If Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) is first across the line at the top of the Alpe Cermis on Sunday, she can look back at the Toblach prologue as the defining moment of her Tour de Ski.
Yes, she claimed that Thursday’s skate pursuit was the most important for her, given the technique and gradual terrain. But after wavering and eventually holding a lead in that race, she turned the tables on the rest of the women’s field, posting a stunning 16.5-second victory in the 3.3-kilometer classic race.
With her third victory in five Tour races thus far, Kowalczyk extended her overall lead to just over a minute ahead of Charlotte Kalla (SWE) and Therese Johaug (NOR).
Kowalczyk said she felt strong, though like everyone was feeling the effects of her fifth race in seven days.
“She is exactly the type of skier who would do well on a course like this,” U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said of Kowalczyk. “She has a tremendously powerful and long stride and she can really get into her double pole on the flat sections.”
Kowalczyk added that she expected double poling to be critical on the gradual terrain of the Toblach loop and that she prevailed despite not finding the snow conditions favorable.
The race for second was much closer, with Finn Krista Lahteenmaki edging out Astrid Jacobsen (NOR) by just .6 seconds.
Lahteenmaki has come on strong after an unspectacular start to the Tour. She closed the gap on skiers ahead of her with her prologue performance, but did not pick up any places, and ends the day where she began it — 9th overall.
Finland had an impressive day overall, with Anne Kylloenen another .6 seconds in back of Jacobsen in 4th and veteran Aino Kaisa Saarinen just behind in 5th. Add in Kerttu Niskanen in 11th and Riikka Lilja Sarasoja in 18th and the Finnish women were easily the strongest team on the track.
Overall the team had Norwegian-like seven skiers in the top-30.
Kalla minimized the damage in an event that is not her strength, placing 9th, 25 seconds behind Kowalczyk, and lost only three seconds to Johaug, who was 6th.
Places four through eight are separated by just 12 seconds in the overall standings, and with many bonus seconds available in Saturday’s 10km mass start classic, there will be plenty of opportunity for skiers to move up ahead of the Final Climb.