All the talk about the Marit Bjørgen/Justyna Kowalczyk rivalry may have been getting a little old.
On Sunday, Bjørgen did her best to erase the speculation of who will take the overall World Cup title, winning the 30-kilometer classic mass start at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway.
In the last World Cup event before the finals in Sweden, Bjørgen beat Kowalczyk of Poland by 51.9 seconds in 1:26:09.8. The two started off the line at breakneck speed with eventual third-place finisher Therese Johaug (NOR), skiing together for the first 16 kilometers or so before Bjørgen decided it was time to truly make her move.
After Johaug dropped off the pace around 12 k, Bjørgen blew open the second half of the race, skiing away from Kowalczyk on a downhill near the 16.3 k checkpoint. There, Bjørgen secured the bonus points and a sizeable gap.
Meanwhile, Johaug, who initially broke away with her teammate and Kowalczyk about 2 kilometers into their longest individual World Cup race of the season, worked to catch back up. Entering the home stretch into the stadium, Johaug had put herself in a position to sprint with Kowalczyk, and the real contest came down to second.
Kowalczyk had the edge, by 1.4 seconds, and Johaug settled for third (+53.3). The fourth-place finisher, Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) came through 2:59.4 after Bjørgen.
Bjørgen finished the day 138 points ahead of Kowalczyk in the World Cup overall standings and locked up the distance cup title.
With 350 points up for grabs at the World Cup finals in Stockholm and Falun, the three-time Olympic champion refrained from being too confident at a press conference on Sunday.
“There are four races left,” Bjørgen said, according to NRK. “I take nothing for granted.”
The 31-year-old said her body felt good on Sunday, and she credited her wax techs for her success on the balmy afternoon with temperatures around 8 degrees Celsius, or 46 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I have been an old lady, and have gained many good pair of skis,” Bjørgen said. “Today I had three good pair. … I knew it was my day. It was amazing to go the last lap around Frognerseteren. I was smiling and laughing.”
While Bjørgen wouldn’t say it, her team was confident she’d finish out the World Cup season on top.
Norwegian coach Egil Kristiansen told NRK it would be “a real blister” if she didn’t clinch the title. When someone asked Johaug if she thought her teammate would win, she replied, “Yes! I’m sure.”
As for Kowalczyk, she said it just wasn’t her day.
“Normally I’m stronger in the finish in the classic style,” she told FIS News. “After such a hard race you never know what will happen. It’s very slow in the finish line. I was almost sure I would be number two.”
She congratulated Bjørgen’s support and waxing staff.
“It’s not so nice when you don’t have good skis,” Kowalczyk said. “Here in Holmenkollen, it’s special snow. It’s normal that the [Norwegian] waxers know more about the snow here.”
She wasn’t surprised by Johaug’s comeback, knowing how strong she is at climbing. But Kowalczyk knew she had the advantage in the sprint. Regardless, second wasn’t what she was looking for.
“I think that I don’t have a big chance on the overall World Cup anymore,” she said. “But still I think this is a good season for me.”
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.