Seven women started within 20 seconds of Therese Johaug in today’s 10 k classic pursuit in Kuusamo, Finland. But by the finish, the Norwegian was all on her own.
“I did a very good ski race,” she told Norwegian media. “It was a little hard leading and I had a bit slippery skis, but I probably was not alone. I got a little lump in my throat in the first hill when I felt that skis not set, but then I realized quickly that I was still making seconds on those behind me, so it was fun.”
Johaug quickly dropped teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who had started 0.4 seconds back. By 2.5 k into the competition, she had a margin of almost 15 seconds and the race was a foregone conclusion – the only question was who would place second.
Despite her dominance today, it was actually the first time Johaug has won the opening mini-tour in a FIS World Cup season. In the first five iterations, her teammate Marit Bjørgen took the win, even in Johaug snagged stage victories.
“I never thought I’d start the season as well as I have,” Johaug told Norway’s VG news service. “Especially during yesterday’s race, I’m happy with where I got the skating technique to now. In classic I have felt strong for a while, so this suggests that my shape is good.”
Behind Johaug, a pack formed with Østberg and fellow Norwegian Heidi Weng, plus Swedish sprinters Stina Nilsson and Ida Ingemarsdotter.
That turned out to be a big advantage in northern Finland, where the wind was so strong that nordic combined competitions have been canceled all weekend. While the pack didn’t have a chance to catch Johaug, they were able to pull away from other chasers like Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, who started a few more seconds behind those four and couldn’t close the gap despite working with Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and, later, Astrid Jacobsen.
Coming up the steep hill into the stadium before 7.5 k, Weng put on a sprint and headed to the finish. She thought that it was her last lap and didn’t notice that Johaug wasn’t ahead of her until after she collapsed at the finish line.
“I thought it was 7.5 kilometers, so I went to the finish,” Weng told Norway’s TV2. “I may be the world’s biggest idiot sometimes. I go and I don’t know what comes next.”
Weng lay in the snow as the seconds dragged on, before realizing her mistake. She was far out of the picture for a podium finish by the time she got back on course.
“I thought I must be five minutes behind already, because it felt like I had been at the finish line for so long,” she told TV2. “Then I thought ‘haha’, I’ll just keep going and make the best out of it.”
But her move did have a big effect on the field. Nilsson had tried to follow Weng’s big move, and only narrowly avoided going into the finishing tracks herself. And Ingemarsdotter was nearly shattered by the effort.
The remaining trio briefly back together for the final lap to fight it out for second place. But as had been shown when Weng put on her sprint, Nilsson was the strongest on the uphills and Ingemarsdotter slipped even further back.
Johaug crossed the line in 27:22.3, with Nilsson 22.6 seconds back and Østberg taking third another ten seconds back.
It was a good day for Nilsson and Østberg (and Ingemarsdotter, even off the podium), who are traditionally considered sprinters but who have tried to focus on becoming better all-around skiers.
“I’m very pleased and got confirmation that I made the right training for this season,” Nilsson told Sweden’s SVT broadcaster.
And it wasn’t just because they had a good starting position that the pair succeeded. Nilsson had the second-fastest ski time of the day, and Østberg and Ingemarsdotter the fourth- and fifth-fastest, proving their distance chops.
“I had hoped to be in the top ten,” Ingemarsdotter told Swedish daily Expressen. “I thought if I had a good day, I could be up there.”
It was also a relief for Sweden to be consistently on the podium this weekend.
“It’s red everywhere, and it’s nice to be able to challenge them,” Nilsson told Aftonbladet, referring to the Norwegians’ ubiquitous ski suits.
Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen had one of the fastest splits of the day, moving from a 12th place starting position up to fifth at the finish, passing Kalla on her way.
“At the beginning I felt good and easy, but today was really demanding snow conditions,” Niskanen told the Finnish Broadcasting Company. “Fortunately, we Finns had a pretty good skis. I saw that many others had much worse difficulties.”
For instance, Kalla, who she had passed.
“Bad skis, then I don’t have much more to say,” Kalla told Swedish media after finishing sixth, more than a minute behind Johaug.
Weng crossed the line in ninth place, in tears. Her blunder might have serious consequences for her World Cup points. Weng had been hoping to challenge Johaug for the season-long title, but she lost a lot of points already.
In FIS rules, mini-tours award half the normal World Cup points for each race, and then the remainder for the overall standings. So a second-place finish in the mini-tour would have been worth 160 points itself, plus whatever points Weng would have accrued for the individual effort.
Instead, she picked up just 58 points from the mini-tour and her pursuit time, which could have been one of the fastest, put her in 13th place for just 20 points on the day.
With Johaug taking two stage wins and the overall mini-tour title in the meantime, missing out on more than 100 points in a single mistake could be quite costly as the season progresses.
Even Weng’s competitors felt bad for her.
“I tried to call her but she was probably so [inside her own head],” Nilsson told Swedish daily Expressen.
“I tried to comfort her a bit [at the finish] and said that this is sad, but it is soon [forgotten] in Norway and you are in good shape,” Ingemarsdotter told NRK.
It did make a little bit of a difference.
“I was really disappointed for half an hour after,” Weng told TV2. “But the Swedish were really caring. It was actually very touching.”
How important are 100 points? Last season Johaug placed second in the overall World Cup, and Weng second. They were separated by just 56 points.
Johaug now leads the overall World Cup by 33 points over Nilsson, with Østberg in third. Weng is in seventh place.
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.