During an amazing run spanning two seasons from 2008 to 2009, Petra Majdic (SLO) won 10 of 16 World Cup sprints, and finished on the podium two additional times.
On an Obertsdorf sprint course, where she placed 15th at the 2005 World Championships 6 years ago, Majdic once again showed the form that has made her one of the greatest sprinters in World Cup history, leading the day from wire-to-wire.
Majdic started by laying down the fastest time in qualification, besting Finland’s Aino Kaisa Saarinen by just under a second, a meager margin compared to what she had in store for the heats.
A play-by-play is pointless as each round was nearly identical – the tall Slovenian in fluorescent yellow off the line first, and seemingly out of reach halfway up the first climb.
Majdic skied with impressive tempo while maintaining glide, her huge stride eating up the two large Obertsdorf hills. She won each of her heats, including the final by a minimum of 4.3 seconds – and that was with competitors battling for qualification and podium spots behind her.
“It was a great race and I felt better and better throughout,” Majdic said at the post-race press-conference. “I like this kind of tough course.”
The final featured an impressive line-up with only one surprise – 13th qualifier Julia Ivanova (RUS), who had never raced a World Cup sprint final, and who has rarely advanced out of the quarterfinals.
Ivanova was a lucky loser in both the quarters and the semis, outsprinting American Kikkan Randall to take the final spot out of the first round, and advancing to the finals despite finishing fourth in her semi.
She was joined by a rejuvenated Astrid Jacobsen (NOR), the always strong Saarinen, and Alena Prochazkova (SVK), a regular in classic sprint finals.
But the main competition for Majdic was Justyna Kowalczyk (POL). The winner of the first two Tour stages, Kowalczyk entered the day on top of the overall standings, and like Majdic, won both her heats to reach the finals.
The Pole used her standard strategy of going out hard and then turning up the pace. And while several stayed close, she was never in danger of getting knocked out – though she did show a chink in her armor that would come back to haunt her.
In both the quarters and semis, Kowalczyk would quickly open a gap on the first climb before relinquishing most of it on the technical downhills of the Obertsdorf course. With two climbs followed by two challenging descents, Kowalczyk would yo-yo off the front.
In the final, Majdic led out with Kowalczyk on her heels up the first hill, immediately creating separation on the rest of the field.
But as Majdic continued to pull away, Kowalczyk came back to the chasers on the first drop, and entering the second climb, it was clear that nothing short of a crash would derail the Slovenian.
Jacobsen was the only woman left who could even come close to matching Kowalczyk on the second uphill, and she stayed within striking distance over the top. And once again, Kowalczyk, unsteady on her feet, gave meters back on the descent.
Majdic cruised across the line, shouting over and over with joy as she capped a moving comeback from serious injuries suffered at the Olympics with her first World Cup win in nearly a year.
“This win was extremely important for my self-confidence as it showed that I can still win,” a beaming Majdic said.
Meanwhile, Jacobsen had pulled up alongside Kowalczyk entering the finish straight, and the two charged to the line, double poling furiously as they lifted off the ground with each stroke.
Jacobsen gained at first, but Kowalczyk had just a bit more, and took the Norwegian by several feet to maintain the overall Tour lead.
Prochazkova took fourth, Ivanova a surprising fifth, and an exhausted Saarinen limped across in sixth.
“I am satisfied with my second place,” Kowalczyk told FIS after the race. “I am in a good position in the overall ranking, but I know that a lead can disappear quickly as we still have many bonus seconds and the long stage race in Toblach.”
“Apart from a prologue where I was bad technically, the day was very good!” Jacobsen wrote on her blog.
Kowalczyk holds a 44 second lead on Majdic with Saarinen another 16 seconds back in third.
Arianna Follis (ITA), who finished third in last year’s Tour, failed to advance out of the quarterfinals, a surprise for the veteran all-rounder. She is still eighth overall, but lost an opportunity to pick up valuable bonus seconds.
– Surprising Finn Krista Lahteenmaki placed 13th and is sixth in the overall, 14 seconds out of third.
– Charlotte Kalla (SWE) sits in 7th, but should move up with most of the freestyle events yet to come.
– Anna Haag (SWE) had a self-described “best sprint ever,” placing 12th. She did finish 4th in Rogla last season, but obviously felt today’s performance was better.
– Jacobsen is skiing very well, and has established herself as a podium contender for the overall.
– Six different nations were represented in the Final, and nine in the top-12.
– Finland lead all teams with five skiers in the top-30.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.