VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – If an instant can last a lifetime, Marit Bjørgen (NOR) had more than enough time to watch the 2012 Tour de Ski slip away.
Locked in a battle with rival Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) for eight races, Bjørgen matched the Pole stride for stride on the lower part of the final climb up the Alpe Cermis. An then, in that interminable moment, Kowalczyk was gone.
The two-time defending Tour champion accelerated, and the Norwegian had no response. The decisive move continued to play out in slow motion, both women continuing the trudge up the mountain, at times almost brushing shoulders on one of the many switchbacks.
Kowalczyk slowly opened a gap of almost 30 seconds, before the pace stabilized on both ends.
There would be no total collapse on Bjørgen’s part as she continued to push for every second. If the impossible happened, and Kowalczyk disintegrated in the last 800 meters, Bjørgen would be there. And if not, she could still fight for the time of the day, for both personal satisfaction and World Cup points.
Kowalczyk did not falter, crossing the line to the raucous cheers of a sizable Polish crowd. She managed to raise her hands in a brief celebration before doubling over in exhaustion, dripping sweat, snot and saliva.
Bjørgen crossed 28 seconds later, finishing the Tour in second for the second time in her career. She managed to hug Kowalczyk in congratulations, before collapsing to the snow herself.
In what may have been the most dramatic Tour in the six year history of the event, Bjørgen and Kowalczyk each won four stages entering the last day, and the grueling affair came down to the 425 meters of vertical climb on the Alpe Cermis.
After the race, Bjørgen articulated what was evident to all who witnessed the race—Kowalczyk was simply stronger.
“Justyna was stronger than me, and that is fair,” Bjørgen said. “I am happy with second.”
She also pointed to her time for the day, third best behind only teammate Therese Johaug, and Kowalczyk, and the fact she was able to complete the whole Tour in good form.
Last year Bjørgen dominated Kowalczyk at the World Championships, preventing her rival from earning a single gold medal, while taking four herself. This year, with no World Championships or Olympics, the Tour de Ski marked the high point of the season, and Kowalczyk took some measure of revenge.
“We were here to win the Tour de Ski, and we didn’t win it,” Norwegian Team Leader Vidar Lofthus told FasterSkier.
Despite the failure to achieve this goal, Bjørgen and Norwegian coaches agreed that nothing could have been done differently.
“As the situation was, I don’t think we could have done anything else,” noted Norwegian women’s coach Egil Kristiansen.
He pointed to Bjoergen’s pre-Christmas illness, which caused her to miss the Rogla World Cups as the one setback.
In the 14 days between Rogla and the start of the Tour, everything possible was done to “get Marit well again, and train her up both physically and mentally,” Kristiansen said.
For her part, Bjørgen felt that her shape was better in Davos at the beginning of December, before she fell sick.
In the 15km freestyle, Bjørgen skied to a remarkable 42 second win, besting Kowalczyk by 1:25.
Of course Kowalczyk has said repeatedly that her slow start was part of her plan, so it is impossible to compare, but it was clear at the first two stops on the Tour, in Oberhof and Oberstorf, Germany, that Bjørgen was not firing on all cylinders.
“I have been in good shape, but maybe not as good as in Davos, but that is sport,” Bjørgen said, adding that she needed to race faster in Germany to have had a better shot at the win on the Alpe Cermis.
“A little bit more luck and a little bit better shape in the start in Germany and maybe it is possible,” Kristiansen said of Bjørgen’s chances to become the first Norweigan to win the Tour de Ski.
Kowalczyk executed her race as planned, attacking on the climb after allowing Bjørgen to lead through the early stages of the race.
The victory was hard-earned, with no cruising to the line.
““I was really tired today,” Kowalczyk said. “The last kilometers were really tough. My only thought the last kilometer was, I need to go, I need to go.”
The Tour may have been the biggest event of the year, but the World Cup season has over two-and-a-half months left, and Kristiansen sees plenty more battles between the two elite women, both a head above the rest of the field.
Bjørgen said she is now focused on the overall World Cup title—she is currently 102 points ahead of Kowalczyk, and if the Tour is any indication the contest could come down to the wire.
The question of a rematch next year is still unanswered.
“My goal is still to win the Tour de Ski,” she said. “I think maybe it is possible for me to race next year, but it is too early to say.”
Kristiansen put the odds of Bjørgen racing in 2013 at 50/50, pointing to December World Cups in Canada, pre-Olympics in Sochi, and World Championships right here in Val di Fiemme as conflicting priorities.
Lofthus was more confident that the top Norwegians would be present in a year to contest the Tour, saying of Bjørgen: “she wants to win this.”
He also noted that despite failing in the quest for the top of the podium, that “the team did really well, and we were totally the best team.”
Johaug rounded out the podium, easily holding her start position while taking 51 seconds out of Kowalczyk in the nine kilometer stage, while Marthe Kristoffersen and Astrid Jacobsen both skied very well to give Norway four skiers in the top-10 overall.
With back-to-back final climb stage victories, it is safe to dub Johaug the best climber in the world. Earlier in the Tour, Kowalczyk said she would not feel safe on the Alpe Cermis until she had at least two minutes on Johaug.
Chances for Johuag in the overall diminished drastically after she lost significant time in the 15km pursuit in Toblach. When she struggled in the 10k mass start on Saturday, any hope for victory was gone.
Her goal today was to post the best time, and she brought all her focus to the task.
“It was a tough race, but I tried to do my best,” Johaug said. “I am walking alone the whole time so I have to push myself and push my head.”
She said she did a good job of that, and her exuberant celebration at the finish, despite the fatigue of the 3.6-kilometer climb and nine races in eleven days, was solid evidence of her satisfaction with her performance.
The race for the win was not the only drama of the day. Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN), Kristoffersen and Katrin Zeller (GER) all moved up a place, capping excellent Tours for all three.
Ageless wonder Valentina Schevschenko (UKR), unseated as the top female climber by Johuag, moved up the most places, from 26th to 12th.
She was fifth fastest for the stage, and 3rd fastest on the climb itself.
The top three will all skip the city sprints in Milan, Italy next weekend, picking the circuit up in two weeks in Otepaa, Estonia.
Complete Results (PDF)
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.