After struggling to match her form from last winter, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) was finally back on top of the World Cup podium on Saturday in Rogla, Slovenia for the 10 k mass-start classic distance. Throughout the beginning of the five-lap race, Kowalczyk traded the lead on and off with Therese Johaug (NOR), who ended up fading to second at 22.1 seconds back. Her teammate Vibeke Skofterud (NOR) made a late-race challenge for silver, but ended in third (+27.4).
Finland’s Aino Kaisa Saarinen, who finished 4th, was a contender early on as well. But the contest eventually whittled down to three women, and then to two as Johaug and Kowalczyk battled each other and Skofterud failed to respond in time.
When Kowalczyk initially took the lead, it seemed like the risky move of someone with something to prove. Her season so far has been relatively slow—a 5th in the Davos 15 k was her best result prior to Saturday, while last season at this point she’d already been on the podium more than once. Speculation on her seeming lack of fitness has swirled around the Polish star for the past few weeks.
For the time being, at least, Kowalczyk let spectators and competitors know they were wrong to doubt her. Johaug took back the front position for a time, but never quite shook Kowalczyk, who had much faster skis on the downhills. Kowalczyk re-passed and put a gap between herself and the struggling Norwegians in the final kilometers.
“Rogla is good place for me,” said a grinning Kowalczyk in the post-race press conference. “There must be a good air for me.”
“I expected the fight with Therese to be harder,” she added.
Johaug, on the other hand, suffered. She and Skofterud lay in the snow for an unusually long time after collapsing in the finish area. Afterwards, she told the NRK that she had just completed the most painful race of her career.
“I’ve never been so tired when I reached the finish,” said Johaug, and summed up the experience as “the worst.”
Skofterud echoed the sentiment. “I gave everything I had and it was really hard in the second [lap],” she said at the press conference. Though she got a second wind as she started to gain on Johaug in the third and fourth laps, by the final sprint she had “no power left” and was unable to surpass her teammate.
Like the men’s race, conditions for the women were challenging: soft snow with a strong headwind. But the women didn’t have a tightly-packed lead group to split the workload of breaking the wind, especially in the final laps.
The women’s race featured a single intermediate sprint for bonus World Cup points, but it had less of an impact on mid-race strategy when compared to the men’s race. The field was so strung out by lap three that there would have been minimal shifting amonst the top 10 women even if they’d really fought for the points.
The fresh snow on the Rogla trails made the tracks slower and the course more of a challenge than the one athletes practiced on the day before. With the field so spread out, there were slight downhills that skiers had to actively push down where they’d picked up natural speed earlier in training.
“For only being a 2 k course, it was plenty challenging,” said Kikkan Randall (USA), who finished 11th on Saturday. “There were tough striding sections, sections where you really had to work the transitions, and there were short rest breaks. The wind added another element—you’d come over one of the big climbs into the headwind.”
Randall hung in the top-5 for the first part of the race, but when she started to tire, had trouble staying with the women who overtook her.
Despite not being able to maintain her position, eleventh is still Randall’s best-ever classic distance result. It wasn’t quite enough to maintain her overall 3rd-place ranking on the World Cup, however—Johaug now sits above her by 48 points, and is only eight points away from bumping Skofterud (in 2nd) down a peg, too.
(Despite not racing at all this weekend due to illness, Marit Bjoergen (NOR) still maintains a 103-point lead after Saturday’s 10 k, so even if Skofterud wins Sunday’s sprint, Bjoergen will remain the World Cup leader at the end of Period 1).
“My intention this year was to go out aggressively and see how long I could hold it,” said Randall of the impressive season she’s had so far. With another crack at a skate sprint on Sunday, the way things have been going she may be holding on a bit longer.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.