The Marit Bjørgen (NOR), Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), and Therese Johaug (NOR) show continued in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, as the three packed the podium once again, this time in the 15km classic mass start.
The recipe is simple, and easily repeatable. Take the three women listed above, mix together well in any type of distance race format, add in a hearty shake of snow, and bake for 15 to 45 minutes.
The result will be a lovely podium tinged in red and black, though some variation should be expected in the exact pattern.
There seemed to be some hope for a little variety in women’s distance racing last week when Charlotte Kalla (SWE) battled with Bjørgen in the 10km skate mass start in Rybinsk, Russia.
Kalla placed second in that race, and Marthe Kristoffersen (NOR) outsprinted Johaug for third. With Kowalczyk struggling to seventh, only one of the big three was on the podium.
But it was business as usual the following day in the skiathlon. This time it was Bjørgen who was not in top form, but Johaug skied away from Kowalczyk for the win, and Bjørgen took third.
Today was even more within the norm. By the 5k mark, the trio had opened a small gap that predictably continued to grow.
The three skied in lockstep through 12 kilometers before Johaug began to struggle with her kick and fell off the pace.
Kowalczyk pushed at the front, with Bjørgen dialed in on her tails. The Norwegian looked relaxed, and in no danger of succumbing to any attack that Kowalczyk might throw down.
Headed into the stadium the final time, Bjørgen moved into the lead, riding faster skis to a 5 meter gap. Stronger over the rise in front of the crowds, she ended any last hope for Kowalczyk and double poled home for the win.
Johaug easily held position for third, and Vibeke Skofterud, back in form after missing the Tour de Ski due to illness, was fourth, besting an impressive Masako Ishida (JPN) in the homestretch.
The win moved Bjørgen back into the overall World Cup lead by a mere 12 points. Kowalczyk won both intermediate bonus sprints, but with Bjørgen second each time, the Pole only gained an additional six points.
Of course, with the narrow margin separating the women, those points could be the difference come March.
Johaug solidified her third spot in the overall, and Kalla, who was sixth behind Ishida, jumped past an idle Kikkan Randall (USA) into fourth.
Kalla’s performance, if not the most impressive, was at least exciting. She spent most of the race further back in a small chase group, before attacking hard in the last lap to finish at the front of the group.
As is common in women’s World Cup racing, the pack quickly broke into numerous smaller clusters due to the high pace set by the leaders out of the start.
While there may not be much drama at the front, there is plenty of moving around back in the field, with attacks, responses, and attempts to bridge up.
And while the predictability of the podium composition may get old, the fight between Bjørgen and Kowalczyk will be one for the ages, bringing to mind 2000 when Bente Skari (NOR) overtook Kristina Smigun (EST) on the final day to win the title by ten points. Smigun had the overall wrapped up with less than two k to go in the last race when she crashed, losing several places and the crystal globe.
Bjørgen, in a previous incarnation as the world’s best skier, experienced such a battle for the overall back in 2006.
She held off a hard charging Beckie Scott (CAN) to win by just 16 points. On the final day of the season, Scott won the 15k skiathlon and Bjoergen was 4th,11 seconds ahead of Valentina Schevchenko (UKR) in 6th.
Had Shevchenko and Katerina Neumannova (CZE) in 5th, gotten the upper hand, Scott would have been champion.
Back in the present, Bjørgen pulled of something of an upset. The 15k classic is Kowalczyk’s best event, so the Norwegian was especially pleased to take the win.
She pointed to her fast skis, which gave her an edge on the final descent as the key, but said that prior to the race she was not sure she would be able to defeat Kowalczyk in the finish straight.
Early in the race, Kowalczyk noted the superiority of Bjørgen’s glide, and did her best to get away on the climbs. With a skate sprint next weekend in Poland, Kowalczyk does not believe she will take back the top spot immediately, but with plenty of classic races yet to come, her chances are still good.
While Johaug remained within 14 seconds of the leaders, her last lap was not so good.
“I was little bit tired in the last lap and I also lost grip in the uphills, and my skis were not the fastest in thee downhills,” Johaug said, describing a perfect storm of slowness.
She was plenty happy with third place however, and enjoyed the fine weather—moderate temperatures below freezing, firm tracks and sunny skies—a rare combination this season.
Johaug might not be in contention for the overall, but she is a big piece of the desert that is women’s World Cup ski racing. And for the moment at least, Bjørgen is the biggest slice of that pie. In just over a month however, all that matters is who ends up as the whipped cream on top.
– Norway placed three in the top four, and five in the top eight with Astrid Jacobsen and Heidi Weng in seventh and eighth respectively.
– Three teams, Norway, Sweden, and Russia, combined for 17 of the top-30 spots.
– Russia had just one skier in the top-18, Alija Iksanova in 10th, but then packed five women into 19 through 24.
– The result was the second-best of Iksanova’s career, behind only a 6th in Rogla this season. The 28-year-old has just 17 World Cup starts, all but two coming this year.
– Ishida’s 5th was her best since placing 3rd in the 30km classic in Trondheim in 2009.
– In three out of the last four World Cup distance races, Germans Nicole Fessel and Katrin Zeller have finished within two places of each other. In two of those races they finished in consecutive places. Today they sprinted to a photo finish, with Fessel gaining the upper hand to place 13th.
– Sofia Bleckur (SWE), only an occasional World Cup presence for Sweden was 17th, her second-best career result. The 28-year-old will race the relay tomorrow.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.