When Justyna Kowalczyk stood at the head of the chevron before the 10 k pursuit Friday morning in Rybinsk, Russia, she must have felt a little bit lonely.
That’s because no less than 20 of the top 30 women in the current overall World Cup rankings were missing. Kowalczyk’s biggest rival, Marit Bjoergen (NOR) opted to take the weekend off, as did fourth ranked Petra Majdic (SLO), and 6th through 9th, Therese Johaug (NOR), Charlotte Kalla (SWE), Krista Lateenmaki (FIN), and Astrid Jacobsen (NOR).
With the field reduced, it was Kowalczyk’s day to lose – but she clearly wasn’t going to let that happen, as she crossed the line unchallenged. However, Marianna Longa (ITA) and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) made the day interesting, as they stuck to the Polish superstar, never letting her open a huge gap.
And as soon as the gun went off, it became very clear that the 30 woman pack was not going to be sticking together. Kowalczyk, along with Longa and Saarinen, broke away almost immediately, outclassing the other women on a day with slippery tracks.
Bonus points were awarded at the 3.9 k mark, and Kowalczyk ate them up, collecting 15, while Saarinen picked up an additional 10, and Longa scooped up the remaining 5.
Heading into the ski exchange, Kowalczyk and Saarinen stayed tight, with Longa about 8 seconds back, but Saarinen couldn’t handle Kowalczyk’s skate pace, and dropped back quickly. Longa, however, put on a charge, reeling in Saarinen, and then keeping the pace high in an attempt to draw back into the race with Kowalczyk, but the Pole proved too tough.
Kowalczyk cruised into the finish 9.8 seconds ahead of Longa, while Saarinen finished 20.6 seconds back of the lead.
The battle for fourth was much tighter, as skate sprinter Arianna Follis (ITA) narrowly beat Riitta-Liisa Roponen (FIN) to the line by less than a second.
The conditions were difficult – with the temperature hovering around zero degrees Celsius, many of the skiers struggled with grip.
“I was nervous before the start because the skis did not work well in classic,” said Kowalczyk during a post-race press conference.
Longa had similar sentiments; “It was slippery today,” she said post-race, “These conditions do not allow for perfect classical skiing.”
It was perhaps the most encouraging day for Saarinen – after starting her season off with a shoulder injury and missing a large chunk of time, she has been struggling to find her form. Friday was the first World Cup podium of the season for Saarinen, and just before World Championships it has to be taken as a good sign.
“Now I feel I’m coming back in shape and this is very important in the view of coming World Championship,” she said in a post-race interview.
Chernousov Takes First World Cup Victory
At 24 years old, Ilia Chernousov (RUS) still has quite a lot skiing left in his career. But in the 20 k pursuit on Friday, the young Russian put on a show for the fans in Rybinsk, skiing to his first career win.
Chernousov took the victory in a close sprint over two Frenchmen, Jean-Marc Gaillard and Maurice Magnificat.
Unlike the women’s race, there was no immediate breakaway, and by the time the men reached the first intermediate sprint for bonus points at 6.4 k, the pack was still tightly bunched. The Russians were in control at the front, and Konstantin Glavatskikh (RUS), Alexander Utkin (RUS) and Alexander Legkov (RUS) earned the first 15, 10, and 5 points respectively.
Heading into the exchange, a large group of 13 skiers had pulled away, and Italian Giorgio di Centa controlled the first part of the skate leg. As the group headed toward the second intermediate sprint at 13.5 k, several skiers fancied their chances at the extra points, but Gaillard got to the line first to collect 15, while Tobias Angerer (GER) ended up with 10, and Roland Clara (ITA) picked up the remaining 5.
With the group still tightly bunched, it was headed towards the usual pack sprint finish, until Gaillard put on a move on the second-to-last hill in an attempt to break away. After gaining 20 meters on the field, Gaillard was chased down by Chernousov on the final climb, and as the two came down into the stadium, Chernousov was able to come around Gaillard and finish him off in the sprint to the line.
Chernousov bested Gaillard by 0.4 seconds, and Magnificat finished third, three seconds back, just ahead of Angerer and di Centa.
With the win, Chernousov has solidified his spot on the Russian World Championships team.
“It is my first World Cup victory and the race was very important for me to get qualified for the World Championships,” he said in a post-race press conference. “I had to be in top 6 today for the ticket to Oslo and I made it.”
While Chernousov’s win is a big one, it does come with an asterisk of sorts – some of the biggest names on the circuit failed to make the trip to Russia. The race was lacking the top three men in the overall World Cup standings, as Dario Cologna (SUI), Petter Northug (NOR), and Lukas Bauer (CZE) were all absent.
No North American men or women are racing in Rybinsk, as they continue preparations for World Championships.
FIS World Cup racing continues Saturday in Rybinsk with a freestyle sprint.
Full Women’s Results – 5 k + k 5 Pursuit
Full Men’s Results – 10 k + 10 k Pursuit