Three stages remain in the 2013 Tour de Ski, including the grueling Final Climb up Alpe Cermis, but three-time defending champion Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) overcame what may have been her biggest challenge of the seven race event.
Kowalczyk, starting the day with a 50 second lead on chief rival Therese Johaug (NOR), held on to her top position in the women’s 15km freestyle pursuit despite skiing the entire race off the front in her less preferred technique.
While Kowalczyk can perform in any distance and discipline, skating on gradual terrain is not her forte. A year ago she skied even with Marit Bjørgen in this race, but with the Norwegian star on the shelf with health issues, Kowalczyk is looking over her shoulder at the likes of Johaug.
Last year Johaug won the Final Climb, putting 54 seconds on Kowalczyk, so she is looking to stay close enough to have a shot on the last day.
The Norwegian attacked hard from the start, and over the course of the first five kilometers, knocked 13 seconds off the lead. But progress slowed at that point, and Johaug was unable to continue closing.
Kowalczyk was certainly aware of her diminishing lead and was able to respond, though there was nothing she could do about another Scandinavian woman, Charlotte Kalla (SWE).
Kalla won the Tour way back in 2008 at just 21-years-old, but has not challenged for the podium since.
Challenge she will, however, as she put forth an impressive effort in the small Italian town nestled in looming Dolomites.
Starting in 7th, 1:32 behind Kowalczyk, the Swede systematically moved up through the field.
Over the first two kilometers a chase group of Kalla, Astrid Jacobsen (NOR), Kikkan Randall (USA) and Anne Kelloenen (FIN) came together.
Kalla told Swedish broadcaster SVT that her plan was to start conservatively, skiing in a group, and then to accelerate as the race progressed.
During the second loop, Kalla made her move, breaking off on her own, hunting the next small group of Kristin Stoeremer Steira (NOR) and Denise Herrmann (GER).
By the halfway mark, she had caught them, and only Johaug remained between Kalla and Kowalczyk.
“It was inspiring to see their backs,” Kalla told SVT.
Veteran Stoermer Steira, coming of a career-best performance in the freestyle sprint, latched onto Kalla, with Herrmann doing her best to keep pace.
The German ultimately faltered, slipping back to the Jacobson-led chasers, while Kalla continued to move.
Johaug remained just under 40 seconds down on Kowalczyk, but halfway through the final lap, with just 2.5k remaining, Kalla finished closing, wasting little time moving past, Steira along for the ride.
Johaug was not unhappy to see the Swede, however, telling Norwegian broadcaster NRK “They came faster and faster behind me, but I am very happy that they came. I felt like I got extra power when Charlotte skied past me.”
Kowalczyk appeared strained at the front, but was hardly sluggish. Kalla, however, was on fire. Pulling in 15 seconds a kilometer over the rest of the race, her only pause was when Johaug made a last ditch effort to hold onto second, moving ahead just before the stadium.
With bonus seconds of 15, 10 and 5 awarded to the top three the motivation to move up was high.
Kalla would have none of it, and regained her spot on the short steep climb before the backstretch. She could not gap the two Norwegians, leading by inches down the descent into the final 180-degree turn before the homestretch.
Easily the best sprinter of the trio, Kalla closed out the day with one final strong push, claiming the second spot, skiing 1:14 faster than Kowalczyk over the 15k track.
For her part, Kowalczyk described the race as “very hard,” looking uncharacteristically depleted in a finish line interview.
The race, she said, was “the most important” of the Tour. With two classic races remaining before the Final Climb, including the Val di Fiemme mass start, Kowalczyk is in good position to extend her lead.
Despite an epic day, Kalla will still have her work cut out for her. The last time she beat Kowalczyk in the Final Climb? 2008 on her way to victory.
Kowalczyk may not be the strongest skater in the field, but on steep climbs she is still one of the best. She dismantled Bjørgen last year, and while Johaug was fastest, Kowalczyk’s time was number two.
That year following the Toblach pursuit, Bjørgen and Kowalczyk held a lead of nearly three-and-a-half minutes over Johaug. There had already been seven races at that point, but even without Bjørgen there is potential for plenty of drama over the final three days this time around.
Full time-of-the-day results have not been released, but the International Ski Federation (FIS) has announced that German Katrin Zeller posted the top mark, 36:01, just .2 seconds ahead of Kalla.
After the race, both Johaug and Steira thanked Kalla for her efforts, gratitude that was appreciated, but not necessary according to the Swede.
“I did this primarily to gain seconds for myself,” Kalla explained to NRK. “The Norwegians thanked me for the help, and it was nice. They won enough some of it, but I did too.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.