With Justyna Kowalczyk’s Tour de Ski strategy playing out exactly as she had planned so far, it was up to the rest of the field to make one last-ditch effort to stop here in the 10 k classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy today.
There was just one problem: Kowalczyk is pretty unstoppable in distance classic racing. She had no reason not to be confident heading in to the penultimate stage of the seven-race series.
If anyone was going to hang on, it was probably going to be Norway. Entering the mass start, they occupied the three of the next four positions in the Tour de Ski rankings, with Therese Johaug, Astrid Jacobsen, and Kristin Størmer Steira following the Pole’s lead. Only Charlotte Kalla in second place was also ahead of them.
Johaug had said that she thought she could make up a minute on Kowalczyk on the final climb; entering the mass start, she was already that far behind in the standings. So to have any hope of taking the title, she needed not to lose any more time.
She and the other Norwegians had an extra trick up their sleeves, though. There were two sets of bonus seconds up for grabs out along the course, and an additional bonus for the winner. Maybe they couldn’t beat Kowalczyk to the finish line, but if they could manage to beat her at some of the sprint premiums, that would help their causes.
Surely, working together – Heidi Weng also started near the front, in bib 10, giving them a four-woman group – they could lock Kowalczyk out at least once, right? At least, it seemed, they could grab the bonus seconds and get their skiers ahead of Kalla in the standings.
As it turned out, the first goal wasn’t possible, and the second irrelevant.
Although Johaug jumped in front of Kowalczyk at the start and the Norwegians tried to dominate the climb up to the first premium at 1.8 k, Kowalczyk maneuvered around them with no problem at all and took the 15 bonus seconds.
Jacobsen was immediately sprung from the group, as was Kalla. While Kowalczyk was hardly going all out, the pace was high and only Johaug and Steira could stay with her. The three skied together for most of the first lap; at one point Kowalczyk motioned to the Norwegians that one of them should lead, and Johaug took on the challenge.
It was all part of Kowalczyk’s plan.
“My tactics was not to ski 100% in the first lap and go full speed in the last five kilometers,” she told FIS in a press conference.
While Johaug had been hoping to get help from her teammates, Kowalczyk got even better assistance from another team: her wax technicians. Her skis appeared to be among the best in the field, and she climbed effortlessly while Johaug was slipping and had to rely on her arms.
As such, when Kowalczyk took off going through the lap, there was really nothing that Johaug or Steira could do to go with her.
“I just have to realize that first place is lost,” Johaug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race. “Today was just to concentrate on second place.”
While the Norwegian was slipping a bit, her woes seemed like a bed of roses compared to Kalla’s situation. After working so hard in the skate pursuit two stages ago to ski herself into second and attempt to salvage a Tour that had so far been frustrating, Kalla completely missed the wax today. The other Swedish women didn’t seem to be suffering quite so much, and Kalla didn’t explain exactly how she ended up with such an inadequate pair of skis.
But on the uphills, her left ski appeared to be almost completely useless. She finished over a minute and 45 seconds behind Kowalczyk and is now in fifth place in the overall standings. That doesn’t sound so bad, but her gap to Kowalczyk is well over three minutes.
“Today my chance for a top placing in the whole race disappeared,” a teary-eyed Kalla told Swedish television after the race.
So Johaug and Steira didn’t have to worry about that.
But in the final kilometers of the race, with Kowalczyk far in front of them, a new threat emerged from behind: Krista Lahteenmaki of Finland, who had placed second in the previous day’s 3.3 k prologue. With no reason to work together against the Pole, Steira attacked and dropped the flagging, slipping Johaug, going for second place all on her own.
She was obviously expending huge effort and in plenty of pain, but managed to ski away from her teammate and crossed the line 33 seconds behind the winner.
The more diminutive of the Norwegians was caught by Lahteenmaki on the hill descending into the stadium, and the Finn powered by her in the finishing stretch to end 39 seconds behind Kowalczyk and two ahead of Johaug, and grab a few bonus seconds as well.
“Admittedly, I’m a bit surprised that it went this way,” Lahteenmaki told the Finnish press. “But this is good. I didn’t dare to go [at the front in the beginning], but then I had to do all the work alone. Little by little I closed on them as the Norwegians were shutting down.”
Johaug now sits second in the standings, Størmer Steira third, and Lahteenmaki fourth. None have a chance of catching Kowalczyk; her lead is 2:08 on Johaug and another nine seconds to Steira.
“Two minutes is too much to close,” Johaug admitted to NRK.
Instead, the two Norwegians, who are favorites to have the fastest times up the daunting climb, will likely battle each other to determine who stands where on the podium.
“We’re both good at hills, so we’ll see who is strongest towards the end,” Johaug said.
Lahteenmaki, meanwhile, is another minute behind; Kalla, Jacobsen, American skier Kikkan Randall, and Anne Kylloenen of Finland all start within 12 seconds of her.
“I feel strong now, but who knows what it will be like tomorrow,” Lahteenmaki said of her chances of hanging on to fourth. “But I will give it a fight.”
She’ll have to contend with Randall, among others.
“It will be interesting to see how it feels tomorrow, because I feel like my skating has been a little higher this year than it was last season, so I hope to be a little stronger on the climb than I’ve been in the past,” Randall told FasterSkier of her goals in the final stage. “Having two climbs under my belt now I know it’s going to be really important to be strong over the top. I’m hoping I can get in a good pack and ski well up most of the climb, and then be able to find one more gear to come home strong.”
Of the race today, Randall said she was happy with her eleventh-place finish. Although she had good kick going up the climb – something Kalla would have killed for – it was at the expense of a bit of speed on the flats and downhills. But she had good energy and felt better than she had in the skate pursuit two days ago.
And, being practically a Tour veteran now, she used a solid strategy in the mass start.
“It was the climb up to the bridge on the first lap, people really accelerated, and I was still trying to figure out how I was feeling right then,” she said of the timing of getting separated from the leaders. “The pace felt a little fast. But then once we came back and headed out on the next lap I started to feel better. I think it was a good strategy because some girls went really hard to get ahead there but then they all just came back to me.”
Finally, she thought she’d be ready for a skate race tomorrow. Unusually, she referred to the two grueling classic races of the last two days as recovery, in a way.
“The nice thing about flip-flopping between classic and skate is that you use slightly different muscles, so now hopefully my skate muscles have been a little bit rested. I think I’m in a good place – at this point last year we still had three races to go, and now we just have one. You have to just focus on that. I just hope to leave it all out there tomorrow.”
-Audrey Mangan 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.