“Visit Estonia,” it read on the bibs of all athletes in the women’s World Cup 10-kilometer classic individual start race, an advertisement by the tourist board of the Baltic country.
Unfortunately after experiencing beautiful weather for Saturday’s sprint, the town of Otepää — which on most days is indeed a paradise for all kinds of winter sports — was not able to present itself looking exactly like a picture out of a travel brochure on Sunday, with a misty sky and a steady drizzle thawing the snow around the venue.
Many of the cross-country skiers heading to the start gate in their warmup gear looked a bit despondent as they were signing the clear plastic board the International Ski Federation (FIS) usually presents to the hosts as a gift, while a staff member continuously tried to wipe big drops and puddles off the surface thereby probably erasing some hastily scribbled signatures.
Skiing two 5 k loops around the arena, the athletes began to look like wet grumpy cats, with the exhaustion further distorting faces as they conquered two steep climbs on the course, the longest ascending almost 60 meters.
While it was not an easy race for anyone, some skiers struggled more than others. Starting in the middle of the field, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen used the rainy day to make it crystal clear who is still the queen of distance skiing. The currently suspended Therese Johaug might be the princess, and several young skiers can challenge the throne on a good day. But Bjørgen still, or rather again following her one-season maternity leave, rules them all.
Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk — another veteran who managed to win the skiathlon in PyeongChang two weeks ago (though with a diminished starting field) and who won the 10 k classic distance in Otepää four times before — started strong, setting the best initial split times. Ultimately she would end the day in fifth (+1:19.7).
Then Norway’s current overall World Cup leader Heidi Weng set the best split times, and topped Kowalczyk’s finishing time by more than 20 seconds.
Next, the third Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Østberg came to the finish (+1:17.4), significantly behind Weng but able to best Kowalczyk’s time by just over two seconds, pushing her to third for the time being. Østberg sped up along the course, and was 21.5 seconds behind Kowalczyk at the 7.5 k split before setting a blazing pace in the last section.
But when she had caught her breath crouching in the snow at the finish, Østberg could only look on and applaud as Bjørgen came into the finish with a huge lead, celebrating with her arms raised high when she crossed the line in a time of 29:59.0, and improving on Weng’s time by almost a minute.
“I had a good training in the last period,” Bjørgen later told FIS in an interview. “Already at the Norwegian nationals I knew I was in a good shape. Conditions were tricky today but the course was a good test before the World Championships.”
Her teammate Weng summed the day up succinctly in her interview with FIS, after Bjørgen had gapped her by 57.2 seconds: “Marit was amazing today. She was way too fast for me.”
And for everyone else.
Only Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla could prevent a Norwegian podium sweep at that point. Starting late in the field in bib 60, she improved on all the split times of Weng and Østberg. But she steadily lost time on Bjørgen, and with 2.5 kilometers to go was also already 26.6 seconds behind.
While Bjørgen watched the rest of the field from the comfort of the leader’s chair wearing a puffy blue coat with her legs covered by a blanket and munching on an energy bar, Kalla did not lose any more time on the last stretch into the stadium. She settled about halfway between the two Norwegian leaders to claim second place (+26.5), thereby pushing Østberg of the podium to fourth.
“I came to Otepää after a high-altitude training camp,” Kalla told FIS. “I felt very good today. I had amazing skis. The hills in Otepää are really tough.”
After Kalla struggled with health issues earlier this season, the 2015 world champion in the 10 k freestyle seems to be rounding back into shape just in time for the next World Championships in Lahti, Finland, which start Thursday. Finnish home-crowd favorite Krista Pärmäkoski was sixth on Sunday (+1:23.1), just behind Kowalczyk and Østberg.
But Bjørgen is the athlete to watch again in Lahti. While the mother of a 1 year old might not yet have her full sprint kick back, she certainly seems able to be at the top of the podium in distance races again.
And according to the statisticians at FIS, for the last seven World Championships, the winner of the final 10 k World Cup race before it also won that distance at the championships a few days later (although at the 2014 Olympics this trend was broken, with Bjørgen finishing fifth in Sochi).
“It was a very good feeling to take with me to the championships,” Bjørgen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK in a post-race interview. “I got the answers I was hoping for.”
She added that she feels more confident than for the championships in Falun two years ago, and when asked to rate her current confidence level on a scale of 1 to 10 heading to Finland, Bjørgen smiled: “This is enough for a nine. A little bit is still missing.”
Her opponents should still be worried.
Three Americans in the Points
On Sunday, U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Sadie Bjornsen had the best race of the North Americans, finishing in 19th (+2:30.5).
