CANMORE, Alberta — Despite a nine month absence, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) did not need help finding the top step of the podium.
While her last straight win came back in February of last year, more than 30 World Cup victories was a trail of crumbs with enough staying power to allow the Polish star to retrace her steps.
Precipitous climbs, high altitude, classic skiing — all the ingredients for a Kowalczyk victory — made the three-time World Cup Champion the race favorite, despite a two-week layoff.
“Before the race you have some questions in the head,” she said of putting the bib back on. “But I know about my body and my skis. I was not afraid.”
Over the years Canmore has been good to Kowalczyk. She won for the third time in the picturesque western Canadian mountain town.
“It is a really hard course,” Kowalczyk said after skiing to a 14 second victory in the women’s 10km mass start classic in Canmore, Alberta. “One of the harder in the world,” she continued, before stating simply, “I am strong here.”
After starting the season slowly, as is her wont, Kowalczyk skipped the Quebec City sprints and came directly to Canmore after the Kuusamo mini-tour. Ten days of training clearly served her well as she showed the power and high gear that is her trademark.
“It is good to be outside Europe. For the head, for everything,” Kowalczyk said of her time in Canada. “Good altitude, a lot of snow, nice weather, sunshine,” she described her days of training.
Similar conditions greeted racers as they lined up for the start, but there would be no time to enjoy the scenery and fine weather. Unsurprisingly, the pace was high right from the gun.
Kowalczyk held position at the front of the pack through the first of three 3.3-kilometer loops. As the race approached the half-way mark, headed up the monstrous climbs for the second time, Kowalczyk accelerated, and gradually pulled away from the field.
“This was my tactic,” she explained. “Ski the first 5k together with the others and then try to ski faster.”
She took the preem at the high point of the course at 4.2k, earning an additional 15 World Cup points. The ageless Valentina Schevchenko (UKR) gave chase, cresting the climb just several seconds back, but Kowalczyk was not to be denied, and the Ukrainian was soon consumed by the chasers, a group that included the Norwegian quartet of Maiken Caspersen Falla, Vibeke Skofterud, Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg and Kristin Stoermer Steira as well as Kikkan Randall (USA).
As Kowalczyk pulled away, the battle for second became a race of attrition, with women steadily dropping off the back.
The Norwegians stayed strong, as did Randall while Anne Kylloenen (FIN) made her way up through the field to join the pack.
Primarily a sprinter by trade, the 25-year-old Kylloenen just missed the podium two weeks ago in the Kuusamo classic sprint, placing 4th.
The third time up the “wall,” the biggest climb of the course, Kylloenen made a move. To the surprise of most observers, no one could respond.
Finnish head coach Magnar Dalen said he was “shocked” when Kylloenen struck. He told FasterSkier that he liked her chances at the end of the race given the strength of her double pole and her sprinting skills.
“I was a little bit worried of course,” he said, but Kylloenen was feeling good.
“I had very much power,” she said of her final time up the big hills, and didn’t look back, skiing clear to second place, 14 seconds out ahead of third.
She described her first World Cup podium as “amazing,” but not completely unexpected.
“I know that I am in very good shape,” she said. “And it is very good conditions for me.”
Dalen was beside himself with the performance. He was hoping for a top-10, and the 2nd place marked a big step for Kylloenen.
“To see a young athlete climbing up to the podium for the first time, that is the best payment a coach can get…The best feeling in a coaches heart,” Dalen said.
He described the progression Kylloenen has made, much like a parent would recount the accomplishments of a child — her first World Cup points, then a top-20, a 13th, a 12th, and now the podium.
In his 25th year of international coaching, Dalen has been around the block a time or two, and says he has seen “many stars raised up and then the hard way down again.”
He sees a difference between the breakthroughs of skiers like Kylloenen and the day-in, day-out efforts of the usual suspects.
“Bjørgen, Kowalczyk, Saarinen, and those like Northug, Cologna, that is more like professional gladiators fight,” he said. The success of his young athletes, however, is “more important to me than my salary.”
Kylloenen was not the only young sprinter to excel today. Falla, second last year in the Sprint Cup to Randall, put her speed to good use, besting teammates Skofterud and Oestberg and Randall in the homestretch to earn her first distance World Cup podium.
“I do not know what happened,” Falla told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race. “This was great fun.”
The Canmore finish stretch is notorious for requiring perfect execution. Coming off a fast downhill, drafting is crucial, and the associated slingshot effect is often the difference maker in head-to-head sprints to the line.
Coming from the back of the group Falla said “I didn’t realize I had a chance until the last 20-meters when I saw I had the highest speed.”
Randall, who finished in 6th was right in the mix but was unable to get the position she needed headed into the homestretch.
“I didn’t play my cards right at the finish,” she said. Slotting into second on the downhill behind Skofterud, she didn’t get enough of the draft effect to hit the podium.
“Maiken played it perfect,” Randall said. “She really had the best slingshot…and she is a really fast sprinter over the last 100 meters.”
Falla noted the absence of some of the world’s top women, including her teammates Marit Bjørgen, Therese Johaug, Marthe Kristoffersen and Heidi Weng, as well as the likes of Charlotte Kalla (SWE) and Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN), recognizing her placing was in part due to the depleted field.
Americans Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen were also last-minute scratches.
But you need to show up to win, so while Kylloenen and Falla may have been harder pressed to reach the podium in a European World Cup, they still end the day with 80 and 63 additional World Cup points respectively.
Kylloenen can also talk about field strength all the way to the bank to deposit her 10,000 CHF of prize money. Falla, for her part, takes home a tidy 5,000 CHF.
Racing continues on Saturday with a freestyle sprint.
– Norway placed four in the top-7
– Masako Ishida (JON), a strong classic skier, and a podium contender entering the day, crashed early and never made it all the way back.
– Schevchenko ended up in 9th place.
– Russia had 5 women in the top-20, but none in the top-10. Norway was the only other nation to do so with Ragnhild Haga placing 20th.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting