Marit Bjoergen (NOR) has already achieved her goal of winning an individual gold at the 2011 World Championships. Now the ski world gets to see what a relaxed Bjoergen can do.
The winner of five medals, including three golds, at the 2010 Olympics, Bjoergen is the clear favorite in the women’s 15 k pursuit on Saturday, as distance racing gets underway at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway.
While rival Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) is the defending World Champion in the event, a lot has changed since 2009. The few things that could stop Bjoergen from winning the race include her technicians swapping her skate and classic skis in the dual technique event, Emil Joensson dressing up as his girlfriend Anna Haag and taking over for the last kilometer of the race, or being eaten by the tiger that currently resides in her bed.
Needless to say, it is Bjoergen’s race to lose. She has put together a remarkable string of nine consecutive World Cup distance race victories dating back to last season, and her margins of victory have run the gamut from convincing to ridiculous. European betting sites are paying a mere one dollar for every four bet on Bjoergen to win.
The most likely to unseat the “Queen of Cross-Country Skiing” is Kowalczyk. The Pole has already locked up the overall World Cup title, and finished a relatively close 17 seconds down in last weekend’s 10 k classic World Cup in Drammen.
Kowalczyk’s primary weapon is her ability to go harder than anyone else, usually splintering the field on the large climbs. But she hasn’t had that edge on Bjoergen this year, and if the race comes down to a sprint, Bjoergen, the winner of Thursday’s individual sprint, is clearly faster.
While Bjoergen is considered a near-lock for the win, Kowalczyk will have plenty of challengers for second place, including Charlotte Kalla (SWE), Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN), Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR), Therese Johaug (NOR) and the aforementioned Haag (SWE).
Stoermer Steira will try to defend her silver in this event from the 2009 Liberec Championships. The slender Norwegian, despite being a stronger skater, has excelled in this event since its introduction. In addition to her 2009 silver, she has two bronzes, from 2005 and 2007, and has twice finished fourth at the Olympics.
She struggled with a foot injury early in the season, but appears to be well clear of those issues. She is obviously experienced, and should not make any mistakes.
Saarinen skipped the sprint, a potential medal event for her, in order to be well rested for the pursuit. She also started the season slowly due to injuries, but has skied very well of late. She was third in the classic race in Drammen, and is defending a bronze medal from the 2009 pursuit. She skis well in both techniques, and has good finishing speed.
Kalla is a stronger skate skier, though she has improved her classic skills in recent years. If she can maintain contact with the leaders through the first half of the race, there are few better in the free technique. Her speed is World Cup top-10 on a good day in classic, and winning material in skating.
Her teammate Haag was a big surprise in Vancouver, besting Kowalczyk in taking the silver in this event. She has just one podium finish this year, but she has already proven her big-race ability. She will be hard-pressed to repeat her Olympic performance, but Haag shouldn’t be counted out.
Johaug gives the Norwegians three legitimate medal contenders. The diminutive twenty-two-year-old has two career podiums in the pursuit, and should thrive on the challenging Oslo courses. She had a brilliant finish to the Tour de Ski, dominating the Final Climb, and her classic skiing is on par with her skating.
After Johaug, the list of potential medal contenders is long – veteran Italians Marianna Longa and Arianna Follis cannot be counted out, nor can the rest of the Finns – young Krista Lahteenmaki, who exploded onto the international scene during the Tour de Ski, and the more experienced Riitta-Liisa Roponen.
The key to the race will be who decides to go with Bjoergen, and how they hold up. The favorite will likely push the pace early, and blow apart the field. Anyone who can get a ride could end up far enough ahead to hold on for a medal. But the stakes are high, especially on these courses. Give too much too early, and the chasers will come back to get you.
Four Americans will take to the line, led by Holly Brooks.
Brooks did not race the sprint on Thursday, and should be sharp. She is joined by teammates Liz Stephen, Morgan Arritola and Jessie Diggins.
Brooke Gosling is the lone Canadian starter.
The racers will ski an interesting configuration of loops – one 2.5-kilometer classic, a different 5-kilometer classic, and then two 3.75 circuits for the skate leg.
The race kicks off at 11:30 in Oslo, a pre-dawn 5:30 EST in the US.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.