The fans came out in force, with flags, lawn chairs, and beer. And they wouldn’t have settled for anything less than a win.
Norway’s Marit Bjoergen gave them what they came for, skiing to yet another victory in Saturday’s 10 k classic in Drammen—her ninth in 12 World Cup races this season—in front of a home crowd estimated at 15,000.
With five days to go before her first race at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Bjoergen appears primed for a run to rival her quintuple-medal performance at last year’s Olympics in Vancouver.
To make that run, though, she still has to go through Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who was second on Saturday, 17 seconds back. Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen was third, showing that she is finally in championship-caliber shape after an early-season shoulder injury.
The women’s 10 k was the first-ever World Cup held at Drammen’s Konnerud sports club—up and over a big hill from the streets where the city’s late-season classic sprint is traditionally held.
The venue change for this season was necessitated by the weekend’s race program, according to Vegard Ulvang, the chairman of the International Ski Federation’s cross-country committee.
As a tune-up for the 2011 World Championships, Drammen needed to host both a distance classic race and a skate sprint—two events on the schedule for Oslo. And the city sprint course, Ulvang said, is too narrow for skating.
The fans, though, were unfazed. They showed up early and stayed late, packing the exposed hillside overlooking the stadium, and lining the uphills. Costumed, face-painted, and armed with start lists, they exhorted foreign athletes by name, enthusiasm unaffected by national allegiance. There were fires, sausages, and bottles of Jagermeister.
“All my clothes smell like campfire and waffles,” said Canadian Chandra Crawford, who was 64th.
With World Championships starting late next week, Norwegian skiing fervor is at its highest point in at least a decade. Since only four athletes can start in each race in Oslo, Saturday’s World Cup, with its accompanying nations group quota, was an opportunity to showcase the country’s depth: 19 Norwegians raced, and eight finished in the top 30, much to the delight of the vocal crowd.
“People are looking forward to World Championships, and just warming up,” said Martine Ek Hagen, who finished 30th. “It was just amazing to race here today…I just floated through the race.”
For her part, Bjoergen is doing nothing to tamp down the expectations of Norway’s rabid public.
She didn’t leave much to chance on Saturday. Three days after her return from an altitude camp in Seiser Alm, Italy, Bjoergen took the race out hard, and held on.
By the two-kilometer mark, she was already in first, 7.3 seconds clear of Kowalczyk.
“The shape is good—now I look forward to Holmenkollen,” she said, referring to Oslo’s historic venue.
Bjoergen’s gap to Kowalczyk, at 17 seconds, wasn’t quite as large as the half-minute it has been in races earlier this year—a detail that Kowalczyk herself noted in the post-race press conference.
Still, Bjoergen’s coach, Egil Kristiansen, seemed unconcerned. He said that while Bjoergen isn’t quite 100 percent, “it’s as close as possible.”
But if Bjoergen still has room to reach for those last few shreds of fitness, so too does Kowalczyk. She’s also just back from Seiser Alm, and she told FasterSkier that after training at 2,000 meters there, “it’s not possible to be fast” in Drammen.
Her vocal pre-season criticism of Bjoergen notwithstanding, Kowalczyk said that she doesn’t pay attention to her Norwegian rival, instead hewing closely to statements she has made over the past few weeks.
“I don’t think about the shape of Marit or Aino-Kaisa—I think about my shape,” she said. “Marit is in really strong shape—the favorite in every race in Oslo. But we are also strong; we will see what happens.”
And if there’s one thing Kowalczyk has going for her, it’s the fact that she doesn’t have to deal with the crush of attention that Bjoergen must contend with—in Drammen, there were reporters and photographers shadowing her every move.
“I know the pressure is there, and I [know] that the Norwegian people want some gold for me,” she said. “I also want a gold medal, so I understand that.”
Still, she said, she’s hotly anticipating the races in Oslo. And according to Kristiansen, she doesn’t think too much about the pressure—though he did concede that “it’s easier to say, than to do it.”
There’s still one more event for Bjoergen before she can focus all of her energy on World Championships, and that’s Sunday’s skate sprint. After being unceremoniously bounced in the semifinals of her last sprint race, in January in Estonia, Bjoergen said she’s ready for another shot.
“I look forward to going in the sprint tomorrow, because the two last sprints on the World Cup haven’t been so good for me,” she said. “Hopefully, I can be in the final.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.