FALUN, Sweden — To those watching, even to those racing, the winner was the woman who had led most of Saturday’s 10-kilometer classic mass start: Norway’s Marit Bjørgen.
“Marit and Tiril [Udnes Weng], another Norwegian young girl, they were skiing really fast and I thought that they would be first and second,” Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg told FasterSkier after the race.
Seven minutes after the start gun, Bjørgen had moved to the apex of the field and there she seemed intent to stay.
No doubt, the 37-year-old Norwegian holds a close relationship with the 10 k classic event. Over the course of her World Cup career, she has amassed 31 podiums in the distance/discipline, 16 of those being in first place.
Last year in Lahti, Finland, Bjørgen was crowned the 10 k classic world champion, and she also holds the 10 k classic World Championships title from 2011. At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, she earned silver in the 10 k classic event. The next time a 10 k classic was featured at the Olympics, in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, she finished fifth.
With substantial backing, Bjørgen seemed well on her way to another 10 k classic win at 2018 World Cup Finals on Saturday in Falun. Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski may have not looked like a real threat — until the finishing stretch.
In the corner before the final 100 meters, Pärmäkoski pulled up just behind Bjørgen. Just two kilometers earlier, the Finn had been skiing two seconds off of the Norwegian’s pace.
Backtracking to the race’s halfway mark, Pärmäkoski had been even farther behind Bjørgen. Three seconds had separated the chase pack from Bjørgen and Tiril Udnes Weng, who led the race at 5 k. At that point, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla had been spearheading the charge to close down the gap, while Pärmäkoski skied in fifth, almost one second back from Kalla and four seconds back from Bjørgen.
Even earlier in the race, when Bjørgen made her move to the front at 3.75 k, Pärmäkoski, who had started in bib 32, was 19 places out of first.
“I had to start so much behind the others,” Pärmäkoski told FasterSkier, referring to her bib number, which was based on her finish in the opening race of the World Cup Finals, Friday’s freestyle sprint.
“But my body worked very well today … and I had really good grip and glide [with] my skis,” Pärmäkoski continued. “I passed the other athletes when we got to the downhill, the long downhill.”
By the descent heading back toward the stadium, Pärmäkoski had passed Tiril Udnes Weng and moved around Kalla. Close to two seconds stood between her Bjørgen and Østberg, the latter of which had moved into second at the 7.5 k mark.
“I didn’t dare to look back and see how many girls were keeping up with [us] in front,” Østberg said.
If she had looked back, she would have seen the Finn firing on all cylinders.
By the descent back toward the stadium, Pärmäkoski had caught Østberg and hunted her next Norwegian. She closed in on Bjørgen in the corner just before the finishing stretch. Fifty meters to go and Pärmäkoski pulled up just alongside Bjørgen.
The two approached the finish line in tandem. Pärmäkoski, however, was stronger in the final double-pole push and nabbed the win by just 0.2 seconds over Bjørgen in a time of 26:00.5 minutes. Bjørgen took second behind the Finn in a time of 26:00.7.
“I thought that maybe I was stronger than her and I feel that I was doing a good finish, but she was stronger than me,” Bjørgen told FasterSkier, referring to the sprint finish between Pärmäkoski and herself.
“I thought Marit was gonna take it on the last 100 meters, but Krista was too strong,” said Østberg, who finished 5.1 seconds back in third.
The win is Pärmäkoski’s third 10 k classic title in a row this season. Her first came in Planica, Slovenia –which was also her first World Cup win — and her second came two weekends ago in front of a home crowd in Lahti.
For Østberg, the World Cup podium was her first since January.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been on the podium individually, in an individual race, so I was just so happy that I managed to finish in third place,” Østberg said.
Less than 10 seconds behind her, a pack of five surged to the finish line, with Sweden’s Ebba Andersson crossing in fourth (+14.5), Japan’s Masako Ishida fifth (+14.8), Kalla in sixth (+15.2), Austria’s Teresa Stadlober in seventh (+15.4) and American Jessie Diggins in eighth (+15.5). Exactly 1 second separated the five-skier spread, with Diggins bookmarking the tail end.
