Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) became the first skier, male or female, to win back-to-back Tour de Ski titles when she staggered across the finish line at the top of the Alpe Cermis on Sunday morning.
Starting with a lead of 2:08 over Marianna Longa (ITA), Kowalczyk was in no danger of being caught, but the big cushion did not make her complacent, especially with World Cup points and prize money available for the “Woman of the Day” standings – the results for the stage.
The Polish superstar pumped her arms at the finish and then collapsed into a ball on the snow. Exhausted, any further celebration would have to wait.
Kowalczyk used a breakaway with Therese Johaug (NOR) in Saturday’s mass start to cement her hold on the overall lead. After winning that race and claiming all the bonus sprints, Kowalczyk was well set for the brutal final climb.
But while the overall belonged to Kowalczyk, the big story of the day was all about Johaug.
The energetic Norwegian started the Tour in solid form, but turned on the jets in the mass start, leading Kowalczyk on the break, and climbing to fifth overall.
But as impressive as that performance was, Johaug had more to give. She wasted no time, charging out of the start today, and abusing her competition.
Petra Majdic (SLO) was the first to fall, Johaug overtaking the Slovenian before the 1.5km mark. Arianna Follis (ITA) was next up the trail. The Italian finished third in last year’s Tour, and she held a full 50-second lead on Johaug.
It wouldn’t be enough – not nearly. Once the climb started Johaug ate her up and spat her out, Follis not even attempting to hang. The reaming Italian hope, Marianna Longa, started 1:12 ahead of Johaug, but on the steep climb of the Alpe Cermis, seconds disappear like the snow during a New England thaw.
Longa had more to give than Follis on this day, and she made a valiant effort to stay with Johaug. But drafting gave no advantage and she too was left in the dust, and the television announcers started talking about a battle for first.
That may not have been realistic, but Johaug never let up. She sprinted across the line, collapsing in exhaustion and screaming her joy at the same time.
She finished a stunning one minute ahead of the next fastest woman over the nine kilometer course, and nearly two minutes ahead of third. Overall she took two minutes out of the Pole, and her only regret can be her inability to capture bonus seconds earlier in the Tour.
“It was a really great race today, my shape is really good and I had great skis,” Johaug said after the race. “I had a dream about finishing second today, and I was really happy when I saw Longa up the hill. Overtaking those girls was a really great moment, and this is the best I have done in my career so far.”
Kowalczyk was drained by her effort, but had some in reserve if Johaug closed further.
“I was tired, my legs were in pain and all I could think of was the finish line,” Kowalczyk said. “I heard Therese was attacking, but I was not afraid of her winning… if the time gap was smaller I would have gone faster. I was not giving 100% in the last hill.”
Longa stayed strong, and gave the Italians third place for the second year in a row. She celebrated across the line and was quickly joined by her young son as she hugged coaches and servicemen in the finish corral.
“It was a very hard race today,” Longa said. “The climbing is really really tough. I am so tired right now.”
The Italian was impressed with Johaug saying, “Therese Johaug was really strong yesterday, and she was even more dangerous for me today. I am really satisfied with winning third place today, and I am happy with my race.”
Follis unpressured in fourth, was clearly disappointed. She had an up and down Tour, but did not have enough to give on the climb. She was the only woman near the top who did not fall to the snow upon finishing.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE) a pre-Tour favorite, moved up one position to finish 5th, taking down Majdic on the climb. Majdic, who struggled in the distance races during the Tour, was surprisingly strong. Regardless of her form, she never lets up, and was completely spent at the end.
She heads home with two sprint victories in addition to her strong overall ranking, and cannot be disappointed despite her inability to repeat her second place overall finish from a year ago.
The Norwegians dominated the day, taking the top three places. After Johaug came Marte Elden, who also skied very well in the mass start. Elden moved up into ninth overall.
Marthe Kristofferssen rounded out the day’s podium edging Kowalczyk by 5.4 seconds. She ended her Tour in seventh, and with Marit Bjoergen and Kristin Stoermer Steira both watching from home, the Norwegian women’s team is looking exceptionally strong.
Astrid Jacobsen placed 10th in the overall, and Ingvild Oestberg 14th, giving Norway five of the top-14.
Finn Krista Lahteenmaki held her position, placing eight overall, a breakthrough performance for the 20-year-old, who showed good form in all events.
She was the top Finn as both Aino Kaisa Saarinen and Ritta Liissa Roponen had disappointing Tours.
American Kikkan Randall placed 23rd on the day, and finished her first Tour in 21st.
Only 32 women managed to survive to the top of the Alpe Cermis, as illness and fatigue took a major toll in this test of endurance.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.