DAVOS, Switzerland — Anyone who remembers Therese Johaug’s World Cup debut probably remembers knowing that she was going to be good.
But sometime in her first few years on the circuit, Johaug earned a reputation as a skating specialist. While she was surely excellent in the freestyle technique, perhaps that has also been something of a fallacy – her first World Championships appearance came in 2007 in Sapporo, Japan, where she finished third in the 20 k classic, the second Norwegian.
Regardless of whether the question “will Therese Johaug ever excel in classic” was ever a fair one, this season she has proved that the answer is definitely “yes.” On Saturday, she took her second-straight victory in a 10-kilometer classic World Cup – three if you count the ski times from last week’s pursuit race in Lillehammer, Norway, where she had the fastest split time but lost a sprint finish for the win against earlier-starting Marit Bjørgen.
After Saturday’s race, she laughed in a press-conference when asked whether this was her new favorite race format.
“I think so,” Johaug said. “It has been really good this season. As I said in Kuusamo, that was my first victory. Now I have a second victory in classic. I think I have taken a big step in this. I’m really happy. I feel also that my technique is really good, and my shape is also really good. So it’s fun to race.”
Johaug, the 58th of 60 starters, led from start to finish. Teammate Bjørgen, the last of those starters, had information about Johaug’s splits, but could never catch her. After two kilometers she was within a second and a half of Johaug, but by the finish she was 42.5 seconds back. It was a big gap, but Bjørgen still had second place locked up.
“I lost lots of seconds from Therese on the top [of the course] to the bottom,” Bjørgen said. “I’m not so very happy with that.”
With barely any snow at the venue or in the town of Davos, the course has been constructed largely in the last week with snow blown up on the nearby Flüela Pass and then trucked down. Although she lost time on the downhills, Bjørgen said that they were in better shape than they had been the previous day.
“Therese is really strong and she is in good shape,” she said. “Her technique is perfect today.”
Johaug agreed, but said that it still wasn’t as perfect a race for her as her opening victory in Kuusamo.
“Here is a lot of double pole and it’s more flat here than in Kuusamo,” she explained, which doesn’t fit as well with her climbing expertise.
Bjørgen still holds the yellow bib of the overall World Cup leader, and will race in the freestyle sprint on Sunday to try to extend her lead.
“Of course I will race tomorrow,” she said. “I have to try to get some more points there. I have done very good sprints this year, so I’m looking forward tomorrow.”
Johaug will also compete in the sprint, but she has no illusions of being able to beat her teammate there.
“I will try to sprint,” she laughed. “I’m not planning on sitting here tomorrow! It’s really good training for me, with high speed.”
Kerttu Niskanen of Finland finished third, 16 seconds behind Bjørgen. After Norway-only podiums in all of last weekend’s mini-tour competitions, it was refreshing to see a new face on the podium.
Niskanen, always a top talent for Finland, hadn’t had a top result so far this season. Her previous best was ninth in the Lillehammer mini tour. But she had watched her younger brother Iivo win his first World Cup in Kuusamo in the beginning of the season, and that might have boosted her confidence.
“I’m happy that Iivo and me can make good results,” she said. “I enjoy it a lot when my brother can make good results. It’s important when Iivo, for example the victory in Kuusamo, I was so, so happy. It’s nice that we both can do it.”
Her strategy on the tough Davos course was to go faster and faster as the race progressed. She succeeded, moving from seventh place after two kilometers to fifth, then fourth, and finally third.
“I tried to make my best,” she said. “I started, I think I tried to start at an easy speed and then tried to make it harder and harder. But I think that I didn’t make any big spurts in the second lap. I’m really happy that I’m number three. I like so much Davos. This track is really, really nice.”
For the men’s 15 k classic coming up later on Saturday, she had one wish.
“I hope that Iivo can make better results than me,” she laughed.
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland was skiing in third place for almost the entire race, but lost a lot of time in the final two kilometers. The stadium announcer speculated that she might have crashed, but it seems that she simply ran out of steam – already at 7.8 k, she was maintaining her place but her lead on fourth was slipping. The accelerations by the rest of the field couldn’t be matched and Kowalczyk, usually a favorite in classic races, finished seventh.
Instead of the world champion and Olympic gold medalist, it was the Swedes who earned the next spots after Niskanen. Anna Haag and Sofia Bleckur finished fourth and fifth, a welcome supplement to Charlotte Kalla’s usual antics (she finished 15th today, unable to lead her team).
“After all those years when it has not been so fun, it means more than you think,” Haag told Swedish newspaper Expressen, according to a translation. “I always make sure that I’m optimistic and positive. Before each competition I think, oh, I might win. Even if I maybe know it’s not possible. In this way, maybe the disappointments are harder when you’re positive.”
Liz Stephen led the U.S. with a season-best 20th, and Emily Nishikawa as the only Canadian starter tallied a career-best 29th. Stay tuned for more reporting.
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Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.