OBERHOF, Germany – Two days into the 2012 Tour and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) remains uunbeaten, looking more and more like the two-time Tour de Ski defending champion she is.
Kowalczyk was locked into a battle through the last kilometer of the race, tailing a Norweigan over the crest of the final climb, before double poling past to win by .2 seconds.
The battle however, was not with Marit Bjoergen as expected. Therese Johaug just missed out on the stage victory when she couldn’t shake Kowalczyk on the climbs, and was forced into a drag race.
Women’s pursuits and mass starts are oftten more exciting than the men’s versions. The pace is high from the start and attacks generally come fast and furious.
Such was the case today. Kowalczyk led out, but Bjoergen was on her tails before they headed out of the stadium.
The third starter, Hanna Brodin (SWE), a sprinter, was not going to be a factor, but Aino Kaisa Saarinen (Finland) wasted no time iclosing the 20 second deficit she started the day with.
The powerful Finn has been the runner-up in the Tour previously, and won bronze in the 10k classic at the Oslo World Championships last year.
She wasted no time, immediately moving to take the lead after cathcing the leaders, pushing the pace up the biggest climb on the three kilometer loop. Skiing with tongue out, clenched between gritted teeth.
Just three minutes into the race a lead pack of six skiers had formed, consisting of Kowalczyk, Bjoergen, Saarinen, Johaug, and two more Finns—young Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) who broke through in last year’s tour, and the fourth place finisher in the prologue, Riikka-Liisa Sarasoja.
Sarasoja couldn’t manage the pace for long and by the end of the first lap, the pack was five, the chase group 30 meters behind.
The speed remained high, no sign of cat and mouse. On the big climb on the second lap, Saarinen attacked hard, looking strong and showing no sign of poor kick in the tricky waxing conditions.
She opened a gap and crested the hill with a 10 meter lead, but Kowalczyk closed back on the descent. By this point it was becoming clear that Bjoergen would not be skiing away as she has on several occasions earlier in the season. She worked her way back in to contact on the double pole section before the climb up the stadium, but she appeared to be pressing.
Johaug also closed up, and the four women came through the stadium a final time holding a gap on Lahteenmaki while pulling away from the main chase pack.
Up the big climb Saarinen began to fade, and Bjoergen lost some meters .When she couldn’t clos back up on the lower flats, the race was down to two.
Johaug attacked on the last climbs, but couldn’t break away. The diminutive Norwegian battled valiantly on the long double pole homestretch, but couldn’t hold off the powerful Kowalczyk.
Bjoergen came across third, followed by Saarinen.
The Finns had an excellent day with Lahteenmaki in fifth, and Kerttu Niskanene in 7th.
American Kikkan Randall skied a strong race to place 6th, moving up in the overall standings.
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