OBERHOF, Germany – Oh, it’s on.
The battle between Marit Bjørgen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) for Tour de Ski queendom has officially begun—with Kowalczyk landing the first blow.
By a scant 0.4 seconds, the Polish strongwoman claimed victory in the first stage of this year’s Tour on Thursday afternoon, covering the icy 3.1-kilometer freestyle prologue in just over seven minutes. Bjoergen was second, with 21-year-old Swede Hanna Brodin earning her second-ever World Cup podium in third place, four seconds out.
“I’m happy to be back on the Tour,” Kowalczyk said in a press conference after the race.
What she didn’t say, but must have been thinking, was that it also good to eke out a victory over Bjørgen. While Kowalczyk has won the last two Tours, neither of those crowns has come over her Norwegian rival, as Bjørgen has skipped the stage race each time to save energy, for the Olympics in 2010 and the World Ski Championships in 2011.
With Bjørgen finally throwing her hat into the ring this season, the fans and media here have eagerly awaited a showdown. Ever since the 2010 Olympics, when Kowalczyk accused Bjørgen of using her asthma medicine to gain an unfair advantage, the relationship between the two has been as icy as the trails here, even though both women have played down the controversy.
If the two have their differences off the trails, the gulf between them on their skis is just as wide—and that showed on Thursday.
Bjørgen is textbook, almost mechanical in her technique; Kowalczyk’s style is unorthodox, full of unseemly angles. (It’s honed, we learned today, by rollerski workouts in which she tows a tire behind her.)
On Thursday, the course largely played to her strengths, with a stout climb halfway through and another steep uphill near the end of the loop.
There was also, however, a significant obstacle for Kowalczyk to negotiate: the 180-degree downhill corner that her competition had scraped down nearly to sheer ice.
Despite plenty of snowplowing and sliding, the turn still took out several top women. Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki went from second place at the top of the hill to 18th place at the finish after crashing; Russia’s Natalia Matveeva slid into a fence.
Kowalczyk has her own history with tricky downhills, and it’s not an auspicious one. However, she has told Polish media that those problems mainly come in longer races after her legs are fatigued, thanks to a muscular problem in her shins that has plagued her for the last three years. (The problem also explains why Kowalczyk always duct-taped her boots up until this season, when she switched to custom-made Fischer models.)
On Thursday, she said she conserved her energy on the major climb in order to save her legs for the descent and ensuing corner, and the effort paid off. She still did some snowplowing, but looked not much more tentative than the rest of the women, and the TV broadcast clocked her speed on the downhill at 55 kilometers per hour, or 35 miles per hour.
She had trailed Bjørgen by two seconds at the top, but closed that gap and added a little more by the finish line.
Brodin, in third, was four seconds back in a breakout race. She’s made the podium once before, last year in Estonia, but Thursday’s effort was the first time she’d cracked the top 10 in anything aside from a sprint.
While a prologue is still a long way from a true distance race, Brodin is clearly making progress—she was 34th in the 10 k in Sjusjoen in mid-November, and 22nd in a 5 k race in Finland the week after.
Brodin hails from Falun, and has her sights set on the World Ski Championships that will be held there in 2015, according to Swedish women’s coach Rickard Grip.
“She has really big goals for that championship, and is working really hard,” he said. “She’s a really focused lady.”
Brodin will start 14 seconds behind Kowalczyk in the second stage of the Tour on Friday, a 10 k pursuit that’s handicapped off the results from the first race.
The top three from the prologue received bonuses of 15, 10, and 5 seconds, respectively, that will be subtracted from their overall times. That leaves Kowalczyk with a 5.4-second lead, which Egil Kristiansen, the Norwegian women’s coach, said was a perfect position for Bjørgen: chasing.
“I think it’s better that Justyna is going first,” he said.
As for the feud between the two women? While the media may talk it up, Bjørgen “just ignores it,” Kristiansen told FasterSkier.
“She’s doing her job,” he said.
But asked if missing out on a win by 0.4 seconds hurts a little extra for Bjørgen when the winner is Kowalczyk, Kristiansen still had to think for a minute—then groaned. Then, finally, he said: “I don’t think that matters.”
—Topher Sabot and Rob Whitney contributed reporting. Full report on the North American racing to follow.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.