With only days to go until the 2015 Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, nobody could touch home-crowd favorite Charlotte Kalla in the women’s World Cup 10-kilometer freestyle individual start on Sunday in Östersund, Sweden.
The 27-year-old Kalla polished off the challenging, hilly, two-lap course in 23 minutes and 26.1 seconds for her first World Cup win since March 2010, when she won the 10 k freestyle at World Cup Finals. She was more than half a minute ahead of Marit Bjørgen of Norway in second place, and nearly a minute ahead of Therese Johaug of Norway, who have been dominating the World Cup since the first races in November.
“It feels great to win a World Cup again,” Kalla said to FIS reporters after the race.
Kalla was quick to thank the spectators for carrying her through the challenging course and also noted that she felt like she had some home turf advantage.
“The crowd here in Östersund was so encouraging. I know the courses here very well, and I felt strong,” she said, adding that Feb. 15 marks a special anniversary for her.
“I won Olympic gold in Vancouver on this day, and again last year in Sochi we won the relay on this day, and now a World Cup win today,” Kalla said.
Kalla chose to sit out the 2014/2015 Tour de Ski in favor of training and peaking for the World Championships on home turf later in the season, a strategy she chose with success also leading up to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Left Bjørgen in the dust
Saturday’s sprint winner and Overall World Cup leader, Bjørgen was clearly ahead of her primary rival Johaug, starting a minute after her teammate and beating Johaug by more than 15 seconds. But even the queen of cross-country skiing was more than half a minute behind Kalla, who started 50th, over 10 kilometers.
Bjørgen in bib 72 never came close to matching Kalla at any point of the race, with Kalla leading by 10.4 seconds at 1.8 k, then 25.4 seconds at 6.8 k. At 8.3 k, Bjørgen remained in second, but was 31.5 seconds behind Kalla.
“I didn’t feel as strong today as yesterday, but I am really happy for Charlotte,” Bjørgen told FIS after the race. “It is so nice to see her back on top of the podium. It’s great for her, and it is important for the sport, especially with the World Championships here in Sweden.”
“It’s great for her, and it is important for the sport, especially with the World Championships here in Sweden.” — Marit Bjørgen, runner-up in Sunday’s 10 k freestyle to Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla
Despite finishing second, Bjørgen locked up her fourth Overall World Cup title on Sunday with a 565-point lead on Johaug (last year’s overall winner) with four World Cup races to go.
Kalla skied confidently for the start. Low to the ground, she pushed off calmly and powerfully, getting the most out of every stride. The Norwegians skied with higher turnover, but on Sunday, their style resulted in less speed.
At 1.8 k, Kalla remained more than 13 seconds ahead of Johaug and Weng. At 8.3 k Kalla was a whopping 48.2 seconds ahead of Johaug in third.
While Kalla left the Scandinavian Cup races in January in Falun in tears (where she won the 10 k freestyle and took fourth in the classic sprint and skiathlon), she gave a taste of what is in store during the Swedish national championships two weeks ago when she dominated the rest of the field in both the skiathlon and the 10 k freestyle in Örebro.
On Sunday, Kalla won with 36.5 seconds to spare to Bjørgen in second place. Johaug was third, 53.6 seconds behind Kalla. Norway’s Heidi Weng and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen finished fourth and fifth, respectively, 1:01.3 and 1:08.3 back.
Nicole Fessel of Germany in sixth place was the top non-Scandinavian in the 10 k skate race, more than a minute behind Kalla, and about 20 seconds out of the podium. Riitta-Liisa Roponen of Finland was seventh, Martine Ek Hagen of Norway was eighth, Yulia Tchekaleva of Russia was ninth, and Ragnhild Haga of Norway was 10th.
Jessie Diggins in 17th place was the top American in the final test run before the World Championships, which open with classic sprints for both men and women on Thursday. Diggins was 1:45.7 behind Kalla. Liz Stephen was 26th, Rosie Brennan was 32nd and Kikkan Randall was 33rd for the U.S., while Emily Nishikawa placed 36th for Canada.
Prior to the World Cup round in Östersund, both the Swedish and the Norwegian national teams have been training and preparing for the World Championships at altitude in the Italian Alps.
After this weekend, Kalla travels to Falun, to start the final preparations for the World Championships. For her, the first event will be the 15 k skiathlon on Feb. 21.
— Alex Kochon 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.