In the opening distance race of the World Cup season, Therese Johaug of Norway dominated from the start and walked away with her first-ever World Cup win in a 10-kilometer classic.
From the moment Johaug, 26, set out on the course during Sunday’s race in Kuusamo, Finland, it was clear that the rest of the women’s field would be racing for second. Even the ever-dominant Marit Bjørgen of Norway, who was coming off a win in the 1.4 k classic sprint the day before, knew that Johaug was going to win.
“I knew after four kilometers that Therese was 25 seconds ahead and I understood I would be fighting for second place,” Bjørgen told FIS after finishing second, 42.2 seconds back from Johaug, who won in 25:47.2. “I was pushing as much as I could to take second place.”
A two-time winner of the Kuusamo 10 k classic in 2005 and 2007 (the last time it was held was 2008), Bjørgen, who started last of 77 women, appeared to ski a very controlled-and-tactical race. She passed through the 3.1 k checkpoint in fourth behind Johaug in the lead, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk in second, and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in third.
At each subsequent time check, Bjørgen moved up in the rankings. She was in third at the halfway point and slid into second by 8.1 k, but only by a razor-thin margin of one-tenth of a second over eventual third-place finisher Kalla (+44.1).
Rounding the final bend, Bjørgen put in a hard kick and barely bested Kalla, finishing 1.9 seconds ahead of the her.
Bjørgen was the overall victor in last year’s “Ruka Triple” in Kuusamo. This year, there were just two races — both of which counted for full World Cup points. Bjørgen’s win on Saturday put her in the overall World Cup leader’s bib for 2014/2015, and she remained 70 points ahead of Johaug after Sunday.
Last year, a 5 k classic was held on Day 2, when Kowalczyk took the win, Bjørgen placed second and Johaug finished third.
On Sunday, Kowalczyk was consistently in second for the first half of the race. However, by 8.1 k, she had faded and slipped to fourth where she would ultimately finish.
“I thought that the gap will be more… It hurt, but it’s a good position [for the start of the season],” she wrote in on Facebook, according to a translation.
“I knew after four kilometers that … I would be fighting for second place.” — Marit Bjørgen, 2nd in Sunday’s 10 k classic after Norwegian teammate Therese Johaug
Knowing Johaug and how pumped she was about Sunday’s 10 k, Norwegian Woman’s Head Coach Egil Kristiansen worried she might start too hard.
“I noticed that she was very excited after Saturday’s sprint … I was almost afraid that she would open too hard,” Kristiansen told Langrenn.com, according to a translation. “The skis were good, technique set and everything was correct. I cannot remember the last [time] there was such a victory margin. A fantastic race.”
“I am really happy now because this is my first victory in [a 10 k] classic,” Johaug told FIS afterward. “I’ve never been to the top of the podium in this race [until] today.”
Approaching the finish, Johaug appeared fatigued, but continued to attack until the end. About a meter before the finish, she pumped her right fist into the air and let out a scream before collapsing her hands to her knees after the finish. She had essentially just won it — even with Bjørgen — still on course, she gave herself the liberty of a small celebration as her foot crossed the line.
“I think I’ve never been so good classical ever, especially in kick-double-pole,” Johaug told NRK. “I heard 20 seconds, then 30 and 40 … ‘This is your victory,’ I told myself.”
Kalla, who did not compete in Saturday’s sprint race but swept three FIS races in Bruksvallarna the weekend before, had a stellar performance, nearly holding off Bjørgen. She told FIS after the race that she spent a lot of time working on her classic technique.
“I am very satisfied with the third place,” Kalla said. “I felt very good last week at the national opening and I’m glad I could keep the good shape to Ruka. I tried to do my very best today.”
Kristiansen had some praise for the 27-year-old Swede: “Charlotte’s strong and we knew in advance,” he told Espressen.se. “It’s good for us that we have two ahead of her.”
Norway took three of the top five, with Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in fifth, putting her third in the overall World Cup standings. Russia’s Yulia Tchekaleva finished sixth, Krista Parmakoski was the top Finnish woman in seventh, Norway’s Heidi Weng was eighth, Austria’s Katerina Smutna ninth, and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen 10th.
With the opening weekend behind the World Cup athletes, they will move onto Lillehammer, Norway, for a three-day series next weekend, including freestyle sprints on Friday, 5/10 k freestyle races on Saturday, and 10/15 k classic pursuits on Sunday.