The image of Justyna Kowalczyk putting her head down and seemingly effortlessly striding away in a classic race – leaps and bounds faster than her competition is one that’s frequently on replay throughout a given World Cup season.
Insert dominating performance here, another win there.
But Saturday’s 10-kilometer classic individual start in Lillehammer, Norway, had a unique twist and extra-special incentive for Kowalczyk to go fast. The Olympic and two-time world champion from Poland had never won a distance race in Norway, the home of her fiercest rivals.
A six-time runner-up there, Kowalczyk put that task to rest at the second World Cup stop of the season, winning the 10 k by 12.4 seconds over Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in 24:59.4. Marit Bjørgen led the Norwegians in third, 25.6 seconds back from Kowalczyk, coming within 3 ½ seconds of Kowalczyk within the first kilometer of the hilly race.
But no one really threatened the winner, who led from start to finish after heading out 61st of 71 racers. Bjørgen was the last to start, and Norway’s fourth-place finisher Therese Johaug went out hard in bib 69 to come within two seconds of Kowalczyk at the 0.8 k checkpoint.
Just over a kilometer later, Kalla was closest – 6.1 seconds back – and Johaug and Bjørgen were down to Kowalczyk by 11 and 12 seconds, respectively.
Kowalczyk never let up for her third victory in four World Cup races this season. She is currently third in the overall World Cup standings after Bjørgen, who won last weekend’s mini tour in Kuusamo, Finland, to score some big points. Kalla finished second in the Kuusamo Ruka Triple and remains 27 points ahead of Kowalczyk overall.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Kowalczyk told NTB after Saturday’s 10 k, according to a translation. “I had perfect skis and felt very good.”
Starting three minutes behind Kowalczyk, Kalla came within 2.3 seconds of her at the halfway point. By 5.8 k, Kalla was 4.6 seconds back, and Bjørgen was another 14 seconds behind in third.
Considering Kalla’s charge and runner-up finish, Kowalczyk said she was surprised.
“It was a very good race from her,” she told NRK.
Bjørgen joked that she should go to Sweden to train. Kalla has trained with the Norwegian women’s team several times and stayed with Bjørgen in Oslo.
“It was perhaps a little silly that she got to be with us in training,” Bjørgen told NRK. Norwegian coach Egil Kristiansen jokingly interjected that Kalla wouldn’t be invited anymore.
“I’m happy for Charlotte,” Bjørgen added. “I think it’s good for the sport that we have several that are up and fighting at the top.”
Usually first or second (especially in 10 k classics: of the last 18 international races, Kowalczyk has won 12, Bjørgen six), the Norwegian world champion was satisfied with third on Saturday, considering how she felt.
“My body wasn’t there,” Bjørgen told reporters. “I had to fight with myself all the way.”
Knowing she was fighting for third with Johaug, Bjørgen said she pushed harder toward the finish.
“I am hoping for better shape next week,” she added.
Attempting to explain her success to NRK reporters, the 26-year-old Kalla said: “I do not really know. It works just very well now.”
Her training wasn’t much different than years past, except for some more intervals and classic work in the offseason.
“I’ve been really motivated to develop myself,” Kalla said. “I have trained well and trained a lot to improve my classic. It’s something I’ve wanted for several seasons.”
Johaug finished 39 seconds back in fourth, and Russian Yulia Tchekaleva was another 24.1 seconds back in fifth. Heidi Weng of Norway placed sixth (+1:06.8) and Sadie Bjornsen of the US Ski Team tied her career best of seventh (+1:18.3), which she first notched last weekend in the Kuusamo 5 k classic.
The 43rd starter, Bjornsen enjoyed the view from the leader’s chair for about five minutes until Weng bumped her out.
“I was really afraid it wasn’t going to last very long so I’m trying to dress myself so fast, like, ‘I better get in there before I have to get out!’ ” Bjornsen said. “It was really fun. … That just adds another component of excitement, to be able to sit on that chair.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.