VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – The bell lap of the 2012 Tour de Ski kicks off on Sunday with the famed climb up the Alpe Cermis, and after a decisive victory over Marit Bjørgen (NOR), Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) will start with an eleven second lead.
Kowalczyk demonstrated that she may have been down for a few days, as Bjørgen won four consecutive stages, but she was certainly not out.
Back in her preferred classic technique and on her favored hilly terrain, Kowalczyk looked strong throughout, setting the usual driving pace at the front of the pack in the 10km classic mass start.
As expected the top women took the race out hard, but the pack did not break immediately. That did not last long, however, as the big two hammered for the first intermediate sprint.
They created a gap on the field and into the descents, though the pack compressed again on the flats, and reformed twenty strong heading into the lap.
There are rarely games of cat and mouse in women’s World Cup racing, with the field going flat out from the start.
On the large climb but of the stadium, the pack began to string out, and by the top, only Charlotte Kalla (SWE), winner of the first Tour de Ski, was able to keep pace.
As the second preem approached, Kowalczyk shifted into a higher gear, and first Kalla fell off the pace, and more surprisingly, Bjørgen cracked.
But she did not break, struggling over the crest just five meters in back of her rival.
Kowalczyk maintained her lead through the downhills, and up the next climb, but Bjørgen would not give in. On each rise she pushed back, cleared redlined, her normally machine-like technique breaking down, her face twisted with effort.
Kowalczyk appeared relaxed and strong, but Bjørgen closed, then slipped away again, and finally made one more push to get on the Pole’s tails.
She succeeded and it looked like there would be a sprint for the win.
But one last climb remained, and Bjørgen was spent. Kowalczyk pulled away, dropping into the stadium for a clear victory, Bjørgen 7.5 seconds back.
With an edge in bonus seconds, Kowalczyk jumped over Bjørgen in the overall standings, setting up a battle on the Final Climb.
“Most important to me was to get all bonus points,” Kowalczyk said after the race.
She opted for more kick to achieve this goal, but said that her glide was excellent as well.
Kalla slipped back to chasing Finn Aino Kaisa Saarinen and the two staged their own duel through the last kilometers, with Kalla taking the win, and climbing within striking distance of the overall podium.
Therese Johaug (NOR) starting in third, and the best climber in the field, held strong position out of the start, but fased back to finish 11th. A disappointing result that ended even the outside chance of a shot at the overall win.
“I had a bad day,” Johaug told Norwegian television station NRK. “I did not get the body to work, I had nothing to give.”
She is still solidly in third, with a 1:13 lead over Kalla.
The race for fourth, though less glorious, will be hotly contested, with four skiers within 40 seconds of the Swede.
Bjørgen told NRK that she was not surprised that Kowalczyk won and that she was pleased with her race.
The 7.5-second deficit should not be too hard to make up on the flat terrain before the three kilometer trudge to the top of the Alpe Cermis.
Bjørgen has not raced the hill in years, and never with her current prowess.
The safe bet is on Kowalczyk, but Bjørgen is the stronger skater.
“The head is crucial in the morning, I think,” Kowalczyk told NRK. “I have gone up Alpe Cermis five times, and it has been very, very hard every time. The most important thing is to have the right attitude in your head.”
And perhaps an intimate knowledge of the course.
With the 10km mass start not starting until 3:45, Kowalczyk headed out to inspect the Final Climb one more time.
She did say that it was “not a proper workout.”