The reigning queen of Polish skiing is officially back on top of the world. After a slow start to her 2011-2012 campaign, Justyna Kowalczyk owned the Tour de Ski in January, then followed up that performance with her victory on Thursday in the Moscow city sprint.
In doing so, she took over the yellow bib that represents the top level of World Cup success.
In front of a home crowd, Russian teammates Natalia Korosteleva and Anastasia Dotsenko finished a close second and third in the freestyle sprint, respectively.
“I’m really emotional today, because normally I am not strong at city sprints,” Kowalczyk said in a press conference after the race. “I am happy I have taken over the yellow, but it will be a hard job to keep it till the end of the season.”
With her third straight victory, worth 100 World Cup points, Kowalczyk overtook Norway’s Marit Bjoergen in the standings, and now sits ahead by 38 points. Following illness earlier this month, Bjoergen was absent from Moscow on Thursday.
In contrast to the collision-ridden sprints seen at other venues this season, the wide trails in Moscow afforded competitors plenty of room to maneuver, and unfolded relatively tamely.
In her quarterfinal, Kowalczyk got off to a moderate start, and skied in the middle of the pack while Korosteleva led the way. A headwind in Moscow gave skiers reason enough to tuck in behind each other to conserve energy, which is exactly what Kowalczyk did after moving up into second.
The reportedly slow snow and longer-than-usual distance made a visible difference in the way the women skied: For a sprint race, their tempo seemed more labored and deliberate than what it had been in Dusseldorf or Milan earlier this season. Kowalczyk moved into the lead in the second half of the race, and comfortably crossed the line in first. Her final effort from the front made hers the fastest quarterfinal.
While skiing from the front worked for Kowalczyk, others were unable to maintain the lead through the finish after pushing early.
In the fourth heat, Astrid Jacobsen (NOR), the second-fastest qualifier and fresh off a Norwegian sprint title, paid for her decision to ski from the front and faded to fourth, failing to advance. Anastasia Dotsenko (RUS) and Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja (FIN) successfully drafted and passed her in the final straightaway.
The beginning of the first semifinal presented an unusual sight: three American women in black spandex, all skiing at the front of the pack. Jessie Diggins led early, with her teammates Kikkan Randall and Ida Sargent just behind her.
The Americans led all the way to the top of a bridge just before the final straightaway, but as the pack came off of the brief downhill on the other side, Korosteleva pulled up behind Randall and squeezed in front of Sargent.
As Diggins, Korosteleva and Randall entered the lanes, it almost appeared as though the Russian would win the heat, but Diggins lunged for the top spot. Randall was less lucky, and crossed the line in third. With the second semi yet to take place, at that point a spot in the final as a lucky loser was still a possibility for the World Cup sprint leader. Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE), Ingvild Oestberg (NOR) and Sargent finished fourth, fifth, and sixth.
The second semifinal featured Kowalczyk and Saarinen, who skied to the front out of the gate and remained there for the entirety of the heat. Kowalczyk didn’t seem to suffer from doing most of the work; when the real race began up the bridge, she held her lead, though Saarinen threatened to edge her to the line in the final meters.
Just as it had been in the quarters, Kowalczyk’s semi was the faster of the two, and third and fourth place finishers Dotsenko and Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) made it through to the finals as the lucky losers.
As the six remaining women lined up next to each other for the final, Kowalczyk was the clear favorite next to Diggins, Korosteleva, Dotsenko, Saarinen and Lahteenmaki. Diggins presented a bit of a wild card—she had clearly demonstrated spectacular fitness in the first two rounds, but it was hard to tell how much they had taken out of her.
The gun went off and Korosteleva took the lead, with Diggins skiing wide to tuck into second down the back side of the first of the two bridges. Kowalczyk began to push her way up halfway through, and moved into second behind Korosteleva. Diggins held position in the middle of the pack, and as the group skated up the hill on the second bridge, the pack was still tight behind Kowalczyk and Korosteleva.
Down the other side into the stadium, Kowalczyk and Korosteleva were practically even, but Kowalczyk once again proved her dominance and took victory in a lunge. Dotsenko was third (+0.2), Saarinen fourth (+0.7) Lahteenmaki fifth (+0.8) and Diggins, who ran out of gas in the final 150 meters, was sixth (+1.1)—still a career best effort.
For the two Russians in second and third, podium finishes at home brought a great deal of pride.
“It is special for me,” said Korosteleva. “The fans and atmosphere was great. I hope the cross-country World Cup returns to Moscow.”
“I’m proud to be on the podium in Moscow,” added Dotsenko.
The World Cup continues on Saturday in Rybinsk with a 10 k freestyle.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.