-tempo, peppy technique was working on Saturday, as she set the best times at each checkpoint.
After Johaug, there were just three more starters in the seeded group: Kowalczyk, Bjoergen, and German Nicole Fessel, who finished 16th.
Kowalczyk started one bib ahead of Bjoergen—a gap of 30 seconds. After Kowalczyk’s critical comments about Bjoergen’s asthma medication earlier this year, the Norwegian likely had plenty of incentive to claw back the ground, and claw back she did, taking 22 seconds by the halfway point.
Bjoergen caught Kowalczyk with a couple of kilometers to go, but with victory assured at that point, she didn’t bother to come around. Afterwards, Bjoergen told NRK that she didn’t want to give Kowalczyk an extra boost that could have helped her top Johaug.
The four North American starters—Americans Randall, Liz Stephen, Morgan Arritola, and Canadian Dasha Gaiazova—were never in the race. Randall led the way in 47th place, but she was a full four minutes behind Bjoergen. Stephen was next, in 48th, with Arritola placing 57th and Gaiazova 61st.
Coming off a podium finish last weekend in Dusseldorf and two top-20 distance races earlier in the season, Randall said that she was “hoping for a bit more” on Saturday. But she was foiled by tricky conditions: heavy snow that ended just before the start of the race, then transformed into glazed tracks that demanded good technical skiing. Randall said her skis were “decent,” but that she just never found the right rhythm.
“Davos continues to be a challenge for me,” she said.
After pushing through two thirds of the race, Randall said she shut things down to save energy for Sunday—her first opportunity this year to face off against Bjoergen in a skate sprint, her favored discipline. Randall said she was looking forward to testing herself against the Norwegian, whom she called “perhaps the greatest female skier of all time.”
“She’s definitely firing really well—it’ll be fun,” Randall said.
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.