In the final tune-up race before the 2013 World Championships, Therese Johaug (NOR) notched her fourth World Cup victory on Sunday in the women’s individual start 10 k freestyle in Davos, Switzerland.
The result confirmed her fitness in the final days before Val di Fiemme and served as an important morale boost for the Norwegian women’s team after the absence of their leading light, Marit Bjørgen (NOR), who elected to sit out today’s race.
“She was plain and simply tired after the race yesterday,” said Gro Eide, a press contact for the Norwegian national team.
“The decision for Bjørgen not to go was made 30 minutes before the start,” said Egil Kristiansen, a Norwegian trainer. “During the warm up she felt tired and said that she was in doubt whether she should go. If you’re in doubt, you should not go. That’s how we made the tough decision.”
In the absence of Bjørgen it was left to others to take up the challenge against World Cup Overall leader Justyna Kowalczyk (POL). Johaug responded.
She stormed to the first check point at 1.6 kilometers, besting teammate Kristin Størmer Steira by 8.7 seconds with Kowalczyk lurking just 0.2 seconds behind.
For Johaug, her strategy was straightforward — start hard and hold it.
“I opened really hard and managed to keep that tempo through the entire race,” Johaug told NRK.no.
The diminutive Norwegian superstar essentially maintained the eight second margin she earned in the initial 1.6 kilometes. She finished the course in 26:16.7, 8.9 seconds ahead of Kowalczyk.
Pacing in Davos was a tricky proposition. Situated at 5,120 feet above sea level, the altitude of the venue accentuates the difficulties of a deceptive course. Though it lacks the monster climbs that are a hallmark of a World Cup course profile, it is relentless and technically demanding. There’s always a danger of going out too hard and never recovering.
Johaug wasn’t certain whether her aggressive start would backfire, saying, “I started hard and I was not sure if I did not ski too fast.”
Oddly enough, the tiny Norwegian superstar credits her performance in part to her technical abilities.
“I gained some time in the downhill sections,” she said.
In the final analysis Johaug’s pacing strategy and preparations in Seiser Alm were enough not just for the win, but for praise from Kowalczyk, who is not usually one to shower compliments on her rivals.
“She (Johaug) was fantastic,” Kowalczyk said to NRK.no. “Therese and Marit will be my two biggest challengers at World Championships.”
Kowalcyzk’s second-place finish underscores her impressive recovery after a dismal showing two weeks ago in Sochi, Russia. After claiming a comfortable victory yesterday against Bjørgen, Justyna notched another impressive result in her weakest discipline — skating.
“Before today’s competition I did not know if I would start in the 10 k free in Val di Fiemme, but after today I seem to not have other option,” Kowalcyzk told FIS. “I have skied one of my best competitions in free technique in my life.”
Clearly, her world championship form has arrived.
Apart from the return of Kowalczyk’s imposing form, Steira’s impressive run was another notable outcome of the 10 k. The omission of Bjørgen left a gaping hole to be filled at the top and Steira rose to the challenge.
Altitude pacing was central to Steira’s race, she said.
“At such a high altitude it is easy to go out too hard so I wanted to start carefully and then speed up and keep the pace,” she told FIS.
Steira couldn’t match her teammate’s vicious acceleration in the first 1.6km. She was 8.7 seconds behind Johaug at the first intermediate split but maintained a strong tempo and only conceded 4.5 seconds to Kowalczyk over the duration of 10 k.
Taken together with her win two weeks ago in Sochi, Russia, Steira’s recent run of form gives her confidence for a podium position at world championships.
“I am in good shape and I hope for a medal in Val di Fiemme,” she concludes. “It was a good confirmation, because I was nervous and excited before the start of today’s race after my prior training at altitude.”
Given Steira’s performance, team Norway was the winner of the day, proving they can deliver top results with Bjørgen.
“That was two solid runs by Johaug and Steira,” Egil Kristiansen reiterated. “It shows that we can win even if the assumed strongest of us [Bjørgen] doesn’t show.”
Tucked in just 4.4 seconds behind Steira in 4th position was Emma Wiken of Sweden, whom bested her high profile teammate Charlotte Kalla by 1.6 seconds.
Wiken, 23, is an relative newcomer to the World Cup circuit; today’s performance marks a personal best for her and a boon to team Sweden and they head to Val di Fiemme.
With the conclusion to Sunday’s races in Davos the stage is set, and the final dress rehearsal before world championships is over.