It’s all over but the climbing. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), despite being pressed by Therese Johaug (NOR), all but ended the 2011 Tour de Ski, skiing to victory in the women’s 10km mass start classic, and winning every intermediate bonus sprint.
Kowalczyk and Johaug shattered the field less than two kilometers in, opening a margin that would reach nearly a full minute by the end.
The Pole should have no trouble defending her Tour title, now sitting an insurmountable 2:08 ahead of Marianna Longa (ITA) in the overall.
And while today was the last chance to catch Kowalczyk, the field had their work cut out for them. A stronger classic skier, and one of the best climbers in the world, the technique and course suited Kowalczyk well.
For the first time in days, she was able to put significant time on her competition, but it was actually Johaug who led the charge.
The diminutive Norwegain, skiing with her trademark high tempo, went to the front on the first climb and immediately opened a gap. Only Kowalczyk could follow, though several others tried.
Petra Majdic (SLO), winner of both Tour sprints, but lacking her top distance form, gave her usual best effort, but had neither the body nor the skis. Slipping badly on the hills, the tall Slovenian had to give up the chase, and was ultimately swallowed by the remains of the pack.
Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) also pushed hard early, and was initially able to minimize the damage. But the duo at the front kept driving the pace.
Kowalczyk led into the first bonus sprint, with Johaug trying to gain an advantage in the draft. But as expected, Kowalczyk held a significant edge in the double pole and easily held on for the 15 seconds.
Johaug was unphased and continued to attack on the climbs, happy to take the lead for significant stretches, and the gap on the rest of the field widened.
The second bonus sprint was nearly identical to the first, with Kowalczyk again holding Johaug at bay. Saarinen took third both times through, but an impressive Marte Elden (NOR) attacked hard in the last lap, catching first Longa in fourth, and then Saarinen. Longa caught a ride, and the two quickly dropped the Finn.
At the front, Kowalczyk made her move on the last climb. Johaug didn’t break, but she did bend, and Kowalczyk gained all she needed over the top of the hill, double poling in for a six-second victory. Johaug didn’t let up until she was over the line, collapsing in a heap, exhausted but elated after moving from ninth to fifth in the overall standings, and within reach of the podium.
“This was a really good race, my skis were perfect, the shape was also good and Therese Johaug was perfect,” said Kowalczyk. “It was really good to work with her, almost like a Polish-Norwegian team.”
Johaug also felt good, telling Langrenn.com, “I felt early that this was my day and I felt like I skied more and more relaxed as the race went on. I am happy that I was able to ski with Kowalczyk and set the speed for the race. I was almost surprised when they said I was 1.20 ahead of Charlotte Kalla.”
Longa, gaining a second wind after Elden came by, pulled away from the Norwegian in the same spot Kowalczyk made her move, taking third on the day, and moving up to second overall.
Arianna Follis (ITA), second overall starting the day, appeared to struggle early, but came back to place sixth. She lost any hope of catching Kowalczyk, but remained on the overall podium, 25 seconds down on Longa.
A better climber and skater, Follis could very well improve on her third place finish from last year.
Majdic held onto the fourth spot overall, but given her distance struggles, and with Johaug 12 seconds back, and Charlotte Kalla (SWE) 31 down, she will be hard-pressed to stay in the top-5.
Kalla had a disappointing day. She started in fourth, but never got it going, struggling with her kick. She battled to 15th, losing significant ground.
Saarinen ended up 5th, a strong result, but her hopes in the overall were dashed by a brutal race in the pursuit. She won’t even be able to reach the top-10.
Norway placed five skiers in the top-12, and now has five of the top-16 overall. Elden posted her best-ever World Cup result, cracking the top-5 for this first time in her career.
“It’s not just no-names who are in front of me,” Johaug told Langrenn.com when asked of her chances of reaching the overall podium. “These are some of the best skate skiers in the world. If it works out, it works out, if it doesn’t, that’s just the reality.”
Johaug had the fastest time on the final climb two years ago.
American Kikkan Randall struggled to 27th in the 36-woman field, losing nearly four minutes to the leaders. She is still within reach of the top-20 overall, just two places out.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.