In what couldn’t have been a better-scripted home-coming, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) blew the World Cup women’s field off the tracks with an uncontested win in the 10km classic in Szklarska Poreba, Poland.
Kowalczyk has singlehandedly put cross-country skiing on the map in Poland, establishing herself as one of the all-time greats with three consecutive World Cup titles and the same number of Tour de Ski wins.
She is known for her massive training volume and remarkable endurance, and has become a darling of the Polish sporting scene.
It is hard to imagine the International Ski Federation even considering holding a World Cup in Poland if it were not for Kowalczyk.
The weekend did not start with a resounding success on Friday, however, as Kowalczyk was bounced from her weakest event, the skate sprint, in the quarterfinals, placing 16th.
The 10k classic individual, on the other hand, is tailor made for the lanky 29-year-old, and she did not disappoint.
Marit Bjørgen and Therese Johaug, the only skiers to pose a challenge to Kowalczyk in distance racing, did not pull any punches for the hometown girl.
The Norwegians ranked first and second at 1.8 kilometers with Kowalczyk just under two seconds down.
With Bjørgen leading the overall World Cup by a mere six points at the start of the day, the race appeared to be shaping up as another three-way battle for the top of the podium.
Kowalczyk, however, had other plans. She took over the lead by the 3k mark, and half-way through, Bjørgen was 5.2 seconds down, and Johaug out of contention 19 back.
Starting two spots behind Kowalczyk, Bjørgen was able to get frequent updates on where she stood. Such information is only useful though if can be put to good use.
From the halfway mark in the stadium, to the top of the big climb at 6.8k, Kowalczyk opened 22.2 seconds on her rival. Bjørgen was able to staunch the bleeding, but there would be no epic fade from Kowalczyk. This was her day, and the fans loved every minute of it.
By the end, she had made up nearly a minute on Johaug, crossing the line just 10 seconds back for a 50 second lead. When Bjørgen made her way to the finish, she was all of 38 seconds down.
“Justyna was very strong today,” Bjørgen said at the post-race press conference. “She had a very fast second lap. I have to be satisfied with my second place.”
While the top three all appeared to have solid kick and decent glide, that was not the case for all competitors. Waxing was as difficult as it gets with high humidity, a bit of new snow, and temperatures right at freezing.
Bjørgen opted for waxed skis, while Kowalczyk went with rub skis.
On the big hill, women were seen struggling mightily, some slipping badly, others having to stop to scrape icy buildup from their bases.
The issues were universal enough that poor skis did not have to mean a terribly result. German Steffie Boehler was one who had to come to a full stop to clear her skis on at least on occasion and she placed 17th.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE) on the other hand clearly had very poor kick, and while 20th place is not a good result for her, it is not as bad as expected given her difficulties on course.
Bjørgen noted that picking skis was a challenging experience, and Kowalczyk decided to go without wax which she said “I do not like.”
The local hero also felt the pressure of performing before the enthusiastic crowd.
She said that she slept just three hours the night before due to nerves, and that she “was not relaxed at all before the race.”
There may have been a clear favorite for the gathered throngs, but they did not discriminate in their support of the athletes.
In the find tradition of Norway, fans cheered for each athlete by name, including Kowalczyk’s biggest rival Bjørgen.
“It has been amazing what organizers in Szklarska Poreba did and also the fans were great,” Kowalczyk said. “I am proud of them.”
Kowalczyk now holds a 14 point lead on Bjørgen in the overall standings with Johaug well back in third.
– With Bjørgen, Johaug, Vibeke Skofterud in 4th and Marthe Kristoffersen in 5th, Norway took places 2-4. They had seven skiers in the top 18.
– Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR), who had been prevented form starting due to low weight was back in action, placing 10th.
– Anna Haag (SWE) was able to ski her final lap with a later-starting Bjørgen, helping her to a 9th place finish – her first time in the top-10 since November.
– Masako Ishida (JPN) has quietly put together an impressive run, following up her 5th in the 15k last weekend with a 6th today. She was 12th in the Tour de Ski and has not placed outside the top-16 in a full distance race since early December.
– Sprinter Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR) as 33rd. She had not started a World Cup distance race since the Kuusamo mini-tour in November. Falla is worth watching as she continues to mature, as she could become an overall World Cup threat. Today was her first distance race out of the points this season in five starts. She has three top-14 results as well.
– With a nation’s group quota, Poland took four of the last five spots in the race. Behind Kowalczyk the next best home finisher was Sylwia Jaskowiec in 46th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.