Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk remained unbeaten in the classic technique this season, skiing to an uncontested win in the World Cup sprint in Asiago, Italy.
Anne Kyllönen of Finland finished second with Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla in third.
The day, however, was all about Kowalczyk. She qualified second, and was never seriously threatened as she romped through the heats.
Through four classic races, including two sprints, Kowalczyk remains unbeaten and is showing top form early in the season.
The defending World Cup overall champion, Kowalczyk has traditionally started the season slowly, training hard into the early part of the competition schedule. Thus far, however, she has held nothing back, and is establishing herself as the favorite in the classic events entering the Olympics.
After Katja Visnar of Slovenia skied a faster qualification, Kowalczyk served notice in the first quarterfinal that she would be taking no prisoners.
German Hanna Kolb tried her best to hang with the Pole on the first climb, but by the top had succumbed to the furious pace and dropped back to the pack. On the gradual terrain, a resurgent Aino Kaisa Saarinen of Finland pulled the group back up, but Kowalczyk easily accelerated away in the homestretch.
The semis were similar, with another German attempting to keep pace. Denise Herrmann, off to a strong start this season, tailed Kowalczyk, along with Norway’s Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes.
Kowalczyk was unable to get free, but was clearly in command at the front. She pulled away in the homestretch, leaving Gjeitnes in second and Herrmann content to advance to the finals as a lucky loser.
Falla won her quarterfinal going away while Kyllönen duked it out with Britta Norgren Johansson of Sweden.
Norgren Johansson was one of just several women to double pole the course on skate skis. The strategy worked initially as she edged out Kyllönen.
The two matched up again in the semis, this time with Falla as well. Visnar, who had also double poled the quarterfinals, was on classic gear, but struggled to maintain the pace and was quickly off the back.
Falla took the lead early and set a fast pace with Kyllönen on her heels. The pair pulled away from the field while Norgren Johansson looked to make up ground. She had dropped back on the early climbs, but as the terrain flattened, her superior ski speed came into play, and by the homestretch she had closed up on Switzerland Laurien Van der Graaff, powering by to take third, and a lucky loser spot in the last round.
The finals featured little drama. Falla and Kyllönen tried to change things up, breaking in front early and leaving Kowalczyk in third. The pace was furious, but the pair couldn’t create space, and Kowalzcyk took the lead by the end of the first climb.
The Norwegian and Finn battled gamely, maintaining contact with the unstoppable force that was Kowalzcyk, but had little hope of overcoming her.
By the end Kowalczyk was well clear in first, Kyllönen by herself in second, and Falla alone in third.
Norgren Johansson doubled poled again, powering to fourth place ahead of Herrmann and Gjeitnes.
Falla, who finished in the top-6 in the Sprint Cup standings the last three years, earned her first podium of the season. Kyllönen also stepped on the podium for the first time in 2014.
Kowalczyk took over the red Sprint Cup leaders bib from American Kikkan Randall. Randall was eliminated in the quarterfinals and placed twentieth. Kowalczyk leads the sprint rankings with 156 points, eight points ahead of Herrmann and 19 in front of Randall.
Kowalcyk still trails Marit Bjørgen (NOR) by 125 points in the overall World Cup. Bjørgen is skipping the sprint weekend in Italy.
– Norway qualified six women for the heats. The United States and Sweden both advanced four.
– Eight nations were represented in the top 12.
– Caspersen Falla was given a written reprimand for not following the marked course in her quarterfinal.
– Gaia Vuerich was the only Italian to make the heats. She finished 27th.
– Aino Kaisa Saarinin (FIN) finished eighth, matching her season best result. She has not finished with a better place since last year’s Tour de Ski.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.