During the early part of the season, Marit Bjørgen (NOR) skied with a simple strategy—go fast from the start, gap the field, and win by a ridiculously large margin.
But with some setbacks due to illness and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) rounding into form, a different approach became necessary.
Bjørgen skied a more tactical race in Rybisnk, Russia, letting others drive the pace on a frigid day and attrition slowly whittle down the field.
By the end it was only Bjørgen and Charlotte Kalla (SWE) at the front, and the Norwegian let Kalla lead the entire last lap before blowing by in the finish stretch to win the 10km freestyle mass start and claim her “official” 50th career World Cup victory (The International Ski Federation does not recognize Tour de Ski and mini-tour stage wins as World Cup victories, so Bjørgen has many more actual triumphs).
Marthe Kristoffersen (NOR) came back on teammate Therese Johaug in the last 1.5 kilometers to take third in a photo finish, giving Norway three of the top-4 spots and six in the top-10.
The surprise of the day, however, was the fade of Kowalczyk over the second half of the race.
The Pole took over the overall World Cup lead with a victory in Thursday’s city sprint in Moscow, an event that Bjørgen skipped.
Early in the race she shared the lead with Johaug, the two taking turns pushing the pace at the front, inexorably stretching, and finally breaking, the field.
In sharp contrast to the men’s race, where 45 strong entered the last lap in the lead pack, the women started hard. The top skiers show no regard for their lesser competitors, and the usual outcome is a string of women sprung off the back to be absorbed by more reasonably pacing chasers.
By the halfway mark, the lead group was down to nine, strung out in single file through the stadium. Some, like Kalla, Kristoffersen and Bjørgen, looked relaxed and in control, while others, namely Germans Katrin Zeller and Nicole Fessel struggled to stay on board.
That pair, along with Heidi Weng (NOR) lost contact as the group approached the single intermediate sprint at 6k and Kowalczyk and Johaug, skiing abreast, attacked.
With the trail just wide enough for two skaters, there was no chance of anyone coming by on the side, but ten meters before the line, Johaug faltered.
Kowalczyk took the sprint with Bjørgen hot on her heels sneaking by Johaug.
The 15 bonus points, and three point margin on Bjørgen came dearly for Kowalczyk however. Over the top of the climb, Kowalczyk lost several meters as Johaug, Kalla, Bjørgen and Kristoffersen pulled away.
The pack compressed again briefly on the descent, but the next climb was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Kalla, looking fresh drove hard into the stadium, and only Bjørgen could follow. Johaug and Kristoffersen both ended up alone 15 meters free in either direction, while Kowalczyk tried to muster one last push, skiing with Finland’s Riitta Liisa Roponen.
When the leaders held their pace on the first climb of the last lap, it was clear the race for first would be a two-woman show.
Kalla continued to lead, looking good, but definitely straining. Bjørgen, on the other hand, appeared to catch a second win, and remained relaxed behind the Swede.
When Kalla was unable to break Bjørgen on the final climb, the race was as good as over. As the pair swung around the final turn in the stadium, Bjørgen easily accelerated away to claim the win.
Kalla showed no ill will, immediately skiing up to her competitor and giving her a smiling hug. The result was her best since two second place finishes in the first weeks of the season.
Meanwhile the race for third played out in unexpected fashion. Johaug, undoubtedly the best climber in the world, lost ground on Kristoffersen on the final hills, setting up the charge to the finish.
Johaug has turned herself into a respectable sprinter this season, regularly qualifying for the heats in events she contests. But she was unable to hold of Kristoffersen, who took her fifth World Cup podium by just inches.
Further back, Kowalczyk made one last-ditch attempt to shake Roponen on the final hill, but couldn’t get away, and a hard charging Jessie Diggins came flying by in the last kilometer to best both the Finn and the Pole, placing fifth.
Kowalczyk ended up in seventh, handing the yellow leader bib back to her rival Bjørgen.
“I’m happy to get back the yellow bib,” Bjørgen said after the race. “I was in a good shape today and my skis were also very good.”
Bjørgen raced only one event at Norwegian Championships, struggling before returning home to rest.
“I feel really well at the moment,” she said. “After the Norwegian Championships I stayed three days at home on the sofa to recover, and I am happy that I am now back in shape.”
Kalla said she executed her race as planned, staying in control for the first three laps before attacking hard in the final 2.5-kilometer loop.
Racing continues on Sunday with a 15km skiathlon.
– Fessel had the fade of the day, going from ninth place at the tail of the lead pack to 16th 1:07 out.
– Diggins went the other direction, moving from 19th at 5k to 5th at the end.
– Temperatures warmed up somewhat for the women’s race, but it was still in single digits. Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) raced in warm-up tights, and most women had their faces completely covered, many with breathing masks.
– Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) seemed unfazed by the cold, with her face completely exposed.
– Kristoffersen said of the weather “it was very cold today so my hands and feet were a bit numb and it wasn’t comfortable of course.”
– The top Russian finisher was Olga Rotcheva in 13th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.