TOBLACH, Italy – With consecutive Tour de Ski stage victories, Marit Bjoergen (NOR) is pounding on Justyna Kowalczyk’s (POL)_door, looking to serve an eviction notice for the top of the Tour podium.
Kowalczyk still holds the overall lead in her quest for a third Tour de Ski title, but with a win today in the 3-kilometer classic prologue, Bjoergen not only crept closer, but also showed a form that has been missing since illness took her out of the Rogla World Cups in mid-December.
The 3.9 second victory over Kowalczyk and the 15 bonus seconds are nice, but the best news for Bjoergen supporters is the way the Norwegian star skied.
“This is Marit like we saw earlier in the season—a lot more power,” said Norwegian coach Egil Kristiansen.
Indeed, in a shift from races earlier in the Tour, when she often looked pressed, Bjoergen appeared strong and relaxed throughout.
Receiving back splits that Kowalczyk led early by a few seconds, Bjoergen did not panic and by the top of the climbs at 2.4k, she led her rival by a single tenth of a second.
She extended her lead through the gradual terrain and into the finish.
The pair easily outpaced the rest of the field. Bjoergen’s teammate Astrid Jacobsen finished third for the second time in the Tour, crossing the line 15 seconds down.
Kowalczyk won the first three stages of the Tour, handing Bjoergen her first consecutive defeats of the 2012 season.
But while Bjoergen was overmatched, she minimized the damage, hanging within 30 second in the overall rankings, and then broke through, winning the skiathlon in Oberstdorf on the strength of rocket skis on the final downhill.
While she said that victory gave her confidence, today’s win has to be even more of a boost. There is no evidence that skis were the deciding factor, and strong Bjoergen shifts the momentum from Kowalczyk.
Bjoergen described her performance as “one of my best races in the Tour de Ski,” and said she felt strong from the gun.
Kristiansen added that Bjoergen did struggle mentally in the early stages, saying that it was mainly a physical issue combined with bad skis in the Oberhof pursuit.
Though Bjoergen had been feeling good in training leading up to the Tour, Kristiansen said that “it is a totally different thing when you give it 100%” on the race course.
Bjoergen holds the edge over Kowalczyk in Wednesday’s skate sprint, especially if she has truly bounced back to her early season form.
Kristiansen says the technical nature of the Toblach sprint course also suits Bjoergen, though she is cautious to be too confident in a format that always requires some luck to win.
Kowalczyk has been complaining of a knee injury but said it did not bother during the race, but expects discomfort this evening.
While she usually enjoys the non-traditional 3k distance, Kowalczyk said “this was a really tough race for me. After 2k I was almost dead.”
Heavy wet snow overnight made for slick, glazed tracks and soft corners.
The jury decided to re-groom between the men’s and women’s races, freshening the tracks, at least for a time.
Most, if not all of the men raced on hairies, forgoing wax entirely. But the women’s race was a mix.
Both Bjoergen and Kowalczyk opted for a combination of kick waxes, with Bjoergen saying that choice was significantly faster than the rub skis she tested.
Therese Joahuag (NOR) placed sixth and lost more time in the overall. She is still solidly in third, 1:33.9 behind Kowalczyk, and 2:09.6 ahead of Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) in fourth.
Kristiansen sees the Tour as a three-woman race at this point. Despite Johaug’s deficit and her relative weakness in the sprint, he is not counting her out.
She will likely be in no man’s land in the 15km skate pursuit, but is more than capable of closing the gap—proven by her victory in the 30km skate at World Championships last year, over none other than Bjoergen and Kowalczyk.
And you don’t have to be a renowned Norwegian coach to recognize how dangerous Johaug will be in the Final Climb. Kowalczyk predicts she needs a two minute lead entering the final stage to feel at all confident.
Jacobsen has alternated strong and poor performances in the Tour, her lack of consistency ending any hopes of a podium result. She was 13th in the opening prologue, then struggled with bad skis in the pursuit.
She bounced back with a 3rd in the classic sprint, fell to 26th in the skiathlon, and now third again today. She is 15th overall 4:45 down, but just a minute out of fourth.
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.