For 29 kilometers, Norway’s Therese Johaug looked like the dominant skier in Sunday’s Holmenkollen World Cup in Oslo, Norway.
Unfortunately for Johaug, it was a 30 k race and Norwegian team mate Marit Bjørgen proved once again why she is the world’s best, saving one last attack to skate past Johaug to take the victory.
Bjørgen had all but wrapped up the World Cup distance title for the season; she led Johaug by 101 points going into the 30 k. With a win counting for 100 points, Bjørgen mainly just had to finish the race and even if Johaug won she would still add the distance crystal globe to the sprint and overall titles, which she had already secured.
The pair set a tough pace from early on, with a pack of just ten women able to keep up.
And there was, of course, the small issue of bonus sprints. Four times over the course of the 30 k, bonus time checks awarded points to the first ten skiers across the line, with 15 points for the first skier and one for the tenth. If Johaug had any chance to pass Bjørgen in the distance competition she needed to get every sprint point on course and more importantly win.
Naturally, Johaug made sure she was the first skier across the line every time. That netted her 60 points, but Bjørgen was always close behind like a shadow, taking 44 points of her own and neutralizing Johaug’s gain.
But the quest for bonus seconds, while it didn’t shake Bjørgen, did get to some of the other racers. The first real breakaway appeared at the 8 k mark when Johaug, Bjørgen and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla found themselves with a slight advantage over Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, who had been skiing with them in a pack of four.
The gap was compounded when Jacobsen fell. From then on, her chance to ski with the lead trio was gone. She skied for almost the next 20 kilometers entirely alone.
“I lost feeling in one leg, and did not know quite where I put the skis,” she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK of the crash. “It may be that it was just my boot that was not quite right or something. It is hard to say.”
Kalla, sensing that Bjørgen and Johaug had greater strength, skied with the pair as long as she could, sometimes even leading the pack.
The Norwegians tried to trick her at one point. The women were allowed to switch their skis once during the race, and although none of the leaders ever did, at the first possible exchange point Bjørgen and Johaug let Kalla go first and hoped that she would ski into the exchange, at which point they would skate off without her.
Kalla almost fell for it, but wised up and avoided the exchange lane, which would cost at least 15 seconds, at the last possible moment.
“We had planned that we would not change skis, but we figured we would let Charlotte go first and see what she did,” Johaug told the Swedish press. “So we saw that she almost was going in to switch, but then she turned around to see what we did, and then just continued without changing. Marit and I looked at each other and we smiled.”
They didn’t really need a trick anyway. By the 18 kilometer mark, Bjørgen and Johaug were all alone out front after their fast pace had dropped Kalla. The two Norwegians tried and tried to wear each other down: Johaug attacking on the climbs, Bjørgen matching her pace stride for stride. Sometimes Bjørgen would move into the lead, but neither one could shake the other.
Meanwhile, Kalla was bleeding time after working hard to keep up with the duo for the first half of the race. But Jacobsen was maintaining about the same pace as the leaders – after dropping to 45 seconds back, she held the gap steady. That meant that she gained and gained on Kalla until she had the Swede in her sights. In the stadium with just three kilometers to go, Jacobsen caught her and skied past. The pair made their way together towards the finish.
The races for both first place and third place were closing fast, so an attack seemed inevitable. It finally happened at the 29 k mark. Heading up the Hellnerbacken climb before the stadium, Johaug and Bjørgen simultaneously upped the pace – but Bjørgen’s attack was stronger, and as she pulled past her teammate Johaug couldn’t respond. Within a few strides Bjørgen was clear of Johaug, and she soon put an incredible 10 second gap on one of the best climbers in the world. The winner was set.
Taking bows as she crossed the line, Bjørgen wrapped up her fifth Holmenkollen win finishing in 1:14:10, Johaug second 11.6 seconds behind. With her win today Bjørgen became the first female athlete to win consecutive Holmenkollen titles.
“I knew that I had a strong finish and relied on that,” Bjørgen told FIS. “But after 30 k you never know. It is great to end the season with the victory. I am tired now but I am motivated to continue. I’ll see in the spring.”
Johaug was gracious in her defeat.
“It was impressive to see Bjørgen going up the last hill,” she told NRK. “It is inspiring to see Marit scramble there. I have so much to learn from her and what she does. I’m happy with my race. It was absolutely amazing to race at Holmenkollen.”
While fans were focused on the stadium and Bjørgen’s victory, Jacobsen dropped Kalla and skied to a clean third place, 44.5 seconds back, to round out the all Norwegian podium.
“Despite the fall I had a great race and I was able to to take 20 seconds on Charlotte Kalla in the last lap,” Jacobsen told NRK.
It marked a great comeback by the 28-year-old, who sat out the first half of the season with an injury. Her first World Cup of the season didn’t come until late January, but it was a win – not to mention her first one since 2008. The Rybinsk, Russia, races are acknowledged to be less competitive, as many top athletes don’t care to take the long travel to reach the frigid venue, but Jacobsen made clear that she was no joke by winning silver in the skiathlon at World Championships and now making the podium at arguably skiing’s most vaunted World Cup.
“This shows at least that I do not give up,” she told NRK. “It was great for me to get on the podium, especially since I grew up here [in Oslo].”
Heidi Weng won a photo finish against Norwegian teammate Ragnhild Haga for fourth place. Liz Stephen was the top American skier, placing ninth. Stay tuned for a full report on the U.S. women.
While Bjørgen proved decisively that not only did she deserve that World Cup distance title, but that she was the best skier of the season, she is still unsure of whether she will compete another year. At age 34, each additional year is a major undertaking.
“It is not quite right to think of it now,” she told the news service VG. “I have to train 900 hours next year and I cannot think about that now. I have to get my energy back and then think about what to do going forward.”
Although Johaug would likely profit in terms of wins, money, and sponsorship should Bjørgen retire, that’s not something she wants to see happen.
“I support her whatever she decides,” Johaug told VG. “ But I hope that she will continue. She is a wonderful best friend and teammate. She has given me an incredible amount of confidence and self-esteem, and because she has done that I have become the cross-country skier I am. Without trying to match her, I would not be standing here today, either.”