Justyna Kowalczyk didn’t have to say a word. Marit Bjørgen knew it was on.
Kowalczyk, the three-time defending Tour de Ski champion from Poland, had spent the better part of the last two weeks recovering from her most recent Tour victory. Bjørgen, the Tour de Ski runner-up, had done the same, skipping last weekend’s races in Milan, Italy, to prepare for Otepää, Estonia.
While the two rivals didn’t face off until the final of Saturday’s 1.2-kilometer classic sprint – the first of two World Cup races in Otepää this weekend – they competed against each other from the start.
Bjørgen won the qualifier in 3:22.10. Kowalczyk clocked the second fastest time, 0.55 seconds back. In the end, Kowalczyk took the sprint victory by 0.1 seconds over Bjørgen in 3:18.4, but their road to the final built plenty of suspense.
The quarterfinals went as expected, with Bjørgen and Kowalczyk winning their respective heats. The semifinals were another story.
After Bjørgen placed third in the first semifinal, Kowalczyk saw an opportunity. Bjørgen needed her time to hold up to secure a lucky-loser spot in the final; Kowalczyk could put down a faster time to eliminate that possibility.
The soon-to-be-29-year-old from Poland (Kowalczyk’s birthday is on Monday) charged out of the gate in the second semifinal, setting a fast pace that Maiken Caspersen Falla (FIN) initially hung onto. By the end of mostly double-pole loop, Kowalczyk emerged as the winner with Katerina Smutna (AUT) and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) 0.3 seconds behind.
All three advanced to the final, as did Bjørgen.
There, the Kowalczyk and Bjørgen met for an anticipated showdown with four others: Smutna, Saarinen, Natalia Matveeva (RUS) and Mona-Liisa Malvalehto (FIN).
From the starting gun, Matveeva initially set the pace. Kowalczyk caught up on the first climb and extended her lead over the top. Meanwhile, Bjørgen simply waited, hovering around third.
Before their final descent into the stadium, Bjørgen made sure she was in a position to get even with Kowalczyk and moved ahead to tie her lead. As the two entered the stadium, Kowalczyk led the tight pack of four once again, with Saarinen closing from behind.
But Kowalczyk wasn’t likely concerned about Saarinen or Matveeva, who were mostly contending for third. She had Bjørgen on her tail.
Staying ahead to the finish, Kowalczyk threw up her hands in victory. She had done it, even if by just a tenth of a second. Matveeva was third in a photo finish with Saarinen, both 0.9 seconds behind Kowalczyk. Smutna placed fifth (+1.9) and Malvalehto was sixth (+10.8).
In an interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS) after the race, Kowalczyk didn’t have many words. She was happy to win a sprint in Otepää after winning four distance races there before. As for ranking second to Bjørgen in the overall World Cup standings by 81 points, Kowalczyk simply stated that she would keep competing.
“To think about this now,” she began. “We will see.”
Kowalczyk added that the recovery did her well and her fitness was in tact.
“After [the] Tour de Ski, I was only resting in my bed,” she said. “Now I’m feeling better and better.”
Bjørgen told reporters she felt a little tired last week, but was pleased with winning the qualifier and skiing well in the heats. She said Kowalczyk was simply better on Saturday.
“I thought that I could take her, and then it’s annoying when it does not work,” Bjørgen said in a translated interview with NRK. “But there are small margins between us. Kowalczyk is very strong.”
As for Sunday’s 10 k classic individual start, Bjørgen said to expect a similar contest.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s race. Last year it was very good for me,” Bjørgen told FIS, referring to the previous 10 k classic in Otepää, where she was second to Kowalczyk.
“I expect to be fighting again with Justyna. Let’s see who is stronger tomorrow,” she said.
In Bjørgen’s semifinal on Saturday, Malvalehto edged Matveeva at the line for the win, and Bjørgen finished 0.2 seconds later. American Kikkan Randall, the overall sprint leader by nearly 100 points, found herself in a tough position from the beginning of the same semifinal. She started in an outside lane and quickly skied from the back of the six-person pack.
Following Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR), who mostly sat in fourth, Randall moved up to fifth before the last climb. As the leaders skied into the stadium, Randall found the gap was too much to overcome despite a strong double-pole effort. She finished fifth (+2.5) behind Oestberg (+0.9), who also failed to advance.
“I felt decent; the qualifier was probably the best part of the day for me,” Randall told FasterSkier after the race, referring to her seventh-place qualifying result. “The quarters were pretty good, [but] in the semis, I ran out of gas.”
Ninety-three points ahead of Matveeva as the leading World Cup sprinter, Randall acknowledged that finishing ninth overall didn’t help her. In just her second time missing the finals all season, she also kept it in perspective.
“It’s a big focus of season to hold onto that jersey, so yeah … [it] could have gone a bit better,” she said. “Especially for classic, though, it’s still one of my better results.”
In just three classic sprints this season, Randall fared better once – with a fourth-place finish in Kuusamo, Finland. She was ninth in the classic sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany, which opened the Tour de Ski.
“It’s funny how quick your expectations change,” Randall said, referring to her stellar year on the World Cup this winter. “[You] get used to top results.”
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.