Of the three Tour de Ski stages remaining this morning, it had to be the 16km freestyle that frightened leader Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) the most.
A stronger classic skier, and a ferocious climber, Kowalczyk should be confident with the last two stages – a 10km classic mass start, and the famous final climb.
But the handicap start event in Toblach was an excellent opportunity for her competiton to make up ground.
And they did just that. The Pole held on to her first place overall, but her lead has dropped to under 30 seconds, with Arianna Follis (ITA), Marianna Longa (ITA), and Charlotte Kalla (SWE) all cutting into the margin.
While one cannot say the Kowalczyk “struggles” in skating, it is her weaker technique. According to her personal blog, she often suffers pain in her legs while skating, and had issues today. She still looked plenty strong, charging up the climbs with her usual unorthodox style.
Petra Majdic (SLO), winner of Wednesday’s skate sprint, predicted she would pay a price for that victory. She was quickly reeled in by the trio of Kalla, Follis and Longa who started within a few seconds of each other in fourth through sixth position.
Majdic was hurting, but she hung tough as is her wont, refusing to back down. She was finally sprung at the 10k mark, but kept pushing to maintain position.
The Italians and lone Swede continued to work together, and slowly pulled in Kowalczyk. With 5k to go, it was clear they would not catch the leader, but they could narrow the gap as much as possible.
Kalla took over the lead with one kilometer to go, and dropped the hammer. Follis and Longa latched on, and were able to outsprint a spent Kalla in the homestretch.
Majdic came across in 5th, and with a recovery day, will have an opportunity to bounce back for the classic.
There were few other changes in the top-10, with several skiers moving just a place. Unlike the men’s race where three large packs formed, the women in the top-12 skied alone or in small groups.
American Kikkan Randall starting in 17th, locked in with the one large pack, and finished strongly to move up to 15th overall.
With a continuing rash of withdrawals, the Tour field is now down to just 39 women.
Racing continues on Saturday, following a rest day, with the 10km classic mass start.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.