Astrid Jacobsen of Norway, the Tour leader in the red bib, won Friday’s 15 k freestyle pursuit race to maintain her lead over teammate Therese Johaug. Leading the race, Jacobsen started with a 44 second advantage over Johaug who was followed 37 seconds later by Kerttu Niskanen of Finland, holder of the black sprint leaders bib.
The course, a 5 kilometer loop that climbed long and gradually out of the stadium through the pine forests outside Toblach, was wide and hard packed, and most of all difficult, with little rest along the way.
For Jacobsen, her hopes of winning the Tour de Ski rested on her ability to maintain her lead over Johaug. With the withdrawal of Marit Bjørgen from the Tour, Johaug, with her impressive climbing ability, has become the favorite to win the 7 stage event.
Behind Johaug came Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland, and Heidi Weng of Norway, 1:09 behind Jacobsen.
Further back, Norway’s Kristin Stoermer Steira led a large group of chasing skiers 2:26 behind Jacobsen. Anna Haag of Sweden was four seconds behind Steira, followed by Jessie Diggins of the U.S. at the same time and her teammate Liz Stephen, two seconds later. Holly Brooks of the US started in 42nd, 3:43 behind Jacobsen.
The race started fast with Jacobsen reaching the first split at 1.8 k in 4:38. By the time Johaug had reached the marker, she had passed Niskanen, and had shaved a second and a half off of Jacobsen’s lead. Ten minutes into the race, as the course began to wind its way out of the forests and back toward the stadium for the second lap, Johaug appeared to have clawed back a further two and half seconds on Jacobsen.
As the skiers passed through the sunny stadium and back into the forest, the split time at 5.7 k confirmed that Johaug was now 39.8 seconds behind Jacobsen. Behind her by 23 seconds was Niskanen, who was close to being caught by her teammate Anne Kyllönen, just five seconds behind.
The course began to climb up the hills and at 6.8 k, Jacobsen’s lead had shrunk a second further, to 38.6 seconds. Behind Johaug, however, Niskanen and Kyllönen, now skiing together, were falling a few more seconds behind the leader’s pace.
The largest chasing pack was led up the climb by Diggins, who was skiing in 11th place ahead of Germany’s Katrin Zeller, Haag, and Stephen. As the climb neared the crest, Steira took the lead from Diggins.
The 10.7 k split confirmed that it was going to be a difficult day for Johaug to make time on Jacobsen. As they skied through the stadium to start their third and final lap, Johaug was 40.5 seconds behind the leader, with Kyllönen and Niskanen slipping back further to 1:21 behind Jacobsen.
The large chasing group that Stephen led into the stadium was taken over once again by Steira on the climb, with Sweden’s Sara Lindborg and Diggins chasing.
11.8 k into the pursuit found Johaug, battling hard, losing time on Jacobsen, who now led by 42.2 seconds.
Steira came through in 10th place with Stephen close on her skis and six other skiers following. Diggins was three places behind Stephen and trailing by six seconds.
In the final kilometers, Johaug skied aggressively. It appeared to be paying off some 1.5 kilometers before the finish where her splits indicated that she was 34.6 seconds behind. Jacobsen, however, had a strong finish, and she briefly raised her arms in celebration after she crossed the finish line before immediately collapsing. Her effort had paid off; Johaug completed her race 38.7 seconds later, and with Jacobsen’s hard won bonus seconds, she finished the day with a lead of 43.7 seconds.
Kyllönen was third and Lindborg, skiing the fastest time of the day in 37:16, moved from 24th to 10th. The race for 11th was close between Stephen and Steira, with the Norwegian just edging out Stephen by four tenths of a second. Diggins was next, in 13th, 3.3 seconds behind Stephen.
Jacobsen, speaking to FIS after the race said, “It was a tough competition. I was little bit tired after the first lap; the course is quite hard in Toblach. I was happy there was a feeding station. I felt better in second half of the race. I am happy that my shape has been so good. It is a good sign for the Games, which are the biggest goal for me. I still think that Therese (Johaug) is the biggest favorite for the overall victory in the Tour de Ski. She has been always very strong on the Final Climb.”
Jacobsen told Norwegian Newspaper Dagbladet that she did not anticipate still being at the Tour, let alone contending for the title. “I was only going down to a couple of classic races, and then going home” she said of her Tour plan. “I have just brought a racing Suit and warmup suit, so I had to wash some clothes yesterday” she said, smiling.
Last year Jacobsen lost a minute and a half to Johaug on the final climb up the Alpe Cermis. “That, I choose not to think anything about. I lost 1:30 last year, an advantage I am guaranteed not to get this year. If I do go out first on Sunday, I will be only be thinking that I want her to get going fast to catch up.”
Johaug for her part is hungry to recover some more time in tomorrow’s 5 k classic race. “I feel I have a good chance before the final weekend” she told Dagbladet, “But it’s a race tomorrow where there is the opportunity to both retrieve and lose seconds. It is very difficult to say how close I have to be to have a chance, but if I manage to keep under a minute, I might have some opportunities.”
It was a great day for Finland as well, with four women in the top 10. Kyllönen told Finnish newspaper Helsingen Sanomat, “It is always great to be among the three, and, above all, to get success.” Kyllönen is in third place overall, 1:22 behind Jacobsen. Of her chances of winning the Tour she said, “If they [Jacobsen and Johaug] stay healthy, they are difficult to be overcome, but the game is still open.”
The Tour continues to thin out as skiers leave to rest and train ahead of the Sochi Olympics in February. Notable withdrawals ahead of stage 5 included Østberg, Herrmann, Hanna Erikson (SWE), Sophie Caldwell (USA), Vibeke Skofterud (NOR) and Daria Gaiazova (CAN).
The Tour de Ski continues on Saturday with a 5 k classic race.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.