Marit Bjørgen appeared a little surprised with herself at the finish of Saturday’s World Cup opener. A classic-sprint win in the first race of the season? Sure, she was the 2010 Olympic champ in that event, but the 34-year-old Norwegian had barely warmed up into racing, and last year, she placed 13th in the Kuusamo classic sprint after qualifying first. Either way, she’d take it.
“I am grateful to win today,” she told FIS after the race. “It’s still a sprint and to take the victory, I’m really happy for that. We had very good skis today, the Norwegian girls.”
That was a bit of an understatement. The Norwegians across the board had rocket skis on a just-below-freezing morning and afternoon: “Norway hit the wax out of the park,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said. “But we saw every team have everything from great kick to really slippery to icing a ton to just damage control in all three of those categories.”
Case in point: the 1.4-kilometer women’s final, in which three Norwegians — Bjørgen, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, and Maiken Caspersen Falla — led the charge early on.
Slovenia’s Katja Visnar kept herself in the mix up front, but she was the exception.
Østberg, the fastest qualifier by 2.9 seconds over teammate Celine Brun-Lie and four more Norwegians (Bjørgen, Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, Falla, and Heidi Weng) in third through sixth, led both her quarterfinal and semifinal aggressively out of the start and held her own in first through the finish.
The 24-year-old Østberg tried it once more for the final, with Visnar sticking close and Bjørgen just a couple meters back in third, ahead of Falla. Meanwhile, American Ida Sargent in her first classic-sprint final kept in contact at the back with Russia’s Natalia Matveeva.
Bjørgen squeezed in front of Visnar on the lefthand turn at the top of the first major hill (one of two), and Sargent moved to fifth.
By the end of the 25-second downhill on the other side, Bjørgen was up to first several meters ahead of Østberg. Visnar began to close on the second Norwegian, challenging both Østberg and Bjørgen into the long, final climb — one of the steepest on the circuit — back up to the stadium.
Østberg found the grip she needed and came back even with Bjørgen over the top, but got hung up on her iced-over skis shortly after, allowing Bjørgen, Visnar and Falla to overtake her.
It looked like Bjørgen never glanced back. She continued to keep a ski length between her and Visnar and double poled powerfully around the final turn toward the finish. With Visnar inching closer with each push, Bjørgen held her off until the finish, throwing up her arms immediately upon crossing the red line.
“I am really happy that I kept the young girls behind me,” she told FIS. “I am in good shape at the beginning of the season after the hard training I have done. I was training a lot in November.”
Bjørgen edged Visnar by 0.46 seconds in 2:58.33. Falla took third, 1.7 seconds after Bjørgen, and Østberg settled for fourth, another 1.3 seconds back. Sargent finished fifth (+5.95) for a World Cup career best, and Matveeva was sixth (+12.37).
It was Bjørgen’s fifth podium in the Ruka classic sprint, putting her on par with Slovenian legend Petra Majdič.
Interestingly, Visnar has placed second in four World Cup races — all of which took place in either Finland or Russia, according to FIS.
Eurosport announcers observed that Bjørgen was gasping for air on the final climb — two meters longer than last year because of the way it was tracked.
“It was a difficult race, but we had very good skiing,” Bjørgen said after her 67th World Cup win (83 if you include stages).
This year, the Kuusamo classic sprint was not a stage because the venue is hosting two races Saturday and Sunday as opposed to three (known as the Ruka Triple). Therefore, the race counted toward full World Cup points.
That was good news for Bjørgen, who’s won the overall World Cup three times (in 2012, 2006, and 2005).
In addition to ideal skis, Bjørgen paced her quarterfinal and semi to near-perfection on Kuusamo’s notoriously challenging course. She won her quarterfinal by 0.23 seconds over Matveeva and 0.45 seconds ahead of another Russian, Anastasia Dotsenko. In her semifinal, she topped Matveeva once again (this time by 1.14 seconds) and bumped Polish rival Justyna Kowalczyk to third, 1.51 seconds behind.
Their semifinal was three seconds slower than the first (in which Østberg beat Visnar by one-tenth of a second and Falla by 1 second), which kept Kowalczyk from advancing to the final as a lucky loser.
Sargent, who was fourth in Østberg’s semi (3.23 seconds back), moved on instead along with Falla, the 2014 skate-sprint Olympic gold medalist.
“I was pretty excited because I have only been in one final before and haven’t ever been in a classic final,” Sargent said. “I was just psyched to have one opportunity and see what I could do.”
Østberg was slightly disappointed with her result after never having lost the lead all day until the final.
“It was really a very good day, but what happened at the end was dull,” she told NRK, according to a translation. “I got a little icing under the skis and it’s a shame when you feel so good.”
Visnar, who advanced in second in both her quarterfinal and semi, was just as excited at Bjørgen at the finish — also pumping her arms and joining her on the victory lap in front of Kuusamo’s filled stadium.
“My training works, and it has brought me to where I am,” Visnar told FIS. “I have been training distance more and I am not so tired in the heats as I was before. Now when I have a good day I believe I can make it to the final. The final was fast. I had great skis and grip in the uphill. I felt strong in double poling to the finish line.”
The three Norwegian women all congratulated her afterward.
Falla won her quarterfinal with the fastest quarterfinal time of the day in 2:58.48.
“I am happy about third place today,” she told FIS after achieving her 16th World Cup podium. “It is a good start to the season.”
The biggest shakeup was the absence of Kowalczyk in the final. She was second in her quarterfinal behind Falla, and third in her semifinal. Opting for more kick than most, Kowalczyk had no problem running up the last hill and holding off Bjørgen and Brun-Lie initially for first in their semi — until she tripped over the top.
Brun-Lie lost second around the final corner and Kowalczyk made up as much as she could, double poling to third behind Bjørgen and Matveeva.
According to Infostrada Sports, 15 of the last 17 classic sprints in the World Cup or World Championships belong to either Bjørgen or Kowalczyk.
Kowalczyk ended up seventh on the day after winning the Kuusamo classic sprint last year (when Kikkan Randall was second and Bjørgen was 13th). On Saturday, Randall missed out on the semifinals and settled for 16th overall.
Already in the first race of the season, reporters asked Bjørgen about her prospects for 2015 World Championships in February.
“As long as the trails are like here it’ll go well,” Bjørgen told Aftenposten. “I like trails of length, and I think that there may be opportunities in the sprint course in Falun.”
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.