TOBLACH, Italy – Like two great deities of Greek mythology, locked in an epic struggle for supremacy, Marit Bjørgen (NOR) and Kikkan Randall (USA) came together to do battle on the open plains of the Toblach Ski Stadium.
The talk of the 2012 Tour de Ski has been the competition between Bjørgen and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), and with the two women combining to win every stage thus far, and just 4.8 seconds separating the pair in the overall standings, such conversations are not without merit.
But the new-look Randall, skilled in every distance and technique, and leader of the Sprint Cup by nearly 100 points, has not faced overall World Cup leader Bjørgen in a skate sprint final since last year in Drammen, Norway.
After Randall came away the victor there, the expected showdown at World Championships never materialized when Randall crashed out in the quarterfinals.
Since then Randall has continued to improve, but the circumstances have prevented a re-match with Bjørgen.
On a long and challenging Toblach sprint course, both women kicked off the day in fine form, Bjørgen winning qualifying, and Randall not far behind in third.
The American skied off the front in her quarterfinal, gapping the field, saying she wanted to avoid trouble in the early round.
Bjørgen, on the other hand, was matched with Kowalczyk in the first round—a setup that could easily have meant a reprise of Kowalczyk’s disappointing Tour skate sprint last season, when she was knocked out in the quarters.
Marthe Kristoffersen (NOR) pushed hard at the front when Bjørgen got off to a bad start. On the last climb of the course, Kowalczyk took over, and opened a gap on the descent into the stadium, but the field closed back up headed into the homestretch, and in drag race that had more suspense then many sprint finals, Bjørgen and Kowalczyk were able to hold off Kristoffersen.
The heat was indicative of much of the day’s racing—with a sweeping hairpin corner in to the gradually ascending finish stretch, there was plenty of room to move at the end of the race. No lead would be safe.
In the semis, Randall opted for a different strategy, biding her time further back in the heat, and she almost paid a price. Overall, it was a “nerve-wracking heat” for Randall.
She was in third up the final climb and was unable to use her powerful V1 to take over the lead. On the final corner she nearly got boxed in by Norwegians Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg and Heidi Weng, but came out with a clear lane on the inside.
She dispatched Oestberg, finishing the heat in second behind sprinter Vesna Fabjan, glowing yellow in her distinctive Slovenian suit.
Bjørgen, Kowalczyk and Kristoffersen (who advanced as a lucky loser) all faced off again in the semis, and all three advanced.
Kowalczyk was able to hold a strong position headed into the finish, while Bjørgen had to hold off her younger teammate and Germany’s Denise Herrmann, who had used a powerful kick in the last 200 meters to win her quarterfinal.
While Kristoffersen, Hermmann, and Fabjan all looked strong in the earlier heats, the trio would be racing for fourth in the final, barring a crash, or similar misfortune —such is the dominance of Randall and Bjørgen in skate sprints, and the tenacity of Kowalczyk.
Half way through the final, Randall said she was happy with her position, right on Bjørgen’s heels.
Randall said the final set-up “perfectly” with Kowalczyk and Kristoffersen leading early.
The Toblach sprint course actually runs over the top of the main lodge, making for a steep climb and subsequent descent.
Bjørgen attacked over the top, and Randall followed.
“It was really nice to follow Marit up the climb,” Randall told FasterSkier. “She made a nice push right over the top, and I followed it.”
The Norwegian powered past Kowalczyk, who had been leading at the time, but Randall wasn’t able to make it by as they dropped down onto the flat and then around into the last hill.
Stuck behind Kowalczyk, Randall had to step out to make her move. Bjørgen wasn’t waiting, attacking hard from the bottom of the pitch.
“I had to go out and around and that allowed Marit to get just enough of a gap that I couldn’t quite get in her draft,” Randall explained.
Bjørgen was over the top with a sizeable lead, while Kowalczyk appeared to hit a wall, unable to stay with Randall.
With space between all three, there would be no slingshots down the hill, and the final 200 meters were without drama, the women in single file down the homestretch.
Bjørgen won her third consecutive Tour de Ski stage, and closed the gap on Kowalczyk to an inconsequential 4.8 seconds entering Thursday’s skate pursuit.
