It seemed inevitable for most of the Tour, but it is now official: Norway’s Marit Bjørgen has her first-ever Tour de Ski title after Sunday’s 9 k freestyle pursuit in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Going into the final stage, there was not much drama over who would come out on top; Bjørgen started the day with a lead of 2:11.2 over fellow Norwegian Heidi Weng and 2:50.3 over defending champion Therese Johaug, also of Norway. She would not let her teammates get anywhere near her, crossing the line in a time of 33:27.5.
“It is a big victory for me. To win the FIS Tour de Ski has been a goal for me for a long time. It took me nine years to achieve it,” Bjørgen said to FIS.
The 34-year-old also described it as “an amazing feeling” to share the experience with her teammates.
“They mean a lot [to] me. They motivate me and they push me in training every day,” she said.
Stage-six winner Johaug completed the notoriously difficult course with the fastest time of the day (32:16.4) and finished 1:39.2 behind Bjørgen. Weng started the day in in front of Johaug but took third (+1:59.5), unable to maintain Johaug’s furious pace despite posting the second-fastest time of the day (33:15.8).
“Everyone hates the final climb, but I love it,” Johaug told FIS.
The 26-year-old said she knew she was out of the competition for first overall before the stages in Toblach, Italy, and was satisfied with second place and her performance in the final two stages in Val di Fiemme.
Weng told FIS she feels she put together her best races ever at this point in the season, and that it was “absolutely unbelievable” to be on the podium after every stage of the Tour.
It is the second consecutive year that Norwegian women have swept the top three places on the overall Tour standings.
American Liz Stephen – who took seventh in the 2014 Tour and was the only North American skier left in the field – started the day in sixth but managed to climb into the fourth position in front of Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who did not finish, and Norway’s Ragnhild Haga.
Stephen said in a phone interview, “I knew there were a few girls right behind me, and we skied the flats together. The girls actually pulled me along for that whole flat section, so I was able to hang in and conserve my energy.”
However, Haga would reclaim the lead over Stephen in the final kilometer.
“[Liz was] perhaps was a bit too aggressive in her approach to the climb. She caught them [Haga and Kowalcyzk] very quickly but then skied the middle section of the hill under extreme fatigue,” wrote USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb in an email.
“I think Ragnhild skied such a strong race and I just made up a little too much time too quickly on her,” Stephen said.
The 27-year-old stayed just behind Haga throughout the steep pitch before the finish, and for a moment it looked like Stephen was going to catch her, Whitcomb wrote.
But with about 100 m to go, it was clear that Haga had more energy to spare than Stephen. Haga crossed the line 7:32.2 behind Bjørgen to complete a Norwegian sweep of the top four.
“It’s hard to lose a battle like that, but it was Marit who greeted Liz first at the finish. That takes the edge away,” Whitcomb explained.
Stephen said she was happy with the way she was able to stay with Haga and fight to the end, the product of “a lot of mental work and confidence building” throughout the season.
“A lot of times once somebody goes by it’s over … I really tried to latch on and actually make another move towards the finish,” she said.
Stephen finished the Tour in fifth (+7:41.8), which is the best result ever for an American in the Tour de Ski. She also posted the fourth-fastest time of the day in 33:29.9, which was just 2.4 seconds slower than Bjørgen’s time. She is now 11th overall in the World Cup standings.
Whitcomb wrote that Stephen set a goal last summer to finish in the top five in the Tour.
“Watching an athlete accomplish a top-tier goal like that is really satisfying and we are all very proud of her ability to prepare and execute,” he wrote.
“I’m working really hard on having the confidence to ski with the big dogs and know that I belong there,” Stephen said. “I guess I’m really happy to prove it to myself that I can be there.”
Though Stephen was happy with her individual result, she said “it takes a team” and that she could not have accomplished what she did without the seven other Americans sticking by her throughout the final stages.
Meanwhile, four-time Tour champion Kowalczyk apparently fainted about 900 m before the finish and was taken away in an ambulance, according to Eurosport.com. She was already having a difficult race, having fallen to ninth after 8.1 k.
Not much is known about her condition at this point, though reportedly after two hours in the hospital she was feeling better.
Eva Vrabcova-Nyvltova of the Czech Republic finished in sixth (+8:29.4), while Germans Nicole Fessel and Diane Herrmann captured seventh (+8:55.8) and eighth (+9:35.1), respectively.
Bjørgen continues to top the World Cup standings with 1588 points, expanding her lead after earning 400 points for her Tour victory. Johaug sits in second (1138), Weng is in third (1017), while Haga is far back in fourth (632). Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, a Norwegian who left the Tour after stage four, rounds out the top five (609).