All 2012 FIS World Cup Finals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of Fischer Sports USA, proud sponsors of Kikkan Randall, 2012 overall Sprint Cup Champion.
FALUN, Sweden – There are two more days of racing to prove that Marit Bjørgen (NOR) is not unstoppable. For now, however, the ever-evolving body of evidence that is the World Cup circuit is demonstrating otherwise.
On a brilliantly sunny day in Falun, Sweden, Bjørgen continued to roll, holding off an assault by Swedish favorite Charlotte Kalla, and unfazed by the much-hyped Mördarbacken took a 6.2 second win.
As the leader of the World Cup Finals to this point, based solely on her performance in the Royal Palace Sprint, Bjørgen started last, so knew exactly where she stood at critical points of the race.
On the gradual terrain out of the stadium, Bjørgen said she hoped to “find good technique,” before hitting the lengthy climb.
“I did and I had a good feeling and pushed it all the way up to the top and also down,” Bjørgen said after the race.
At the time check on the crest of the steepest part of the Mördarbacken, she held a three second lead on Kalla and focused on extending it down the twisting descents.
“The hill is maybe not so tough,” Bjørgen explained. “The toughest is to go down from the Mördarbacken. Your legs are hurting and there are lots of curves…so it is not so easy to push.”
She rose to the challenge, and took another three seconds out of Kalla before the finish.
“I am very happy. It was the race I wanted,” Bjørgen said.
Kalla, despite failing to unseat Bjørgen was beaming after the race, earning her sixth podium of the season.
While she wasn’t too far behind, she said that it was too many seconds to contemplate making up, especially with Bjørgen starting behind.
But Kalla, arguably the fan-favorite on the Swedish team, put herself in good position for the remainder of the World Cup Finals, and also pulled within three points Kikkan Randall (USA) in fourth in the overall World Cup Finals.
She said she loves skiing in Falun, with the fan support, and the prologue is the high point.
“It is the favorite distance for me,” Kalla told FasterSkier. “To go skating and only 2.5 k…”
She explained that she has always performed well in the event and that “when I am in good shape I can feel that my body answers and I feel strong.”
She said it is key for her to get a good felling from the start, and not hold back.
“I want to open quite hard, mentally, as a fighter,” Kalla explained.
Up on the Mördarbacken Kalla was only 1.2 seconds ahead of third place finisher Marthe Kristoffersen (NOR) but as Bjørgen did to her, Kalla did to Kristoffersen, adding on another three seconds before the finish.
Norwegian women’s coach Egil Kristiansen told FasterSkier that Kristoffersen had planned to start at a relaxed pace, a strategy that evaporated as soon as the start wand flipped.
“Marthe told me she was going to take it a little bit slow in the start,” Kristiansen said. “But she didn’t—she was racing with everything she could from the start to the finish.”
The tactic worked just fine. Kristiansen wasn’t surprised to see two Norwegians on the podium, or Kristoffersen specifically.
“When I am racing I just think about every push and just go for it with every push with full power,” Kristoffersen said of her approach.
She didn’t have any room to back off as Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) finished Just 2.8 seconds back, leading a string of six women within 2.5 seconds.
Kowalczyk finished off the podium in the World Cup finals prologue for the first time since the event’s inception in 2009.
The Pole, who is seeing any chance at the overall World Cup title rapidly dwindling, said she was not displeased with her race, and is looking forward to the classic event on Saturday.
She added that finishing 2nd in the overall is still a great accomplishment—“a big number two.”
While Bjørgen described the Mördarbacken as “not so tough,” and Kristiansen, when asked whether the climb was the hardest on the circuit added “if you see the track in Holmenkollen, you can double this hill.”
Laughing, she continued “This is nothing. This is nothing.”
Kalla concurred in her own way, saying that the challenge is not the whole climb, but the fact that steep section comes so far along it.
Whether that is the case or not, the hill does make for a unique race at the 2.5 kilometer distance, with all the climbing coming in the first 1.2k.
While the top-6 were all within that rank at the time check on Mördarbacken, there was some shuffling over the second half, including Laure Barthelemy (FRA) who made up 16 places on the gradual terrain, and Jessie Diggins (USA) who moved up 12 spots.
There was no sign of some higher level of suffering on the climb, though the steep section looked brutal, instantly killing any semblance of momentum.
Skiers approached this with varying styles like any other race—some attacked with high tempo and short steps, while others powered through.
According to Kristiansen, the hill is just one element of a complete race.
“You have to be a good climber and you have to have speed and you have to ski the downhills well,” he said. “You have to have everything.”
The salted course held up well, remaining firm throughout the race.
Kristiansen said he did not see the conditions playing any role in the outcome.
“It was fair from the start to the last racer,” he said.
Bjørgen now holds a 21.5 second lead on Kalla in the World Cup Finals.
“I think it will be a race between me and Charlotte at the end of the weekend,” Bjørgen predicted, adding that the important number is 50—the amount of seconds she now has on Kowalczyk.
With just a short mass start and then the pursuit, Kowalczyk, now down 170 points in the overall, would need Bjørgen to be seriously injured to stage any sort of comeback.
Racing continues on Saturday with a 10k classic mass start.
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.