As far at the television coverage showed, it didn’t look like Marit Bjørgen ever looked back on Sunday in Kuusamo, Finland. It would’ve been pointless to do so; Norway’s defending World Cup champion was always more than a minute ahead and the white-out conditions made the visibility near zero.
Starting first in the 10-kilometer classic pursuit – the culminating race of the Ruka Triple mini tour, with full World Cup points and 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,400 dollars) on the line – Bjørgen had nearly a minute to play with off the line. Kikkan Randall of the U.S. started next, 53 seconds back, and Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki went out third (+0:59).
However, it was the next couple starters that formed the most contentious chase group within the first few kilometers, with Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland in bib 4 leading Norwegians Heidi Weng and Therese Johaug, who started fifth and seventh, respectively. (Yulia Tchekaleva of Russia did not start sixth, traveling instead to Canada in preparation for the Quebec World Cup sprints next week.)
Randall settled in behind the group and after losing contact before 4 k, worked with Lahteenmaki to try to gain back some ground on the front four. Bjørgen remained out of reach throughout the race with Kowalczyk, Weng and Johaug narrowing the gap to a minute and 14 seconds before the halfway point.
They reeled her in by about the same margin by 6.4 k, but with one lap to go, Bjørgen made up a few more seconds despite an increasingly difficult workload in the snow-covered tracks.
In the end, the 32-year-old Bjørgen won the fourth-straight individual World Cup race of the season; yep, every single one. She swept the mini tour, with victories in the classic sprint, 5 k freestyle and classic pursuit, winning the latter in 31:19.4. Kowalczyk pulled off second place, 1:21.4 back. Weng surged up the last hill past Johaug to challenge Kowalczyk, but settled for third (+1:23.9). Johaug was fourth (+1:34.1) with the second-fastest time of the day, 8.1 seconds behind oBjørgen.
Randall broke away from Lahteenmaki around 6.4 k to make a run for the chase group. She managed to stay ahead by at least a few seconds and ultimately finished fifth (+2:24.8) while Lahteenmaki placed sixth (+2:33.1). At the finish, all eyes were on Bjørgen, whom Randall had predicted would take an army of efforts to defeat.
“Maybe we can work together and try to reel Marit back in,” Randall said after Saturday’s 5 k, where she was second. “She’s definitely strong right now … so it’s gonna be fun and hard.”
Hard was probably the best description of it on a cold afternoon near the Arctic Circle with temperatures around -9 degrees Celsius (15.8 Fahrenheit) and snow falling heavier throughout the women’s race.
“Another incredible day for me,” Bjørgen told NTB, according to a translation. “I concentrated on doing well technically, and it went fast as I had done throughout the weekend. This was one of my best weekends in Kuusamo ever.”
She won the Kuusamo mini-tour title last year as well, and given a 53-second lead from the start, Bjørgen was confident she could keep it.
“I knew I had to focus on [myself to] succeed,” she told Eurosport.Onet.pl. “Right at the start I heard that my advantage has increased … [and] I felt that I was able to get the best time of the day. In the second part of the distance the snow was falling very strong, however, this is a winter sport and you have to compete in such an environment. I have a big advantage when the conditions do not really matter.”
For overall World Cup runner-up Kowalczyk, it was her first podium of the season.
“It was a good race,” Kowalczyk told NRK. “The shape is good and the skis were good. There is a lot of hard work, but it’s better than a week ago. My form is getting better every start. Maybe I come in the same form as Marit.”
Bjørgen, for one, is worried that it might be too much too soon.
“I hope that the form did not come too soon,” she told Eurosport. “I’m going to leave a couple of starts in order to better prepare for the Tour de Ski and World Cup.”
Bjørgen and Johaug planned to skip the Canada World Cups in preparation for the Tour de Ski and second period. According to Norwegian coach Vidar Løfsus, the rest of the women’s team will be there, including seventh- and eighth-place finishers Vibeke Skofterud and Kristin Stoermer Steira.
“I will go home now and then train two weeks at high altitude in [Italy’s] Seiser Alm to get ready for the Tour de Ski,” Bjørgen said.
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.