If any of the women on the World Cup circuit are still holding out hope that they can beat Marit Bjoergen, they’re running out of time to figure how to do it.
With a 33-second victory in Saturday’s 10 k classic in Otepaa, Estonia, Bjoergen remained unbeaten in every individual-start distance race she’s entered this season. The start of the 2011 World Ski Championships in Oslo is nearing, and some are speculating that Bjoergen could win gold in all six events.
“We won’t give up the fight yet,” Magnar Dalen, the Finnish head coach, told FasterSkier. But, he added, “if she is in the shape she is now, then it will be very difficult.”
Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk was second in Saturday’s race; she, like Norway’s Therese Johaug in third, was unable to capitalize on a difficult course that favored her.
In the press conference after the race, Kowalczyk told reporters that she doesn’t worry about her competition.
“I don’t think about the Marit,” she said. “I think about my skiing.”
But with 32 days remaining until Oslo, the writing is on the wall. In her first distance start since skipping the Tour de Ski earlier this month, Bjoergen put everyone on notice that she hasn’t lost a step.
She kept pace with an ambitious start by Kowalczyk, who started 30 seconds behind her. Over the first 2.5 kilometers, the two were essentially in a dead heat. But by the time the women made their way up and over the second major section of climbing, Kowalczyk had already started to crack: she lost 13 seconds on the ensuing descent into the stadium for the lap, and another 19 seconds on her last loop.
Kowalczyk was clearly upset with her 32-second deficit at the finish—asked what she needed to do differently to beat Bjoergen, she responded frankly: “skiing much better.”
Third place came down to Johaug and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, who is rounding into form after a shoulder injury kept her out of early-season racing.
She took the lead when she crossed the line with a fist pump—but that was with Johaug, Kowalczyk, and Bjoergen still to come.
Pound for pound, there’s not a shred of doubt that the five-foot-three-inch Johaug is the most powerful woman on the World Cup circuit. She skis with a furious, bouncing tempo that looks more suited to sprinting, and befits her nickname, “Energizer Bunny.” If she were six inches taller, she’d easily be the fastest woman in the world; as it is, Johaug is one of the best.
Climbing, especially, is her strong suit, and Johaug said that she “loved” Otepaa’s course, which included a number of steady uphill grades, punctuated by a handful of brutally steep pitches.
After being caught and dropped by Bjoergen just after the 7.5-kilometer mark, Johaug had just enough left to hold off Saarinen. She plans to race in her country’s national championships next week, before heading to a training camp in the lead-up to Oslo.
With only one more weekend of World Cup action before the tune-up races for Oslo, Bjoergen will enter Worlds as the clear favorite to win any event she enters.
While Bjoergen fielded questions about whether she could sweep all six races in Oslo, her coach, Egil Kristiansen, told FasterSkier that she’s currently scheduled to skip the team sprint.
“We haven’t decided 100 percent, but that’s the plan,” he said.
Coming into Otepaa, Bjoergen said that she was uncertain about her fitness, since she hadn’t competed in a distance race since she won a 15 k freestyle mass start in France on December 18.
“I was a little bit nervous today,” she said. “I knew that I was feeling very good, and the shape was good, but you never know.”
She said that her last lap felt especially good, which made sense given that that was where she built most of her gap on Kowalczyk.
The win gave Bjoergen her 20th victory in her last 26 starts (including relays), a unparalleled run that began with her victory in the individual sprint at the Vancouver Olympics.
Still, she said she hopes to be even better in Oslo, and Kristiansen said that the pair would try for a peak there—even though she might not need one.
“She’s been on a high level since she started the season, and if she is on that level, I think that’s probably good enough to have a gold medal in Oslo,” he said.
All the success this season, Bjoergen said, has only upped the stakes for the Championships on her home turf.
“They are talking about six gold medals, so I know that the pressure is very high,” she said.
In the mean time, the rest of the women have their work cut out for them. But if Bjoergen’s untouchable fitness was discouraging to some, that wasn’t the case for Sweden’s Anna Haag.
“It’s easier, because you want to be that good,” she said. “Everyone wants to be the best.”
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.