Marit Bjoergen’s slump is over. Starting with her silver medal in the World Championship 30k, Bjoergen went a whole two distance races without a victory, proving that she is in fact mortal.
She was back on top today however, dominating the 10km pursuit at the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden. Bjoergen skied away from Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) for a clear victory, opening an insurmountable gap in the overall.
Therese Johaug (NOR) battled back from an early crash to finish third.
Conditions were far improved over Friday’s prologue – the sun was shining, and the classic tracks actually existed on the hills. Kick was still a bit slick in places, but there was a distinct lack of herringbone.
Bjoergen, as is her wont, pushed the pace right from the start, immediately opening a ten-meter gap. She was aided by an early crash that took Johaug out of contention.
It was not completely clear what happened, but the Norwegian went down first on a small rise, taking out, among others, American Kikkan Randall.
Johaug won the 30k in Oslo, and followed up with a pursuit victory in Lahti. With Bjoergen appearing back in top form it would have been tough to take another victory, but Johaug would have been in the hunt.
Kowalczyk closed back on Bjoergen and the two set about holding their own race. The two took turns leading, and inexorably pulled away from the chase pack.
Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) led that group, closely followed by Anna Haag (SWE), and Arianna Follis (ITA). They opened up a 13 second gap on the rest of the field, but as the ski change approached, that margin dwindled away to nothing.
Johaug had successfully bridged up, and the race for third was on. Haag led out of the stadium, driving the train on the first climb, but it was just a matter of seconds before Johaug took over, attacking hard on the big climbs, and immediately pulling away.
Less than five kilometers had to be too short a distance for Johaug to track down the leaders, but as the race progressed, that impossibility began to shift.
At the front, Bjoergen attacked hard heading into the mordarbakken climb, breaking Kowalczyk and creating the space she would not relinquish. Johaug hit the climb with a vengeance, taking a chunk out of Kowalczyk.
Bjoergen continued to pull away and Kowalczyk to slip back. But the Pole surged on the last small ascent, and as she dropped into the stadium, looking back over her shoulder, it was clear the Johaug was out of real estate.
There was little drama at the finish. Bjoergen skied clear to a 25 second win, padding her already substantial overall lead with both sets of bonus seconds. Kowalczyk held onto a nine second lead over Johaug.
The podium for the overall is likely set – Bjoergen now sits 1:13 up on Kowalczyk. Johaug is third, about the same margin back again, and 16 seconds up on Charlotte Kalla (SWE).
Despite Kalla’s skating prowess, considering Johaug’s current form, it is hard to imagine the Swede overtaking the Norwegian.
Astrid Jacobsen staged an impressive move in the last kilometer to move to the front of the chase pack and take fourth. With Kristin Stoermer Steira in seventh, Norway put four skiers in the top-7.
The finish area was littered with exhausted bodies – every second counts toward the overall standings, and with just one race remaining in the season, there is no sign of anyone mailing it in.
Follis came across in fifth. The Italian’s hold on third in the overall World Cup standings has shrunk to under 200 points on Johaug. But even with double points available for the World Cup Final overall, it would take a catastrophe for Follis to lose her spot.
Randall started the day in 10th, but was a victim of Johaug’s stumble. The American went down in the middle of the pack, and by the time the dust had settled she was off the pace.
There was still plenty of racing, and Randall fought her way back, and still placed a respectable 21st. But with Bjoergen pushing the pace from the get-go, it took an exceptional performance (see Johaug, Therese) to overcome such an accident in a relatively short event.
The result dropped Randall to 17th in the overall, though there are plenty of skiers within striking distance ahead.
All of the day’s bonus seconds went to the eventual top three finishers, with the exception of the five Stoermer Steira claimed on the first round.
Holly Brooks (USA) had her best race of the mini-tour, finishing 37th after losing out to Alena Prochazkova (SVK) in a photo finish. Brooks came across three minutes down on Bjoergen, battling with a number of big names from the women’s sprint circuit.
Perianne Jones (CAN) placed 43rd out of 44 skiers, beating only Hanna Falk of Sweden.
Falk, a sprint specialist, appeared confused at the end of the race, double poling most of the finish stretch, seemingly having forgotten the race had switched to skate.
The last race of the World Cup Finals, and of the 2011 World Cup season takes place on Sunday. The race is a 10km freestyle handicap start – first across the line is the mini-tour victor and gains double World Cup points.
At this point there is nothing left to be decided in the overall World Cup standings.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.