There were plenty of surprises in Saturday’s World Cup opener in Sjusjoen, Norway. Marit Bjoergen (NOR) was most definitely not one of them.
The “Queen” of the 2011 World Championships with four golds and a silver served notice that she would once again be the woman to beat on cross-country skiing’s biggest stage.
The 31-year-old Bjoergen threw down from the get go, building an early lead en route to a 27.1 second victory over Charlotte Kalla (SWE) in the 10km freestyle event. Bjoergen’s teammate, Vibeke Skofterud (NOR) rounded out the podium in third, 1.9 seconds behind Kalla.
Bjoergen’s victory is hardly unexpected, but the performance of the Norwegian women’s team turned heads—no easy feat in this global ski powerhouse of a country.
In a showing reminiscent of certain men’s World Cup classic events on Norwegian soil over the past decade, the women loaded the top of the result sheet, placing seven skiers in the top-10, and an almost unheard of nine in the top-13.
Biathlete Tora Berger impressed with a fourth place result, ahead of Marthe Kristoffersen and Therese Johaug. American Kikkan Randall, a somewhat surprising candidate to break up the Norwegain juggernaut, finished eighth in her best career World Cup distance race.
Then another red suit—four-time World Junior Champion Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg in ninth, and defending overall World Cup Champion Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) tenth.
With the added nation’s group quota, 18 Norwegian women got the call. They dominated the event from the early bibs on. Berger, with no cross-country resume of note, set the time to beat.
Known for her tenacity, the Olympic gold medalist in the individual biathlon event, attacked the first climb as if it were the last, driving the tempo, face twisted with exertion.
At the end, she couldn’t hold off the xc specialists, missing out on the podium by 14 seconds. But Berger represented the biathlon side quite well. While male Norwegian biathletes have fairly regularly taken a stab at straight cross-country races, including playing integral roles on Championship relay teams, the practice has been less common for the women.
Given the strength and depth of the Norwegian women’s distance team, it is unlikely Berger will follow suit, but if today she proved that she can ski with the best, rifle or no.
Skofterud, starting later, took over from Berger, establishing a new standard. She led at every time check, and spent many minutes ensconced in the leader’s chair at the finish. Kalla, who started slowly, skiing smooth and strong crept up the leader board as the race progressed, and was able to squeeze in front of Skofterud for a relatively quiet second place finish.
Despite all the impressive results at the top of the field, the biggest story of the day may have been the relatively uninspired performance of Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
While Bjoergen is unequivocally the favorite in any given race, it has been Kowalczyk who has won the last three overall World Cup titles with her day-in and day-out labors.
But on this day she appeared a mere mortal at best. Her stride was labored and her skate technique, always somewhat unorthodox, stood out for its lack of efficiency.
With man-made snow packed firmly on top of a paved roller-ski course, the track was rock hard when the women hit the course. Hard and fast conditions have never favored Kowalczyk, but that wouldn’t explain the full 1:12 deficit to rival Bjoergen.
It would have taken an exceptional performance for Kowalczyk to unseat the Norwegian. Skiing like a machine, every stroke a perfect balance of power and control, Bjoergen started fast and got faster.
She never gave an inch, even leading at the meaningless time-check 30 seconds into race.
The victory gave Bjoergen a record 47th World Cup victory, moving her ahead of another Norwegian great, Bjorn Daehlie.
“I’m very happy with the race,” Bjoergen said at the finish. “I was a little bit nervous before the start because I didn’t know how the shape was and what the other girls have done in the summer.”
Clearly they hadn’t done enough to close the gap. And if today is any indication, the rest of the world is going to have its hands full with the Norwegian women as a team.
“I knew that we have a very good team,” Bjoergen said. “Today you can see it on the results.”
Kalla executed her race plan perfectly, telling reporters after the event, that her strategy was to was “have the race under control and then to increase my speed.”
She did that so well, that when she hugged Bjoergen in the finish pen, the Norwegian needed to ask where Kalla finished, expressing surprise as the Swede was not a major factor in the splits earlier in the race.
And like Bjoergen, Kalla was not sure what to expect of her bidy in the first real test of the season.
“I was a bit nervous before the race,” Kalla said, mirroring Bjoergen’s remarks. “I did not know in what shape I was.”
With Norway front-loading the results, there had to be a number of disappointed skiers from other nations. The first race of the year always produces some anomalies, and today the likes of Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN), Katrin Zeller (GER), Stephie Boeller (GER) and Hannah Brodin (SWE) all struggled.
Young Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) was solid in 11th, but did not show the snap that characterized her 2011 breakout season.
Anna Haag (SWE) was a not-too-shabby 15th, but as the defending Olympic silver medalist in the skiathlon Haag wasn’t thrilled. “Had hope for faster legs today,” she tweeted after the race. “Hope for a better day tomorrow!!”
The American women are not going to match the Norwegians in terms of sheer numbers, but the mood in the waxroom following the race had to be as jubiliant.
Randall’s eighth bettered the 11th she earned last March in Lahti in the 10km skiathlon. Add to the fact that Randall’s best individual start distance races have come in classic, and today’s peformance is an excellent sign.
The former sprint-specialist looked strong and controlled throughout the race—though appropriately spent in the homestretch. She missed out on seventh by a literal fraction of a second, crossing just one tenth behind World Champion Johaug.
Randall wasn’t the only American with an outstanding day. Liz Stephen showed no ill-effects from the foot problems that plagued her last year, demonstrating that her strong performances at World Championships were a step up the ladder, not a blip.
Stephen, starting at bib five had few splits to work off of, and was consistently among the early leaders. Her 18th place matched her own career best set last year in La Clusaz. And while that was a mass start race, which can skew points somewhat, Stephen ‘s 49.24 points today were far and away a best as well.
Three other Americans raced. Holly Brooks finished 36th, Sadie Bjornsen was 54th and Ida Sargent 66th.
A full report on Randall and Stephen’s races can be found here.
The Canadian women’s team competed in a small race in Sweden yesterday and is not participating in the opening World Cup weekend.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.