The most winning female cross-country skier in the world is still missing an overall Tour de Ski victory, and is more eager than ever to fix it.
In the eight years of the Tour de Ski, Marit Bjørgen has been second overall twice (2007 and 2012). She had to pull out in 2008 with two stages to go. She literally hit the wall on the last stage in 2009. She sat out the Tour in 2010 to prepare for the Olympics and in 2011 to focus on the World Championships in Holmenkollen. She had heart trouble the week before the Tour in 2013, and was sidelined by the stomach flu after two stages in 2014. She badly wants a victory.
But Bjørgen knows it won’t be easy. The 34-year-old Norwegian estimates that she will need at least a 1-minute lead on fellow national team racer Therese Johaug going into the final tour stage on January 11. Johaug is the defending Tour de Ski champion, and has an excellent track record on the final stage, which ends with the infamous 3-kilometer climb up the alpine run Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“I know that on a good day, I’m not more than a minute slower than Therese on that climb, and there are several good races prior the last stage where I can make up that time,” Bjørgen said to Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
It doesn’t depend on how Johaug, who is having a best-ever season, does in the Tour – what matters is Bjørgen herself, she believes.
“It’s up to me,” she said. “If I do my job well, it’s definitely possible to win Tour de Ski. I have to collect bonus seconds wherever I can and win the sprints. If I do that, it’s possible that it won’t come down to that last hill.”
But if there’s only a minute between Bjørgen and Johaug, who have been taking turns being first and second in most of the World Cup races so far this season, when the last stage rolls around, it might just be drama to the bitter end.
“That would actually be very good for the sport,” Bjørgen said. “It would make for some extremely exciting TV moments. Heck, that would be awesome television.”
Bjørgen noted that under normal circumstances, she thinks she has a chance to beat Johaug in a sprint finish.
“I should be able to outsprint her,” she guessed. “But after 3 k uphill like that, it’s a different story. But regardless it would be entertaining to watch.”
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland has won four of the eight Tour de Skis on record, but is not among the favorites. For one thing, she is a classic specialist and in this year’s edition of the Tour, there are four skate stages to three classic ones, a format change that favors the Norwegians. However, even without that factor, the 31-year-old has not been as dominant this year as she has in the past. She has yet to make her way to the podium, even in classic racing.
“Tomorrow the Tour de Ski starts,” Kowalczyk posted, in Polish, on her facebook page. “My business card. There are all the statistics on the Tour. But statistics are just numbers. And the numbers do not compete. Numbers do not know how hard the route is on my eighth the Tour. It does not forgive any shortcomings, that’s for sure. I would like to fight well – That’s my goal. Can I ask for the thumbs up?”
In the men’s field, defending champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway, also the current World Cup leader, is expected to battle it out with Dario Cologna of Switzerland, who has won three Tours in the past and seems to be on the upswing after a slow start to the season.
“I am perfectly in time for this, and I fully expect to be in a good position going into the final two stages of the Tour in Val di Fiemme,” Cologna said, according to a translation.
Sundby’s teammates Finn Hågen Krogh, Didrik Tønseth, and Pål Golberg — ranked second, fifth, and seventh in the World Cup overall – will sit out the race. There are plenty more strong Norwegians to replace them, but it might leave the Tour more wide-open than the circuit’s all-Norway podium sweeps on both the women’s and men’s sides so far this season might suggest.
The Tour de Ski opens tomorrow with a 3 k skate prologue for women (4 k skate for men) in Oberstdorf. From there, the tour continues with 10/15 k classic pursuit in Oberstdorf on Sunday.
From Germany, the tour moves to Switzerland for skate sprints in Val Mustair on January 7. The next day features 15/35 k skate pursuit from Cortina to Toblach, Italy.
On January 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.
-Chelsea Little contributed reporting
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.