OBERSTDORF, Germany – Over the past two years, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen has gotten used to her spot at the top of women’s cross-country skiing.
Collecting win after win, and paycheck after paycheck—and backed by her deep-pocketed Norwegian national team—Bjørgen has become skiing’s version of the one percent, firmly ensconced at the top of her sport and showing little interest in spreading the wealth.
Since December 29th, however—the first stage of the 2012 Tour de Ski—Bjørgen has been under fire as Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk has staged her own version of the Occupy movement. For the first time since January, 2010, Bjørgen went four straight races without a victory, while Kowalczyk won the first three Tour stages in a row.
On Sunday, though, Bjørgen fired back, capturing Stage 4 of the Tour in a sprint finish over Kowalczyk and Therese Johaug (NOR), and sending the message that she’s not going quietly. But make no mistake: Bjørgen’s victory in the 10 k skiathlon came on the shoulders of her powerful backers—namely, the 14 members of the Norwegian wax staff—and provided few indications that she’d be able to fend Kowalczyk off her turf for the rest of the Tour.
In fact, with 500 meters to go on Sunday, Kowalczyk had pushed ahead, gapping the two Norwegians with an attack on the last climb. She looked in control, and headed for her fourth win in a row—until Bjørgen blew by on the ensuing downhill, riding a rocket-fast pair of skis that whisked her to the finish like a magic carpet.
The skis were the same pair she’d ridden to a silver medal in the 30 k freestyle in last year’s World Championships in Oslo, and there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that they’d been difference-makers on Sunday—Bjørgen included.
“She said the victory was because of the skis,” Perry Olsson, Bjørgen’s wax technician, told FasterSkier.
Of course, for Bjørgen to even make it to the homestretch, she had to keep pace with a red-hot Kowalczyk and the rest of the women’s field for a full 9.9 kilometers, which she
said was no easy task on Sunday.
Bjørgen said she didn’t feel well in the first half of the race—two 2.5-kilometer laps in the classical technique. But once she put on her skate skis for two more loops, Bjørgen’s outlook improved almost immediately.
“In the skating part, my skis were great,” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”
By the last of the two skate laps, Bjørgen, Kowalczyk, and Johaug had left behind the rest of the women’s field, and as Kowalczyk charged up and over the last hill, she opened a small gap.
As Kowalczyk accelerated on her way back down towards the finish, the gap widened as far as 15 meters, and the race looked like it was over.
But as the women rounded a pair of downhill corners and rolled up and down a
pedestrian bridge, Bjørgen seemed to accelerate. She snuck by Johaug on the outside, then came out of her tuck and flew past Kowalczyk with her first three strides, as if the Pole were moving in slow motion. Kowalczyk had no chance; the gap kept widening all the way to the finish line. She was nearly caught by Johaug, too.
It had only been three weeks since Bjørgen had last beaten Kowalczyk, when the pair faced off in a 15 k freestyle race in Switzerland. But Bjørgen had been sick over Christmas, and both she and her coach, Egil Kristiansen, said that Sunday’s win meant a lot to her.
“It’s a big deal for her, maybe, mentally,” Kristiansen said. “Because she can see that it’s possible to beat Justyna in the format, and the shape that Justyna is showing right now.”
After the race, Kowalczyk refused to place blame on her wax technicians, telling the media instead that she’d simply skied the descent poorly, and that Bjørgen was a stronger skate sprinter.
“I was thinking that maybe Therese would also [pass] me,” she said. “I was very bad in the last downhill.”
She also told Polish broadcasters on site that she had been hindered by a muscle problem in her shins that has plagued her over the past few years, and her coach, Alexander Wierietielny, was quoted as saying that Kowalczyk has also complained of a sore knee (http://sport.onet.pl/wiadomosci/aleksander-wierietielny-justyne-boli-kolano-nie-wi,1,4986716,wiadomosc.html).
Nonetheless, while Bjørgen may have scored a single victory on Sunday, it appears that the tables are still turning in the direction of the 99 percent.
Thanks to all the time bonuses that Kowalczyk picked up in the mid-race sprints, she actually ended the skiathlon with a 27-second advantage over Bjørgen in the overall Tour standings—five more seconds than she’d had at the beginning of the day.
In the press conference afterwards, Bjørgen’s comments about her own race indirectly acknowledged just overwhelming Kowalczyk has been over the Tour’s first four stages.
“I think it is important to show that we are still fighting for the podium, and that it’s not a one-person race,” Bjørgen said. “I am not in bad shape, for sure no. But maybe I was a little bit better before I was sick.”
—Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
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.