The last time Marit Bjørgen (NOR) lost an individual World Cup race in November? That would be 2008, at the beginning of a disappointing 2009 season. So there was little surprise when the Norwegian star once again crossed the line in first, chalking up her third consecutive Ruka Triple sprint victory.
Cold temperatures, and the usual challenging course in Kuusamo, Finland did little to deter Bjørgen, who used her superior fitness to ski away from Evgenia Shapovalova (RUS) on the last climb of the race and cruise uncontested across the line.
Shapavalova and teammate Anastasia Dotsenko led the final heat early, setting the pace on the first climb. Bjørgen started conservatively before working into position on that hill.
She tailed Shapavalova, and the two started pulling away on the long flat before the big ascent to the stadium. The Russian fought gamely to match Bjørgen when the later attacked, but the effort was in vain.
Still, Shapavalova had to be pleased with her first World Cup podium appearance since 2007. And with Dotsenko staying clear of Finland’s Anne Kylloenen, Russia ended up with two in the top three.
Kylloenen set a fast pace early, closely followed by Slovenian Katja Visnar and teammate Krista Lahteenmaki.
She couldn’t handle the pace when the Russians took over, however, and when Visnar tripped on a small rise, blocking Lahteenmaki in the process, the race became a three-way affair.
Bjørgen overcame near elimination in the quarterfinals, where she finished third and advanced as a lucky loser. After the race she said that a poor tactical decision and sub-optimum skis were the issue.
She changed both for the semis and didn’t look back on her way to the win.
“I have not trained sprints that much this year,” Bjørgen said after the race. “I have been working hard on my technique on steep uphills…It is good to see I am competitive in the sprints.”
Dotesenko earned just her second World Cup podium, matching her place in last year’s Moscow city sprint.
Like many of the sprint specialists, the pair left immediately after the race to begin travel to Canada for the Quebec sprints.
That leaves Bjørgen with a solid lead in the overall mini-tour standings. Chief rival Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) failed to advance out of the semis, and placed 7th. She goes into day two 17.6 seconds down on Bjørgen.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE) a potential contender for the mini-tour podium did not race due to mild illness on the Swedish team according to Langd.se.
The potential podium threats include Lahteenmaki, an excellent all-rounder, who sits in 6th, 16.1 seconds out and Kikkan Randall 32 seconds down in 10th.
Racing continues on Saturday with a 5k individual freestyle.
– Therese Johaug (NOR) continues to show improved sprinting, qualifying for the heats and placing 24th. Despite being a minute off the pace in the overall, she could easily get back in contention.
– Seven different nations cracked the top-12.
– Norway and Finland both qualified six skiers for the heats, with Russia advancing five.
– That 2009 season where Bjørgen struggled? She failed to win a medal at the World Championships and basically shut down soon after. She also imploded in the final climb of the Tour de Ski. Since then she has twice finished 2nd in the overall World Cup, won once, racked up 11 Championship medals and seemingly endless World Cup victories.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.