DAVOS, Switzerland – About 40 meters into today’s 15 k freestyle interval start competition, Marit Bjørgen of Norway almost had a problem.
The course, which started out heading into the center of the stadium before immediately pulling a 180-degree turn, had been causing a fair bit of consternation to the field. Up until Bjørgen, who was the last starter by virtue of her yellow overall World Cup leader’s bib, women had been taking it with varying strategies: go wide. Cut close. Start off fast then cut speed coming into the corner. Or don’t even bother to start quickly – just accelerate once rounding the turn.
Bjørgen, though, was one of the few who bobbled. But it didn’t cost her anything, and she went on to win the race by 13 seconds. It was the 61st World Cup victory of her career.
“It’s nice and I like the track,” she said of the course where she has won three World Cup competitions before. “I have always done well here in Davos.”
But 39 1/2 minutes into the women’s 15 k freestyle interval start competition, it was teammate Therese Johaug was the one to put the crowd on notice.
The race had been proceeding as individual start competitions usually do. Barbara Jezersek of Slovenia posted a fast early time at the four-kilometer checkpoint, and then, one by one, seconds were chopped off of it. A second here, two there, as later starters started filing through.
But when Johaug, in bib 56, hit that checkpoint, she wasn’t shaving off seconds. It was more like using a battering ram. Norwegian teammate Kristin Størmer Steira had been in the lead, but Johaug carved more than 30 seconds out of her time.
The race had changed.
A few bibs later, two women proved that while they couldn’t catch Johaug, they could certainly try – and had a better shot than anyone else. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, the World Cup distance leader coming into today’s race, and Bjørgen both came within 10 seconds of the diminutive Johaug.
And then they came closer. And closer. Finally, with less than 5 kilometers to the finish, Bjørgen seemed to hit her stride and finally surpassed Johaug’s time. From there, the race was over – Johaug was the winner no more. By the time Bjørgen crossed the finish line, she had put 13 seconds into her teammate.
“Today I was doing my own race – I was 8 or 10 seconds behind Therese after some, and then I was two seconds in front and I thought, this is possible, because there’s only downhill left and that’s my best,” Bjørgen said. “So it was great, and I’m happy to be here and happy to have a good race.”
Despite the fact that victory seemed to be within her grasp, Johaug was gracious when she gave the leader’s chair up to her teammate.
“Marit was great today and faster than me,” she said. “I tried everything possible but after the 12 km I felt empty and my legs were heavy. I am satisfied with the second place.”
It was revenge for the Norwegian women, who were bested by Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland and by Kalla last weekend in the 10 k classic in Lillehammer, Norway. Today, Kalla skied strong on for third, and actually caught Kowalczyk, who had started a minute ahead of her. Kowalczyk is not a strong skater, but that’s still a feat.
“I tried to keep high speed from the beginning,” Kalla said. “In the second lap it was quite hard because of the altitude, but I am very satisfied with the first part of the World Cup. I have had a great feeling and I hope I can take it with me towards the Olympics.”
Steira hung on for fourth, and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Heidi Weng placed eighth and ninth, giving the Norwegian women half the top ten. That’s part of their strength, according to Johaug.
“I am happy with the work we did during the off-season,” she said. “All the hard workouts with Marit paid off. We were pushing each other to be better.”
At 1,500 meters above sea level (5,000 feet) and with plenty of climbs, pacing was not easy for anyone in the field.
“At this height it doesn’t take much to make things really difficult,” Kalla told the Swedish daily Expressen. “I really struggled mentally and technically to hold it together.”
The winner agreed – and that’s why she didn’t worry when she wasn’t in the lead right away.
“You have to go on your limit,” Bjørgen said. “If you go over your limit your legs will not be good.”
Now, Bjørgen is looking forward to tomorrow’s sprint, an event she last won in 2011.
“I hope I have a good feeling tomorrow and I am recovered after today,” she said. “I think it will be a nice race.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.