Marit Bjørgen won the women’s 3.3-kilometer Tour de Ski prologue in Oberstdorf, Germany, on Saturday with an impressive 10.7-second margin down to Norwegian teammate Heidi Weng in second place.
The Norwegian women did as they have for most of the season: they split the podium and then some. The top four spots went to the Norwegians, with Bjørgen, Weng, Ragnhild Haga and Therese Johuag. Then Germany’s Nicole Fessel squeezed herself into fifth place, followed by Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in sixth place. Sadie Bjornsen and Liz Stephen both delivered impressive top-10 finishes, placing seventh and eighth, respectively.
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland was 10th in the prologue after snowplowing herself out of the podium contention. Although Kowalczyk has a large disadvantage after the prologue, she is definitely not out of the competition, as classic is her strength and the prologue was skate. Kowalczyk has won the overall Tour de Ski four times, has 14 stage wins, and is the most-winning female skier in Tour de Ski history.
Bjørgen has won 29 Olympic and World Championship medals, but has yet to win Tour de Ski overall. Saturday was a good start. She skied confidently, making time on her competitors on descents, accelerating through the dreaded turns, and carrying her speed over the bumps. The star cruised into her seventh Tour de Ski stage win with a good buffer to her competitors.
“I tried to hold back a little on the first lap, and then ski harder on the second lap, which I managed to do as planned,” Bjørgen said to Norwegian TV station NRK after the race.
Heidi Weng couldn’t contain her excitement for her own second place, which is her best World Cup finish to date.
“I’ve never skied this well in a skate race,” Weng said to NRK after the prologue. “I don’t understand what’s happening with my skating. I’ve done three World Cup skate races and I’ve been on the podium three times. And I get to start ahead of Therese [Johaug] tomorrow. That’s really good, then I will try to hang onto her for as long as I can in the pursuit. It’s a dream start for my Tour de Ski.”
“I felt like I skied slow,” she continued, marveling that the opposite was true. “The plan was to start slower and speed up on the second lap, but I got so stiff on the first lap, so when I got to the big hill on the second lap, I could just think about digging, digging, digging to get to the top and then not crash on the downhill.”
But just as much as Weng is happy about her own finish, she’s stoked about teammate Ragnhild Haga, who delivered her first ever World Cup podium finish. Haga was only 2 seconds behind Weng, and a second faster than Therese Johaug in fourth place. For Haga, the podium was not something she expected.
“I surprised myself today,” she told NRK. “I’ve surprised myself a lot this season. Just getting to the Tour de Ski is a bonus.”
However, while Haga is more than satisfied with her third place, she didn’t feel great during the race.
“I didn’t feel so good after the start, I felt a little slow on the first lap, and I was very stiff on the last lap,” Haga said, noting that this result means a lot to her.
With five bonus seconds awarded for first place in the prologue and a 10.2-second margin second place, Bjørgen starts 15.7 seconds ahead of Weng, 22.2 seconds ahead of Ragnhild Haga and more than 28 seconds ahead of arch rival Therese Johaug in the 10 k classic pursuit on Sunday, the second of seven Tour de Ski races.
But despite the buffer, Bjørgen is far from sure that she will win the pursuit. 10 k classic is Johaug’s specialty, and 28 seconds may not be enough to keep Johaug behind.
“The big challenge is that tomorrow’s race is a pursuit, and my lead can narrow very quickly,” Bjørgen said. “I have to hope for good conditions and fast skis.”
Looking back at the mini tour in Lillehammer, Norway, in December, it came down to a thriller sprint finish between Bjørgen and Johaug, despite Bjørgen starting the race with a 32-second lead. At the finish, Bjørgen won by 0.6 seconds.
On Sunday, Bjørgen has four seconds less of a lead for the same distance and technique. However, Bjørgen feels better now than she did earlier this season.
“The last few days and during Christmas, I’ve felt better and skiing fast has been easier than it was in the beginning of the season,” Bjørgen said to NRK.
From Oberstdorf, the tour moves to Val Müstair in Switzerland for freestyle sprints on Wednesday, Jan. 6. The next day features 5/10 k classic races in Toblach, Italy, followed by 15/35 k freestyle pursuits from Cortina to Toblach on Thursday, Jan. 8.
On Jan. 9, the skiers get a second rest day before the final two stages in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
On Saturday, Jan. 10, there are 10 k classic mass starts for both men and women in Val di Fiemme, and on Jan. 11, the Tour concludes with the brutal 9 k skate pursuit for both men and women up Alpe Cermis.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.