The Olympics seem a distant memory as 2014 roles into March, and Norwegian Therese Johaug has shifted her sights with the same level of intensity she brings to her high-tempo racing style, to the overall World Cup Title.
Saturday’s World Cup Finals skiathlon in Falun, Sweden demonstrated just how serious she is. Johaug dropped her teammate, the superstar Marit Bjørgen, like she was a rookie off the OPA Cup circuit, to post a 33.8 second victory.
Kerttu Niskanen of Finland used a strong skate leg in the 15 k event to finish third, 25 seconds down on Bjørgen and nine up on another Norwegian, Heidi Weng.
The excitement, however, was at the front, with all observers wondering if Johaug had any chance of building a lead before Sunday’s World Cup Finals pursuit. She entered the day a mere three points ahead of Bjørgen in the overall standings, the lead she built with her Tour de Ski victory dwindling over the last two months.
Johaug has never been one to be intimidated, and the fact the Bjørgen had come out on top in every head-to-head World Cup race since the Tour was irrelevant once the gun sounded and the racers took to a redesigned Falun course.
By 2.2 k the pair had already split the field and while the chase pack remained relatively close through the end of the first 3.75 k classic loop, any hope of another skier cracking the top two was short lived.
Heading into the the second lap, Johaug dropped the hammer, shattering any semblance of a pack, and quickly opening a large gap with Bjørgen locked in on her tails. As the big climbs approached, Johaug appeared to increase the pace yet again, and Bjørgen showed signs of faltering. At first it was just a missed kick here and a slip there. But the writing was on the wall, and on the famous Mördarbacken climb, she lost contact.
Johaug tallied just over eight seconds when the climbing was done, a margin that shrank on the descents to the stadium. Bjørgen was still very much in contention, just five seconds back at the ski exchange.
A sprint finish would not be to Johaug’s advantage however. While she has improved her short distance racing in recent years, showing the speed to advance into the heats, Friday’s classic sprint illustrated the differences between the two women — Bjørgen won the race, while Johaug managed a 17th.
Not only did Johaug want the win today, she needed as many seconds as she could find, trying to create as big a cushion as possible for the final event of the season — the mini tour pursuit that would determine the overall World Cup winner.
Bjørgen looked strong, but amazingly enough, Johaug even stronger, especially on the climbs. Everytime the elder Norwegian closed a little, Johaug would respond, before landing the knockout punch on the big climbs. There was little question a 15 second lead wold suffice, short of a crash or similar disaster.
Such bad luck would spare Johaug, and she had the power left to stage a furious sprint to the line, culminating up the brutal homestretch, a relatively steep pitch to the finish.
By the end she had opened a lead of over 30 seconds. The win gave her just four points more than Bjørgen, but the margin is irrelevant with the crystal globe going to Sunday’s winner. With nine more bonus seconds than Bjørgen in today’s race, Johaug has 15 seconds even for the start of the pursuit, a significant gap in the 10 k freestyle affair.
Niskanen, who is in the process of wrapping up a successful 2014 campaign, is over a minute back of Bjørgen, and is tasked with holding off the extremely dangerous duo of Charlotte Kalla of Sweden and Weng, who start two seconds apart, 18 down on the Finn.
The Americans turned in a strong showing, placing three skiers in the top-21, led by Liz Stephen in 15th. Kikkan Randall was 20th 4.2 seconds ahead of teammate Sadie Bjornsen in 21st. Stephen, unsurprisingly, was brilliant in the skate, skiing up from 34th at the halfway mark. A full report on the Americans will follow.
– Falun is hosting the 2015 World Championships and these World Cup Finals serve as the pre-Championship events.
– Last year the World Cup Finals were the site of significant controversy as athletes threatened to boycott the races due to descents they view as unsafe.
– The NOrwegian women placed five skiers in the top 10.
– Two Swedes are within striking distance of the World Cup Finals podium. Charlotte Kalla in 5th and Emma WIken in 7th will try to please the home crowd.
– Eva Vrabcova-Nyvltovla of the Czech Republic placed ninth, her sixth top-10 result of a breakout 2014 campaign. She had tallied just three top 10’s in her career entering the season.
– Niskanen, who earned two silvers in Sochi — in the the team sprint and 4×5 k relay, earned her third individual podium of the year.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.