Marit Bjørgen (NOR) was one of four Norwegians to reach the podium in Drammen, Norway, thrilling the home crowd with a dominating performance.
Bjørgen won the classic city-sprint in wet conditions over teammate Astrid Jacobsen and rival Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
Drammen is not your usual downtown affair, with a challenging climb up to the finish, complete with one last pitch that steepens just before the line. The rest of the course is more mellow, but sloppy conditions, times over three-and-a-half minutes, and that final hill make this a robust challenge.
Sprints have generally provided a break from Bjørgen-Kowalczyk show, but today fit right into a script that has played out all year.
Bjørgen won qualification by a mere .29 seconds over Kowalczyk, and despite the vagaries of sprinting, there was little doubt that the two women would be be duking it out in the final.
The pair is locked in a battle for the overall World Cup title. Bjørgen has held the upper hand recently, winning the last two matchups.
Both women won their quarterfinal and semi with relative ease, setting up the expected showdown.
The final was a half Norwegian affair with Bjørgen joined by Jacobsen and Maiken Caspersen Falla.
Canadian Chandra Crawford and Aurora Jean (FRA) rounded out the group of six, with Jean qualifying for just her second-career sprint final.
Bjørgen led out fast and with Kowalczyk and Jacobson on her heels, quickly opened a gap. By the midpoint, the race was split in two with little chance of the latter group bridging up.
Jacobson looked strong and relaxed, but sure money was on a two-way fight between Kowalczyk and Bjørgen on the climb. Would it be Bjørgen’s powerful and smooth stride, or Kowalczyk’s fierce tempo and strength?
That question, however, remains for another day. Coming around the final corner into the flat section of the homestretch, Kowalczyk went down, falling backward in the soft snow.
She was on her feet quickly, but the leaders were gone, and she found herself fighting off Falla for the final podium position.
Bjørgen easily outdistanced Jacobson, crossing the line with a hop and a jump before taking a victory lap back down the hill to salute the crowd.
Kowalczyk crossed in third, and while she said after the race she was pleased to be on the podium, she was disappointed in the crash that took her out of the final sprint.
Jacobson earned her second podium of the season, bettering her third in the Tour de Ski Toblach prologue.
“It was a great day for me,” Jacobson said after the race. “I had to skip Lahti because of illness but the shape has been good now.”
Referring to the wet snow and rain that fell on and off throughout the day, she added “Even though the weather was not perfect it was a perfect day for me.”
Bjørgen appears to be rounding back into top form at just the right time in her quest for the overall title.
“I had a great day, I felt really strong,” she said. “The audience was amazing even despite this real bad weather and it was fantastic to race here in Drammen.”
With just the Oslo 30k and World Cup Finals remaining, Bjørgen holds a 118-point lead on Kowalczyk.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.