OBERSTDORF, Germany – Three wins in three days over a range of distances and in both techniques—exactly what many expected in the Tour de Ski, just not from Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
Norwegian Marit Bjoergen dominated the first World Cup period, winning five of the six races she started, most in dominating fashion. Despite taking a pass on the Tour for two years, Bjoergen entered the 2012 edition as the favorite.
Two consecutive overall Tour wins, and super-human stamina were not enough for Kowalczyk to enter the first stage in Oberhof as anything but an underdog, a position, however, that she supposedly enjoys.
For an elite athlete there usually isn’t anything more enjoyable than winning, and Kowalczyk is on a roll.
She skied off the front in each of her heats after winning qualifying, unfazed by the driving rain, raw temperatures, and rapidly softening snow. In the final, Bjoergen made an effort to match the pace, but as in the prologue, and Friday’s pursuit, she came up short.
Bjoergen was clear in second, and Astrid Jacobsen, bounced back from a tough wax day in the pursuit to finish third and give Norway two on the podium.
“She is really strong,” Jacobsen said of Kowalczyk. “Her shape and her machine are crazy good, so we just had to try and take her on technique or something else.”
Nobody was taking Kowalczyk on anything—not today, and not on either of the first two Tour stages.
With no World Championships or Olympics, the Tour is the focus of the season, and Kowalczyk planned her training accordingly. She traveled to New Zealand in August for the first time, and was unconcerned as November and early December came and went without a victory over Bjoergen.
After the race she said that her plan had been to start the “Real season” in Rogla—the final stop on the World Cup before the holiday break.
She won the distance race there, though Bjoergen did not compete due to illness, and has shown no sign of weakness here on the Tour.
“When you are number one it is not so tough, she said of three consecutive days of racing.
Kowalczyk endured the miserable weather, avoiding any trouble on a course that held up well for the most part, but did claim a number of victims.
American Kikkan Randall, fell entering the final straightway in the semifinals, losing a sure spot in the finals, and several other top skiers, including Emil Joensson (SWE) and Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) went down on the one fast downhill corner.
“I like the conditions and the rain,” Kowalczyk said. “Not so fast conditions are good for me.”
Bjoergen and Kowalczyk have been rivals for several years, ever since the former’s resurgence in 2010.
Bjoergen has had the upper hand at the major championship events, while Kowalczyk has the two Tour de Ski victories, and three consecutive overall World Cup titles.
“It is perfect for the sport,” Jacobsen told FasterSkier when asked between the battle between the two women. “I think also Marit is enjoying this because it will be a fight to the end, and then it will be even bigger to win,” she continued.
Kowalczyk now holds a 22 second lead over Bjoergen in the overall, with Therese Johaug in third, +101.4.
Johaug placed 18th in the sprint, an excellent result for a woman who is seeing vastly improved sprinting results of late. A fierce climber, Kowalczyk has said she needs at least a two minute lead over Johaug when the Tour hits the final climb up the Alpe Cermis to feel confident in a victory.
Despite the strong performance today, Jacobsen is not in contention in the overall.
“I think I spoiled my chances yesterday,” she said.
In the pursuit she opted for rub skis, or hairies, and regretted that decision.
She opted for klister today, saying she was “too chicken” to go with hairies again.
Jacobsen described her kick as “perfect,” and felt her speed was “better than Marit or Justyna.”
Racing continues tomorrow with a 5+5km skiathlon on a challenging Oberstdorf course.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.