LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland — Who knew that some of the most compelling racing on the women’s World Cup circuit this season would come in a distance race, at the Tour de Ski?
Norway’s Therese Johaug has been a favorite in the event for months — and is indeed a favorite to win stages, if not the whole Tour, almost every year. Through Saturday, she was unbeaten in distance racing this season.
So when 25-year-old teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg started five seconds behind Johaug, 27, in Sunday’s 5-kilometer freestyle pursuit, the younger skier’s effort to close the gap right off the line seemed like a big risk that could end in a blow-up.
Østberg claimed to be as surprised as anyone that she not only caught Johaug, but then dropped her on the final uphill and skied to a 9.3-second win in 13:02.3 – her first World Cup win in a distance race ever, and on what a stage.
“I haven’t realized it yet,” Østberg told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “It was a great victory for me, in many ways … I tried to follow my own plan. But I saw that for once it looked as if Therese began to be a little stiff. Then I saw the opportunity to [ski away], although I felt a little stiff myself.”
There had been clues about Østberg’s ascent as an all-around skier. She has been in the top five of distances races this season, and achieved her first distance podiums this season in Kuusamo, Davos and Toblach.
And in Saturday’s 15 k classic mass start, Østberg skied away from teammate Heidi Weng, who was among the top skiers in the world last season, including in the Tour de Ski.
But skiing away from Weng is one thing, and skiing away from Johaug something else altogether. Johaug’s quick skating uphill has won her many a race, including the Tour de Ski final climb in the past.
On Sunday, though, the World Cup leader’s legs wouldn’t cooperate.
“I did the best I could,” Johaug said, according to a translation. “But the acid came to my legs and took me. I had no chance.”
And so she was left to watch Østberg drift farther and farther in front of her, then scream in victory as she crossed the finish line – a move that Johaug has made her own so many times.
Østberg told FIS that she had planned to catch Johaug from the start, and then just do her best. She was far from certain that her best would mean crossing the finish line first. Just a day before, Johaug had appeared completely unbeatable.
And now Østberg, who has had her biggest successes in sprinting before this season, has a 14.3-second lead on Johaug in the Tour de Ski and a whopping two minutes and 13 seconds on third-place Heidi Weng, also of Norway.
She wasn’t expecting to become a favorite for a Tour de Ski podium.
“I never thought it would go so well,” Østberg told NRK. “I am shocked and pleased with myself. … Others have said [I could be there], but I have never had that goal.”
Johaug, though, wasn’t so surprised that she found herself out of the Tour de Ski lead.
“I have tried to tell everyone all along that this is no easy march,” she told Norwegian daily VG. “The Tour de Ski is not a Championships, and it’s not like normal World Cups. You have with you sprinters and bonus seconds, and you go shorter and longer distances. And you must be uniformly good throughout. Such a competition fits Ingvild’s shape very well.”
Johaug, who won the Tour two seasons ago in 2014, also knows that being behind after three of eight stages isn’t the end of the world.
“I’m not worried yet,” she said. “There are still many ski races to go. … It’s a little silly to be worried after day three.”
Indeed, Johaug can make up a lot of time if distance races go her way. The final climb is her hallmark event; last year her time up the Alpe Cermis was a full minute faster than Weng, who had the next best effort.
But before that climb, there are four more races, including a classic sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany, on Tuesday.
Both rivals are looking forward to recuperating first.
“It was really hard today,” Østberg told FIS. “My legs were really tired at the end. I am looking forward to the rest day.”
Weng skied a steady race to keep third position locked up; she now has a 32-second lead on Charlotte Kalla of Sweden going into the Tour de Ski’s fourth stage.
Finns Anne Kyllönen and Kerttu Niskanen skied most of the race together to hold on to fifth and sixth place, while their teammate Krista Parmakoski caught the American duo of Sadie Bjornsen and Jessie Diggins and then beat them at the finish to land in seventh place.
“Fortunately, I regained some of my skiing shape,” Kylloenen told the Finnish press. “I felt surprisingly good, because I thought this would be for me the most difficult race the Tour.”
Diggins sits in eighth and Bjornsen in ninth. Stay tuned for more reporting on the U.S. women’s races.
Ragnhild Haga of Norway and Laura Mononen of Finland had the third- and fourth-fastest pursuit times behind Østberg and Johaug. Starting with bibs 11 and 12, they move up and now sit tenth and eleventh.
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.