Marit Bjørgen is sick. For Norwegians, the news that the 33-year-old team leader had to pull out of the Tour de Ski on Wednesday morning was definitely a bummer; having never won the Tour before, she was missing the opportunity to do so again.
The attention quickly shifted to her teammates, including distance favorite Therese Johaug and Ingvlid Flugstad Østberg, who led the Tour standings through three stages.
But the Norwegians aren’t the only ones in this seven-stage game, and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen was among the “others” seeking a little recognition on Wednesday, New Year’s Day.
In the fourth stage of the Tour, Johaug, Østberg and another Norwegian, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, assembled almost immediately out of the start of the women’s 10-kilometer classic mass start in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Together in red suits at the front of the pack, they were out to send a message. They were setting the pace and controlling this race.
But three laps is a long way.
Before the end of the first loop around 2.4 k, the three led while Sweden’s Hanna Erikson — who notched her first international podium with a freestyle-sprint win in Stage 2 — hung less than a second behind the three in fourth. Another 0.5 seconds back, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen headed up Finland’s trio in fifth, with Niskanen and Anne Kyllönen trailing in sixth and seventh, respectively.
By the end of the first 3.1 k lap, Johaug and Østberg still led, but Saarinen had made her way up to third, 0.7 seconds back and even with Jacobsen. Another 1.3 seconds later, Niskanen came through in fifth, followed by Erikson another half-second back in sixth. The top 10 remained within 6 seconds of one another, but when you’ve got Johaug up front — known to “pop” and drop the field at any time — that’s a lot of time to claw make up on her.
Niskanen remained in contact, even after dropping more than five seconds behind Johaug at 4.6 k, along with Østberg, who fell off the pace slightly as well. With Johaug nearly 2 seconds ahead of Saarinen in second and 3.6 seconds up on Jacobsen in third, it seemed the writing was on the wall: another Johaug win without Bjørgen to make it a little more interesting.
At the sprint preem less than a kilometer later, Niskanen sprung to life. First through the bonus checkpoint at 5.5 k, she put 1.2 seconds into Saarinen and just over two seconds into Jacobsen and Johaug. Norway’s Heidi Weng had moved up to fifth, 3 seconds behind Niskanen, and Østberg was more than six seconds back in sixth.
Whatever was going on behind Niskanen, it didn’t matter. Striding smoothly along the rolling course, with an approximately 500-meter climb in the middle of each lap, Niskanen never relinquished the lead — even with Johaug breathing down her neck with less than 3 k remaining.
She managed to keep the Norwegians at least a full stride and couple meters behind until one pivotal point on the high point of the course at 8.6 k, where the preem was on the second lap. As if it was there again, Niskanen charged up and over the top to break free of Johaug and Saarinen, who were nearly even with her at the time. Jacobsen was right there with them, and Weng lost a little time on the screaming-fast descent toward the stadium.
With one more rise to go, Niskanen was first to the top and used her fast skis with superior glide to gain even more on her ground competitors, all while tucking in the track of her choice. Jacobsen followed and Johaug was right behind her in one of the outside tracks, but Johaug’s drafting tactic ended up impeding her as she came up on Jacobsen and quickly searched for a open track to switch to. Meanwhile, Weng was gaining on the group, including Saarinen, skiing alone in another track.
As the leaders rounded the lefthand turn into the stadium, Niskanen launched into double poling as she tried to fend off Jacobsen and Johaug for one last time. She succeeded, winning in 26:27.4, four-tenths of a second ahead of Jacobsen in second. Johaug took third, another 0.7 seconds back, Weng passed Saarinen for fifth (+1.9) and Saarinen settled for sixth (+2.5).
The third Finn in the top six on Wednesday, Kyllönen placed sixth (+23.9) for her fourth-straight top eight in the Tour. Eva Vrabcova-Nyvltova of the Czech Republic finished seventh (+24.5), Russia’s Olga Kuziukova was eighth (+25.1), Erikson ninth (+25.8) and Østberg edged France’s Aurore Jean in a photo finish for 10th (+29.8).
For Niskanen, 25, the victory was her first stage win — and podium — after she took third in the classic sprint last season at World Cup Finals in Stockholm.
She started to cry “tears of joy” when she crossed the finish line, Niskanen told the Helsingin Sanomat, according to a translation. “Then I thought, ‘It’s useless to cry when this is not so terribly serious.’ ”
With a total of 30 bonus seconds (15 for being the first through 5.5 k, and another 15 for winning), Niskanen improved to third in the overall Tour behind Jacobsen in first and Østberg in second. The frontrunner since winning Tuesday’s sprint, Østberg dropped 35.4 seconds out of the lead and Niskanen stood 36.8 seconds back in third.
Jacobsen was originally going to go home after four stages, but now she’s in it to win it.
“I’ll go to each race as it is the most important ski race,” she said of the remaining three stages, which pick up Friday in Toblach, Italy.
“She’s at least a podium contender,” Norwegian women’s coach Egil Kristiansen told NRK.
Through four stages, Johaug was fourth overall (+44.7) and Saarinen sat in fifth (+54.0), and Kyllönen was sixth (+55.7).
Kyllönen told the Ski Association Bulletin that Weng pushed her “into the wall,” during Wednesday’s 10 k, according to the Sanomat. “I was on the tip … when I fell, and the group escaped,” she said. “There is no TV picture, so making a protest is a pointless waste of energy.”
Germany’s Denise Herrmann ranked seventh overall (+59.3) after placing 20th in the first classic race of the Tour, Weng was eighth (+1:09.4), Erikson ninth (+1:13.2), and Vrabcova-Nyvltova 10th (+1:39.9).
Leading the Americans, Sophie Caldwell was still in the top 20 after placing 33rd (yet Wednesday marked her last race of the Tour), and fellow U.S. Ski Team member Jessie Diggins was 21st (+2:30.2) after placing 32nd. Liz Stephen finished 26th in the first distance race of the Tour to improve to 21st overall (+2:32.0).
As for Bjørgen, she flew back to Norway on Wednesday, but Kristiansen expects her to be up-and-training again in two or three days.
“The most important thing now is that she gets stored up energy and eats well,” Kristiansen told NRK, according to a translation.
Tuesday was a bit much; she raced after struggling to eat breakfast.
“She was not quite [right],” he said. “Normally she is very sharpened and focused towards competition. … It is never positive to be sick, but at the same time plan B might just as well [focus on] the Olympics. We talked about how important it was that she forgot that and started with a clean slate. We are done with what happened.”
Bjørgen’s righthand rival and close teammate, Johaug said she was “very sorry” to hear the news.
“I told her that [there’s a] more important ski race this year. The Olympics is the main goal,” Johaug told NRK. “The most important thing now was that she came home. There are new opportunities.”
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.