Randall meanwhile captured the first Tour de Ski podium ever for the US, an accomplishment that US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover summed up simply, saying, “It was awesome.”
The Norwegians were thrilled with Bjørgen’s victory and her continued strong form, but also appreciated Randall’s efforts.
“It was good to have Kikkan between Marit and Kowalczyk” Norwegian coach Egil Kristiansen told FasterSkier. “Kikkan racing well today was also good for us.”
In the finish area, Bjørgen and Randall shared a hug, with the Norwegian thanking the American for her efforts.
Randall interpreted the thanks as for both the additional seconds for Bjørgen and more generally, for excellent competition.
“[I am] the top ranked in one thing and she is top ranked in another—just a fun competition” Randall said. “We made a fun race for each other.”
Kristiansen said he felt Bjørgen was a bit stronger than Randall today, though the American has only one regret on the day—if she hadn’t had to move around Kowalczyk on the last hill and had been able to remain in contact with Bjørgen, the race could have played out differently—at least the two could have tested each other in the last meters.
Despite five races in the previous six days, Grover was not surprised to see Randall fighting with Bjørgen. She is no longer just a sprinter, and her third place in qualification was a good indicator of things to come.
“Every time she qualifies, her rounds tend to get better as she goes,” Grover said. “She’s got such good aerobic capacity, such good endurance, that she tends to do better and better as the day goes on.”
The big difference this year is that instead of qualifying in the top 15 and improving, Randall starts the day in the top three.
Even with the accumulated fatigue, Grover was not worried that Randall would run out of gas, though he added that none of the women are fully rested at this point in the Tour.
“You can see there is a little fatigue that everyone is carrying,” Grover said. “Kikkan wasn’t quite as explosive as she was in some of the other sprints, but that is to be expected.”
For her part, Randall said she still had “good jumps” in her legs and a good kick, but was not surprised that she wasn’t able to drop her competition.
The relatively long course favors skiers with good distance chops, and the length of the Tour, as Randall puts it, had the effect of “knocking everybody’s sprint muscles down a tad.”
Being Bjoergen’s top competition in the event, and the top ranked sprinter in the world, does not come without its own baggage.
Randall admitted to some relief with her result. “Skate sprints, now that I am the one to beat, it adds a another layer of pressure,” Randall said, especially in the wake of a crash in the finals in Rogla, and another one in the semis in Oberstdorf, where she did not have the opportunity to bring her prowess to bear.
“I just wanted to be able to go out and have a clean race [today] and use what I had,” Randall said.
Grover also noted that Randall has raised expectations to extremely high levels in skate sprinting. But while anything but a victory can seem “anticlimactic,” the accomplishment of a first Tour podium is not lessened in any way.
“This was probably the day it was going to be” Grover said of the podium result. “It is great for it all to come together.”
Randall moved back into fourth in the overall Tour standings, rebounding from a flat day in Tuesday’s classic prologue. She will be out on her own at the start of the 15km skate pursuit, but expects a pack to quickly form.
Randall skied well in the 15k last season and is looking forward to the race.
Kowalczyk on the other hand makes no bones about her feelings on the event.
“15k skating is not my best distance,” she said after the sprint. “Actually I hate this distance.”
At the post-race press conference, when asked if they would work together in the pursuit, an awkward silence ensued. Kowalczyk and Bjørgen are not the best of friends, especially given Kowalczyk’s criticism of Bjørgen’s use of asthma medication.
Bjørgen finally reiterated what she had said earlier—that she wanted to race fast in the pursuit to keep teammate and climber extraordinaire Therese Johaug at bay.
Johaug is in third overall, just under 2:30 down, and Bjørgen would “like some minutes” before the final climb.
“I hope we can do something together,” Bjørgen said, with Kowalczyk adding “we will try.”
Kristiansen sees Bjørgen with an edge at this point.
“She is getting better and better and Kowalczyk is a little bit worse,” Kristiansen said, observing that Kowalczyk struggled on the last climb in the sprint, much as Bjørgen did in the classic version in Oberstdorf.
Whomever wins, “The races tomorrow and on Saturday and Sunday will be very exciting,” Kristiansen said.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.