It didn’t take long for the three-time defending Tour de Ski champion to remind everyone how dominant she can be. Starting the 9 k classic pursuit from the third position, nearly 15 seconds down to prologue winner Kikkan Randall (USA), Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) swallowed that deficit by just the third kilometer of the 10 k classic pursuit, eventually extending it to a 41.4-second winning margin over Therese Johaug (NOR). Anne Kyllönen (FIN) continued her impressive early season in third (+45.0) and Denise Hermann (GER) had a strong fourth-place performance (+48.5) in front of the German crowd.
Kowalczyk was happy to be back in the familiar leader’s bib. “It was good for me today,” she said. “My servicemen did a very good job today, my skis were fast and the kick was good. I also like the conditions here, when the track is a little bit soft.”
Her skis certainly seemed better than most of the field’s. Where others slipped and were forced into a herring-bone, Kowalczyk was more often able to maintain a diagonal stride. Her techs also hit the glide, as she was able to make up considerable time on the descents.
Kowalczyk has turned mass start events into battles for second several times this season, and after about seven minutes on the Oberhof course she seemed nearly guaranteed do so again. She bridged the gap on Charlotte Kalla (SWE), the starter in front of her, and then on Randall. The American held onto Kowalczyk’s tails for about a minute but by the time the leaders came through the stadium she was losing ground.
“I tried to make it hard for Kowalcyk to catch me, [and then] I tried to hang onto her a little bit but I just can’t seem to find that final gear in my classic skiing yet,” Randall said. She stayed with the main chasing pack for the next few kilometers but eventually lost contact, finishing fourteenth and 1:33 back.
As Kowalczyk skied strong off the front, for only a brief period did it look as though anyone would be able to catch her. Johaug, who started 32 seconds back in bib 13, remained within 18 seconds of Kowalczyk at 3.7 k, at which point the latter had already taken the lead. But by the next checkpoint at 6.7 k Kowalczyk had widened the gap to 35 seconds.
“It was pretty good at first, but I had a little too aggressive start,” Johaug told the NRK.
The Norwegian women’s best hope to win the Tour made her attempt at catching Kowalczyk alone, and when the chasing group behind her caught back up the leader was out of anyone’s reach. From there Johaug battled in a pack of about ten skiers, including Kyllönen, Hermann, Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR), Astrid Jacobsen (NOR), and three other Finns.
Johaug successfully held them at bay to move into second in the Tour, and she isn’t counting herself out of the running for the overall just yet. With the time bonuses Johaug is 46.4 seconds down to Kowalczyk headed into the third stage, a sprint in Switzerland, where Kowalczyk is likely to struggle.
“[Kowalczyk] has got a good head start, but now I managed to take second place and got ten bonus points. Now [there is] the sprint, and it is perhaps advantageous that Kowalczyk starts alone in the lead on the next pursuit, so we can chase behind,” Johaug said.
Perhaps Johaug does stand a better chance trying to hunt Kowalczyk down in the next distance race, but on the other hand Kowalczyk is pretty comfortable skiing alone at the front.
“I’m not surprised at all [at the winning margin],” Kowalczyk told the NRK.
The Tour de Ski field and its associated crews travel to Val Müstair, Switzerland, today for the third stage sprint on January 1. Kowalczyk plans to do light training at the venue on the rest day in between and knows that the sprint will be a challenge for her.
“The sprint will be difficult for me especially in the skate technique,” she said. “I will try to not lose too much time.”
— The Finns placed five in the top ten and six of its seven-woman team in the top thirteen.
— Kowalczyk has now won the Oberhof pursuit four times; each time she won this race in the past she went on to win the overall Tour.
— Tour de Ski wins are worth 50 World Cup points, half of what regular-season victories count for. Kowalczyk now has 608 points at the top of the overall World Cup standings; Randall is in second with 550 points.
— Matti Rowe contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.