TOBLACH, Italy – Cross-country skiing has plenty of unlikely alliances, from Norwegians running the Swiss national team to an American heading up the Canadian coaching staff.
But few alliances were more curious than the one forged on Thursday between Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
In Thursday’s Stage 7 of the Tour de Ski, Bjoergen outsprinted Kowalczyk on the homestretch here to win by two seconds, taking her fourth straight victory and her third in a row in Italy.
In winning the race, a 15 k freestyle handicap start, she also claimed Kowalczyk’s red bib, which is worn by the leader of the overall Tour standings. Heading into the Tour’s final two stages in Val di Fiemme, two hours to the southwest, Bjoergen holds an edge of seven seconds.
“I’m feeling very good and strong,” Bjoergen said. “I’m very satisfied.”
Kowalczyk began the race with a four-second lead on Bjoergen, based on her edge in the overall standings at the start of the day.
In normal circumstances, that would set the stage for a showdown, because the two women don’t get along well: Kowalczyk has publicly criticized Bjoergen for her use of asthma medicine, and Bjoergen told the Norwegian media in Toblach that she doesn’t engage with Kowalczyk because the Polish skier “talked sh-t about me.”
But on Thursday, they had a common enemy, and an incentive to work together: Bjoergen’s Lilliputian teammate Therese Johaug.
The final stage of the Tour de Ski is a nine-kilometer uphill that ascends more than 1,000 vertical feet on the Alpe Cermis—a race that is right in Johaug’s wheelhouse, given her small size and her penchant for climbing.
In last year’s edition, Johaug turned the World Cup women’s field into her personal punching bag, beating her nearest competition in the final climb by a full minute, and Kowalczyk by two. (Bjoergen didn’t race.)
While Bjoergen and Kowalczyk will have their hands full with each other in Val di Fiemme, the last thing they were interested in doing on Thursday was letting Johaug—who started the day two-and-a-half minutes out of the lead—get within striking distance.
So once Bjoergen closed the gap to Kowalczyk, the two women stuck together, with each taking turns driving their two-car train.
Johaug had told the Norwegian media she was hoping that Thursday could be a repeat of the 30 k freestyle at last year’s World Championships, when she dropped both Bjoergen and Kowalczyk and went on to win the gold medal.
But rather than closing the gap to the leaders, Johaug’s deficit to the pair began to grow. By the 7.8-kilometer mark, she’d lost eight seconds, then 19 seconds by 11.8 k, and 50 seconds by the finish, at 15 k.
“It’s something else to come from behind,” said Egil Kristiansen, the Norwegian women’s coach.
As the women came into the stadium for the end of their third 5 k lap, Bjoergen was the one pushing the pace. She led out the sprint, kept Kowalczyk at bay, and ended up with a two-second victory. Thanks to a 15-second time bonus she got for the win, her lead is now seven seconds, since Kowalczyk got a 10-second bonus of her own. Johaug is now 3:17 back, most likely out of range from both women in front of her.
“The gap for Therese is now looking good,” Kowalczyk said. “More like three minutes is good.”
There’s still one other stage in Val di Fiemme before Kowalczyk and Bjoergen tackle the final climb—a 10-kilometer mass start classic race.
But that event probably won’t be a difference maker: Kristiansen said he expects the women to ski together in that race, as well.
As such, the stage is setting up for an epic battle between the two on the flanks of the Alpe. And because Bjoergen hasn’t raced the Tour since 2009, nobody is quite sure how such a race would play out.
“I don’t know who is better. Marit has not started the last year’s,” Kowalczyk said.
While much is uncertain, one thing is sure: come Sunday, the temporary alliance between the women will be toast.
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.