With her second sprint victory of the Tour, Petra Majdic (SLO) has again established herself as one of the top sprinters in the world.
While it has taken some time for the tall Slovenian to round into top form, she is now clearly firing on all cylinders. In the 1.3km freestyle sprint in Toblach, Italy, Majdic won the qualification round, and led each of her heats from start to finish – the same strategy she used in the classic event just days ago in Oberstdorf.
Despite a somewhat depleted field due to Tour withdrawals, the sprint featured a number of surprises. Half of the Tour top-10 entering the day did not advance beyond the quarterfinals, including the top three – Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), Charlotte Kalla (SWE), and Marianna Longa (ITA).
The final, however, still contained plenty of firepower, with Majdic, Sprint Cup leader Arianna Follis (ITA), Kikkan Randall (USA), and second qualifier Magda Genuin (ITA).
The surprise of the day was Laure Barthelemy (FRA) who advanced all the way to the final after qualifying back in 26th. Barthelemy has only two previous appearances in World Cup sprint heats, with a top finish of 19th during the 2009 season.
The sixth skier in the final, Britta Norgren (SWE), was also unexpected. Norgren has only one World Cup sprint finals appearance, and that came back in 2007.
The sprint course was a two-lap affair with one large climb, followed by a big descent into a long, flat finish straight. Skiing was tight, especially on the climbs, and there was not much room to maneuver. Blocking was common in both men’s and women’s races, and a number of heats were slow becasue of it.
But the downhill run to the finish gave an edge to those with fast running skis, and the final corner into the stadium gave an opportunity for some slick moves.
Majdic led out the final as expected and stayed at the front. She was unable to break away, but also did not appear pressed. She led the field single file up the large hill, pushing the pace with Follis and Randall hot on her heels.
Genuin snuck by Randall entering the stadium, and Norgren moved up on the outside, dropping the American to fifth.
Majdic continued to lead, looking well in control as the race hit the smaller climb out of the stadium.
Randall stepped over, slotting in behind Norgren on the outside when disaster struck. She stepped on the Swede’s pole, and the two tangled, immediately falling out of contention.
Majdic, Follis and Genuin were no free, with Barthelemy having lost contact. Majdic led up the big hill, attacking hard. She couldn’t shake the Italians, but held first over the top.
The three entered the homestretch setting up a drag race between Majdic and Follis. The Italian closed and the two lunged for the line. With six inches on Follis, the result was never in doubt, and Majdic had her second victory of the Tour.
Majdic told assembled media that after the quarterfinal she knew she could win skiing at the front, a strategy she stuck to for the remainder of the day.
“I was scared for a moment though, because I heard the speaker say Arianna [Follis] was attacking,” she said. “When we went body to body, I knew that I was in front and I was prepared to put my foot on the finish line.”
After a brief wait for the photo finish result, Majdic began her celebration, always one of the most entertaining on the circuit, with plenty of whooping, dramatic pointing, and energetic posing for the camera.
“It’s about time that I am strong in the sprint races,” Majdic said at the post-race press-conference. “I think you all know that I am quite a strong sprinter for the last few years, and I want to especially thank my coach, Ivan Hudac, for believing in me when nobody else did.”
The win moved her up into second place in the overall standings, just 39 seconds down on Kowalczyk. Follis is now fourth, less than a second behind Kalla in third.
Kowalczyk never got it going. She qualified in 11th, and struggled out of the gate in her quarterfinal. With little room to maneuver on the hills, she never had the space to play to her strength of climbing.
She appeared frustrated as she worked to break through, and lacking the closing speed, her race was over entering the homestretch.
“I’m a bit disappointed because I wasn’t even tired in the finish,” Kowalczyk said following the race. “Every time I tried to get in the front, Rydqvist [of Finland] was ahead of me, and I couldn’t make it.”
Despite the sub-par day, Kowalczyk is still in the driver’s seat, and while she is not as strong a skater, the long classic race will suit her well, and if she is on, no one is better on the final climb, regardless of technique.
It was Kalla who may have lost out the most. With Kowalczyk making an early exit, the Swede was in position to close almost all of the gap. She led her quarterfinal from the start, setting the pace up and over the final hill. Randall, with her fast skis, came by on the descent, and Barthemely simply outsprinted Kalla, who was forced to go to the side of Randall for a lunge.
Racing continues on Thursday with the 16km freestyle handicap start. Majdic will start in second, off in no-man’s land between Kowalczyk and the rest of the chasers.
Majdic knows that the effort required today will make the distance race a challenge, saying, “I think I will pay taxes for today tomorrow…but it is worth it. When you are the winner, it is definitely worth it.”