At the start of Sunday 15 k skiathlon in Rybinsk, Russia, all eyes were on two women: Marit Bjørgen, the Norwegian who had dominated the 10 k mass start on Saturday and taken over the lead in the World Cup rankings, and Justyna Kowalczyk, the Pole who had won the Tour de Ski and held the World Cup lead until Bjørgen took it over.
“It has turned out to be a lot of Marit and Kowalczyk at the top of the podium,” Norwegian racer Therese Johaug told broadcaster NRK after the race.
And it could have been again: when the gun went off, Bjørgen and Kowalczyk skied into the lead just as expected.
But Johaug joined them, and turned out to the one to watch. Known as a distance skate specialist as recently as last year, the 23-year-old has strengthened her repertoire this season and had consistently strong performance in classic races and has even skied in sprint heats.
Savvy spectators would know, too, that skiathlons are a good discipline for the diminutive Johaug, who placed third in the event at the 2011 World Championships and also in a stage of the Tour de Ski, and won the event at Norwegian national championships just a week ago.
And so Johaug tucked in behind the World Cup titans, and the trio immediately began attacking, opening a sizeable gap on the rest of the field. After five kilometers, they were leading by over 20 seconds, and it was clear that barring a spectacular implosion, no other skier would have even a shot at the podium. While the chase pack shuffled leaders, they were only racing each other for fourth place.
The biggest surprise was that Johaug helped lead in the final stages of the classic leg, and that Bjørgen, who appeared to be struggling to get her skis to kick, fell off the back.
“My skis were good today but the girls were stronger in classic part,” Bjørgen said in a press conference after the race. “They made a big gap and I had to work alone in the second part of the race. It was hard.”
Johaug and Kowalczyk skied into the exchange zone together, ten seconds ahead of Bjørgen. Based on the older Norwegian’s dominance in the past, it seemed possible that she would be able to ski her way back to the lead. But instead, she lost more time during the skate leg.
With four kilometers to go, Johaug finally attacked, and Kowalczyk could not keep pace with her quick tempo.
Johaug later explained that the timing had to do with the intermediate checkpoints, which award bonus points towards the World Cup standings.
“I was told by Egil [Kristiansen, her coach] to go to the front and take the points so that Kowalczyk did not get them,” she told NRK. “I got a little momentum then and I was very strong. It was incredibly fun to do it this way. I just skied away from them.”
While her initial aim was simply to prevent Kowalczyk from widening her overall lead in the World Cup, Johaug ended up building an almost 30-second lead and picking up the first victory of the year.
“I am very pleased,” she told NRK. “This is my first World Cup victory of the season. It is very fun that I can fight with the world’s best cross-country skiers.”
Kowalczyk said in a press conference that she simply couldn’t counter Johaug’s speed: “Therese was faster this time.”
Both Norwegians were gracious competitors, with Bjørgen telling NRK that she was “fortunate to have someone like that on the team and a strong team around me,” and Johaug saying that “with such rivals as Marit and Justina, you have to work hard.”
While Johaug was able to bask in the spotlight today, going forward the attention will still be on Bjørgen and Kowalczyk, who are separated by just two points in the overall World Cup standings; Johaug is third, more than 400 points back.
Bjørgen’s win on Saturday was her 50th official World Cup victory (not counting stage wins), and some have speculated that her dominance has been bad for the sport. Bjørgen herself has said that it is better when more teams and more skiers can be at the top, and told NRK today that the battle for the overall crown would benefit everyone.
“It’s a very exciting match,” she said. “More than that, it is important for the sport. Now there are once again two points separating me and Kowalczyk. The yellow bib will change from day to day, so it makes it exciting. We will see in the end who is the strongest.”