Rail hard tracks, crisp air, and extra blue – none were in evidence as the World Cup Finals continued with a 2.5-kilometer classic prologue in Falun, Sweden. It may not have been pretty, but it was a ski race.
With 10-15 centimeters of snow falling into the morning, and temperatures just below freezing, it is perhaps an understatement to term the conditions a sloppy mess.
Marit Bjoergen (NOR) served notice that she would not be cruising through the final weekend, pulling away from the field in the second half of the challenging loop to earn an impressive 10.6 second victory over rival Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
Therese Johaug (NOR), the leader at one kilometer held on for third, 4.5 seconds clear of Sweden’s Anna Haag.
Kikkan Randall (USA) maintained her 10th spot in the overall World Cup Final rankings with a 19th, continuing her prologue renaissance. Perianne Jones, the lone Canadian placed 50th.
With heavy snow falling overnight through race time, organizers opted to re-groom the course this morning, a decision that had the expected outcome – soft tracks that fell apart before the race even started.
Not a single skier could kick up the famed mörderbacken, or “murder hill,” the steep extended climb just before the one-kilometer mark. According to US Ski Team head coach Chris Grover more kick wasn’t an option.
“With all the new snow coming down everything was shearing and really greasy,” Grover told FasterSkier in an interview. “If you kept putting warmer wax on, the skis it iced.”
The US team tested hairies, but hard wax was superior, and the temperatures did not rise to the point where klister was a consideration.
With the running order the reverse of the current standings, Bjoergen headed out behind all but Stockholm sprint winner Petra Majdic (SLO), so she knew exactly what needed to be done.
Johaug, who just missed out on the sprint heats with a 31st set the early time to beat. Until Kowalczyk came through at one kilometer 3.7 seconds down, no one could get within eight seconds of the diminutive Norwegian. Bjoergen got the closest at that point in the race, just half a second back, and with Johaug’s strength being on the hills, it was not surprising to see Bjoergen and Kowalczyk make up time on the easier terrain later in the race.
Bjoergen pointed to very fast skis on the downhills as one of the reasons for her large margin of victory. She knew she was in good position to take the win when she crested the top of the climb even with Johaug.
Kowalczyk, as the earlier starter, crossed the line first, taking over the lead from Johaug, and could only wait for Bjoergen. She did not have to linger long, and Bjoergen now has an impressive 33.8-second lead in the World Cup Final after the two short distance races. That gap is padded by the sprint bonus seconds awarded to the top three. Kowalczyk is second, and Majdic clings to the third spot after placing 17th today.
Johaug climbed up to 14th, and with two distance races to come, including a freestyle pursuit on Sunday, her chances of continuing to climb the standings are good.
Bjoergen is not taking anything for granted despite her big lead. With significant bonus seconds available, she could win the race, and still lose ground to Kowalczyk.
“It is possible to win, but it is going to be a tough race tomorrow,” Bjoergen said.
Her main competition, Kowalczyk, is playing it relaxed. With the overall World Cup title wrapped up, she says she is “skiing for fun,” and that she does not have “special focus,” on tomorrow’s 10km pursuit.
Prior to this year, Randall had never cracked the top-30 in the prologue distance – but today marked the third time she has finished within the points this season. Her 19th is on par with the 16th she posted in the Tour de Ski, and the 17th from the World Cup opener.
“This year has been a breakthrough year for her with the prologue…this is definitely a step in the right direction,” Grover said.
In 10th overall, Randall is just 20 seconds from fifth, and Grover points out that she is in much better position after two events than she was last year when she ended the four race event in 14th.
“She is in great position for the next couple of days,” he said.
Randall was “satisfied” with her performance, telling FasterSkier that both her body and skis were good.
“It actually skied better than I thought,” Randall said. “It was definitely challenging. You were switching from striding to herringbone and back. And then every time you got out of the herringbone and tried to get back in the track you would slip a few times.”
After the initial gap to the top three, times were close. Between sixth and eleventh, six skiers finished within two seconds. Randall came across just under 42 seconds down on Bjoergen.
The lack of track and the slippery snow was not ideal for Randall who has struggled in slick classic conditions in the past, but she pushed through, saying “given the fact that it wasn’t my most ideal conditions I think today was pretty solid.
“I could just tell there were some sections where I wasn’t being as efficient as I would have liked,” she continued. “I think my tempo was right up there with some girls that were ahead of me but I wasn’t quite as effective and I did slip a few times.”
She does see the good result as a positive indication that she is headed in the right direction in this type of skiing, and was not intimidated by the conditions.
“When you are out training you encounter conditions like this and pretty much dismiss it and figure, ‘I’ll never race in this,’ and then you end up racing a World Cup in it. I have learned to just be ready for anything,” she said.
Holly Brooks, the only other American woman racing the World Cup Finals, finished 46th, +1:10.5. Brooks was 44th in Wednesday’s sprint, and is now in 48th overall. With a number of sprint specialists near her in the standings, she is in good position to move up over the next two days.
Jones was unable to follow up her impressive 12th place finish in the sprint with another top result. The Canadian Nor-Am leader was well off the pace, but is still in 28th in the overall. Times are very close, so there is plenty of opportunity to climb the rankings., but there is little room for error.
Racing continues on Saturday with a 10km pursuit.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.