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 – The Tour de Ski Trophy is safely ensconced at home in Poland and the World Cup overall is out of reach, but Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) is not backing down, staging a comeback in the World Cup Finals that will have the World Cup Finals a microcosm of the entire season—a battle between Kowalczyk and Marit Bjørgen (NOR).
After winning the prologue on Friday, Bjørgen predicted that Sunday would come down to herself and Swede Charlotte Kalla.
Kowalczyk, after crashing in the Stockholm sprint, and placing an uncharacteristic 4th in the prologue was 50 seconds down.
But Bjørgen should know better than to count Kowalczyk out.
The Pole stormed back, blowing Bjørgen, and ultimately the rest of the field, off the icy course in the 10km mass start classic.
Bjørgen didn’t even reach the podium, placing fourth behind teammates Heidi Weng and Therese Johaug, and enters the pursuit start on Sunday just six seconds up on Kowalczyk.
Traditionally one can count on two things in life—death and taxes. But it would make sense to add in one more—World Cup women’s races starting at an insane pace.
Wile the men took plenty of time skiing into their race, the women’s field had split apart less than four minutes in, obviously led by Bjørgen and Kowalczyk, with Johaug, Weng and Kalla along for the ride.
Thirty seconds later Weng and Kalla were gone, and any hope of someone new on the podium appeared to evaporate.
Bjørgen said after the race that she felt good at that point and the pace was just fine.
As the women came down from the early gradual ascent, Kalla made a valiant effort to bridge back up, pulling Weng along. But she came up short, as the race approached Mördarbacken.
The three leaders had lost time on the descents, but began pulling away again on the lower slope.
When they kicked into the steep pitch of herringbone, spectators were greeted with an unfamiliar site—Marit Bjørgen sprung off the back.
Bjørgen didn’t look bad, she was just skiing slower, and passed the intermediate bonus sprint five seconds back with a resurgent Weng on her heels.
“The speed was too fast for me, so I had to concentrate on myself and try to keep the speed up so the gap would not be too big,” Bjørgen said.
The race was not over for Bjørgen, however, as she and Weng reeled in the leaders over the short trip up the first third of Mördarbacken at the end of the lap, and closed the gap on the long backstretch down into the stadium.
But contact was short lived as Bjørgen immediately fell back again on the climb out of the stadium and into the second lap.
Weng, on the other hand, locked in with Kowalczyk and Johaug, forming a new trio at the front.
While Bjørgen worked to minimize the damage, et leaders set about breaking each other.
That didn’t happen for another 2.5 k, when Mördarbacken came around for the final time.
Kowalczyk dropped the hammer, and in the matter of 30 meters had opened up a seven second gap on Johaug and Weng.
At this point Bjørgen was nearly 30 seconds down, but with the steep climb out of the way, she worked to close up.
Over the last 2.2k of mostly flat and down, Bjørgen took seven seconds out of Kowalczyk and 11 from her teammates, but she ran out of snow to close any further.
Weng and Johaug meanwhile, looking much the same with similar physiques and high tempo skiing, battled to the line, up the final rise to the finish.
The less-experienced Weng took the sprint by a single second, earning just her second World Cup podium and moving into third in the World Cup Finals.
Kowalczyk attributed much of her success to her skis—“the reason I was so fast,” she said.
A stronger classic skier, she also said she enjoyed skiing Mördarbacken today.
With Weng over a minute back in third in the overall mini-tour, Kowalczyk will have to work alone to catch Bjørgen, though the Norwegian scoffs at her lead—“six seconds is nothing.”
Neither Johaug nor Bjørgen were shocked to see Weng on the podium, pointing to the 20-year-old’s third place in Lahti two weeks ago.
“I know what is living in her, so I know she is very strong,” Bjørgen said. “She is a good woman for the future. It is a little bit of a surprise, but she is good enough to be on the podium.”
While Kowalczyk has not been mathematically eliminated in the competition for the overall World Cup title, it would take a collapse of epic proportions for Bjørgen to give up her lead of 160 points.
Thirteen women would need to overtake Bjørgen to give Kowalczyk the win, with at least one skier making up a minimum of two-and-a-half minutes over 10k.
The battle for third should be interesting in its own right with Weng, Kalla and Johaug all within 15 seconds.
The Norwegian women took eight of the top-10 spots today, and as a team have scored more World Cup points this season than any other country’s women and me combined.
Only Kowalczyk and Kalla in 6th were able to disturb the juggernaut.
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.