“It was a challenging day out there, but had some wonderful moments,” Bjornsen wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
She was excited that her game plan for the day had worked out well, skiing with Poland’s Kowalczyk who had started the race just one bib and 30 seconds behind her.
“I had a good start, and was expecting Justyna to catch me at some point during the race, because I know she is in really good form,” Bjornsen explained. “When she caught me I was determine to stay with her, and finish the race together.”
That happened somewhere between 3 and 4 k, but in this race Kowalczyk was a little bit too fast for her to stick with until the finish.
“Unfortunately, I had quite slow skis today, so wasn’t able to hold on as I was really hoping to,” Bjornsen wrote. “From there I tried to keep my head fighting, and do what I could. I feel confident heading into Championships, because I felt my form was there today. The result didn’t show it, but that is classic skiing. There are a heck of a lot of variables. If I get those parts dialed, I am really looking forward to some incredible opportunities to come!”
Unlike some other skiers who looked miserable in the wet conditions, Bjornsen’s teammate Rosie Brennan had no complaints.
“I actually enjoy classic skiing when it’s a bit sloppy as I think it plays to my strengths so I felt fine about the conditions,” Brennan wrote in an email. “The track held up fairly well all considering.”
Starting late in the field just ahead of Kalla, Brennan also took advantage of skiing with Kowalczyk at least for one loop, similar to the tactic Bjornsen had tried to use. And it might have worked even better for her.
“It was fantastic to start my race and realize Kowalczyk had just lapped through,” Brennan wrote. “I settled in behind her and enjoyed the ride and actually pulled away from her in the last kilometer of that lap.”
But when Kowalczyk skied into the finish, Brennan still had one more loop to go, and could only see her teammate Liz Stephen who had started 30 seconds ahead of her.
“The second loop was quite lonely and I had to keep mentally tough out there,” Brennan recalled. “I could see Liz ahead of me every now and then, but she never seemed to be getting closer so it was a challenging finish.”
Still, it was one of her best results of the season, finishing the race in 24th (+2:37.8). Brennan is now looking forward to her second senior World Championships with the U.S. Ski Team.
“I am satisfied with this race as it lets me know the training I did at home was good and I have good fitness,” Brennan concluded. “I still have one week until the distance races start at World Champs so I am excited to finish that preparation and hopefully get a little more pop in my body.”
Maybe accepting the weather for what it is could be one of the secrets to a good classic race. Like Brennan, this is what the third USST member Stephen, who started in the last start group just one bib ahead of Brennan, also did.
“The conditions today were wet and a bit sloppy, but honestly, for the women’s race the tracks held up fairly well, so no complaints on my end!” Stephen wrote in an email. “I like klister skiing when it’s slushy and soft like this, so I like days like today!”
She explained that she mostly had to ski the race by herself.
“I was able to ski a tiny bit with (Germany’s) Steffi Boehler and Kalla passed me at the end of the first lap and I tried to hang, but she was really flying today,” Stephen remembered her race. “I didn’t realize Rosie was coming up on me until about 1k to go. I tend to look forward and not worry about who is coming up behind me, as there is enough to focus on ahead of me!”
Coming off a second-place finish in the PyeongChang skiathlon two weeks ago just behind Kowalczyk and now a top 30 in her less-beloved ski style in a stacked field, like her teammates Stephen is also looking forward to the next two weeks of racing.
“I am excited to head to Worlds,” Stephen concluded. “My big races are the 4x5k relay and the 30k skate, and with a good classic leg the skiathlon can go well too. Classic continues to be a weak point for me, so I will focus on skiing my best for that 7.5k in the skiathlon and then look forward to skating my way through the rest of the championships.”
“We have been watching biathlon worlds and alpine worlds and getting very inspired by our fellow teammates there, so we are all heading into the champs feeling great!” she added.
Also for the U.S., Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent and Chelsea Holmes all started the race early getting some TV camera time, but then were not in the focus anymore for much of the race.
At the end of the day, Randall was only about 10 seconds out of the points in 34th (+3:04.7), while Sargent finished 42nd (+3:46.1), and Chelsea Holmes was 50th (+4:47.5).
Jessica Diggins, currently the highest-ranked American in the overall World Cup standings, would have started with bib 40 shortly behind Bjørgen, but she and her coaches opted for a rest day instead, due to her demanding program at World Championships.
Emily Nishikawa led the Canadian women in 40th place (+3:39), Dahria Beatty who started the race in bib 1 having to lead the way through the slush was 45th (+4:11.9), Cendrine Browne 54th (+5:09.2), and Katherine Stewart-Jones 57th (+5:37.1).
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.