“I was a little bit bummed I didn’t quite have the same feelings in my body that I’ve been having,” Diggins told FasterSkier. “It wasn’t a bad race at all … I just was struggling to find that last gear. I know it’s there because it was there in the sprint yesterday. So I am just going to go hard tomorrow and see what I can do.”
Bjørgen currently leads the World Cup Finals mini tour and will be the first skier on course in Sunday’s 10 k freestyle pursuit. Starting 36 seconds after her will be Østberg in second, then Diggins, 41 seconds back in third.
In the Overall World Cup standings as well, Diggins ranks third with 1226 points. The American is 106 points behind Østberg in second and 213 points behind Norway’s Heidi Weng in first. At most, with a win, Diggins could score 200 points on Sunday. Behind her, Pärmäkoski is 112 points back in fourth.
An Olympic gold medal already achieved and a couple other firsts to her name this season (last weekend, she became the first American woman to podium in a 30 k Holmenkollen), Diggins’ drive is for a personal best on Sunday.
“I am just excited to keep pushing hard and see if I can break through and get some new firsts for me,” Diggins told FasterSkier. “I am fighting for a good spot in the overall [World Cup] and in the overall distance [ranking] as well … it’s fun to try to do something new and definitely motivates me to keep fighting really hard. It kept me pushing for every second today.”
Diggins is also third in the Distance World Cup standings, 64 points behind Østberg in second and 43 points ahead of Pärmäkoski in fourth.
Rounding out the remainder of Saturday’s top 10 was Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen in ninth (+24.8) and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen in 10 (+26.2). Just 0.1 seconds outside of the top 10 was American Sadie Bjornsen in 11th (+26.3).
This World Cup season has marked somewhat of a breakthrough season for Bjornsen, with the 28 year old earning her first distance podium and two classic sprint podiums.
On Friday, she appeared to be pulling for a podium again. Bjornsen charged hard to the front of the pack in bib 8, three bibs back from Diggins, who led the first 2 k of the race before Bjørgen took over.
When asked about the risk involved with taking such a race tactic and why she chose to do so, Bjornsen was thoughtful. Reflecting on her recent strong results in sprint qualifiers, she explained that she was testing “what can happen if I have no fear, if I have no fear of failing.”
“I keep trying to tell myself that in the distance races … any amount of fear really pulls you back from that podium potential. So this last week I made it a goal of mine to try to race from the gun and see if I can hang on,” Bjornsen said.
With this being the final weekend of World Cup racing until next season, Bjornsen also saw it as an opportune time for her to try going out harder at the start. In a sense, test her pacing in an insular way.
“It’s the best time of the year [for that],” Bjornsen said of a hot start. “You have nothing to lose. I definitely am fighting in the overall [World Cup] for places, too, but at the same time it’s not fighting for a podium. So if I absolutely explode, like I did today in the middle of the race, there is just no failing with that.
“I am learning how to [ski in the front] this year and next year I’m ready to come back and take that risk more often,” she added.
Bjornsen is currently ranked eighth in the Overall World Cup standings with 799 points. Ahead of her is Kalla in seventh (828), Bjørgen in sixth (835), and Stadlober fifth (836). In the distance standings, Bjornsen is 10th. She will start Sunday’s pursuit in sixth, 57.3 seconds after Bjørgen.
Also competing for the U.S. on Saturday was Sophie Caldwell, who placed 41st (+1:36.1), Rosie Frankowski in 44th (+1:43.7), Caitlin Patterson in 47th (+1:54.8), Kikkan Randall in 57th (+2:34.1), Kaitlynn Miller in 64th (+2:50.7).
In her final weekend of World Cup racing, Randall explained Saturday’s result was not quite where she hoped to be, partly as her body still felt the effects of Friday’s sprint effort.
“I always just like to end on a good note feeling like I just really raced hard and [with] regards to the results, feel competitive,” she said. “Yesterday was more along those lines, today was just hard, but it’s still good to be up here. Such a beautiful day for racing, perfect temperature, good tracks, good skis.”
Emily Nishikawa led Canada in 36th (+1:31.1), followed by Cendrine Browne in 50th (+2:05.7), Dahria Beatty in 61st (+2:46.6), and Zina Kocher in 69th (+6:12.0).
— Harald Zimmer and Alex Kochon contributed