Anna Haag and Charlotte Kalla claimed the top two spots for Sweden in the women’s 10km pursuit as the 2011 Tour de Ski continued in Oberstdorf.
The pair, with the help of third place finisher, Marthe Kristofferssen (NOR) succeeded in knocking overall Tour leader Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) off the podium for the first time in this multi-stage event. Kowalczyk placed fifth after skiing at, or near the front for most of the race.
And the front is where most expected Kowalczyk to be. Her normal mode of operation has been to take the lead early and push the pace, but for the first time in this Tour, the Polish star appeared to be missing the high gear that has consistently broken her competition.
Petra Majdic (SLO), winner of Sunday’s sprint, set the pace early in the classic portion, but whether it was the effort of that victory, or the fact she is still looking to find her top distance form, Majdic could not hold the speed.
She quickly relinquished control to a mix of Kowalczyk, Marianna Longa (ITA), Haag and Kristofferssen. Kowalczyk made several short attacks, and while she was unchallenged for the first bonus seconds, she could not break away.
At the midway transition to skating, Majdic was 10 seconds down, and fading fast. Kowalczyk, Longa and Haag led through the switch with a small gap, but the field came back over the next kilometer.
A stronger skater, Kalla worked her way into the mix moving up toward the front. She was joined by the familiar high tempo of Therese Johaug (NOR), and the smooth steady skiing of Arianna Follis (ITA).
Finland was also well represented with Riita Liissa Roponen and Krista Lahteenmaki holding steady toward the back of the front pack. Their teammate, and a contender for the overall title, Aino Kaisa Saarinen, however, was nowhere to be seen.
She fought to stay within striking distance in the classic portion, but the wheels came off, and she quickly dropped back through the field, and out of the top ten in the overall.
The speed remained high at the front, and despite several brief attacks, the only real excitement was an effort by Kalla to slip by Kowalczyk just before the final bonus sprint. She didn’t make it, and Kowalczyk nabbed another 15 seconds.
It had become clear that the race would be made on the last big climb. Someone would attack, it was just a question of who would have the legs to respond.
Kowalczyk lost any chance to battle for the win in the sprint final due to her poor downhill skills, and she certainly didn’t improve overnight. Each time down the hills, she lost significant time, and with several sharp corners on the drop into the stadium, Kowalczyk would need a sizable lead to hold on for the victory.
It wasn’t going to happen, however – at least not today. Kowalczyk is no Petter Northug, waiting until the last hill to throw down a killer move. The fact she had been unable to shake the field earlier in the race was a clear sign she was not in top form.
Kalla went first, cranking the tempo. Haag responded immediately and moved alongside on the outside. Kowalczyk hung tough, her chin nearly touching her knee as she drove an exhausted V1 up the final meters of the hill.
The Swedes held the edge over the top, and that would be enough. Kowalczyk rapidly lost ground on the downhill, and the only question was Haag or Kalla.
Haag led into the finish stretch with a lead of nearly 10 meters on Kalla. That would be enough to hold off the stronger sprinter, and the two flashed across the line, both pumping fists in the air, before sharing a hug in the finish area.
“I am really proud of what I did today,” said Haag after the race. “I am not sure why I was so strong, I really wanted to have a good race, and I just made up my mind to go hard and ski well.”
Kowalczyk managed to snowplow her way back to the rest of the pack, and Kristofferssen capped an excellent race by slipping by, and into the third spot.
“I am really really really tired,” said Kowalczyk. “My legs are dead, and my hands are cold. I struggled a bit both up and downhill today, but my skis were not that bad – just a small mistake with the grip.”
Follis, who has had a disappointing Tour so far, turned things around with a fourth, and is back in the fight for the overall podium.
Majdic gutted out a 10th, and dropped to fourth in the overall, behind Kowalczyk, Kalla and a strong Longa.
Short of a disaster, Kowalczyk has a firm grip on the overall lead, but all other spots are up for grabs. The young Lahteenmaki placed eight, and climbed to the fifth spot, with Haag up into seventh.
American Kikkan Randall won a three-way photo finish for 30th, snagging a single World Cup point, and slipping to 24th in the overall standings.
With temperatures dropping to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, the skiing was firm for the first time since the start of the Tour. Waxing still appeared challenging with many women slipping on the climbs, and some, including Kowalczyk taking a ski out of the tracks on the bigger climbs.
With half the stages done, the skiers finally get a day of rest on Tuesday, before racing starts up again in Italy.
“It will be very nice to have a rest day, as I think everyone is starting to feel pain in the body and head,” said Haag.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.