With air temperatures around 2.5°C and the snow temperature at a crisp -1.5°C, it was a great day for the opening of the new World Cup season. There was a lot of artificial snow produced to get this race off and the loop had a 25cm base which was packed on top of the Sjusjøen roller-ski loop. Today also was the first time the FIS was able to run their new starting protocol with high FIS point athletes alternating with low FIS point athletes in the start list so the big athletes will get more TV time.

THE RACE

The first real pace setter on the day was the Norwegian junior Martine Ek Hagen who went through the 2.5km time check at a hair over six minutes.  Hagen was topped by fellow junior Heidi Weng by less than a second before the biathlete Tore Berger took five seconds out of the lead. The Norwegians continued to drop that first intermediate time as Østberg was through 2.5km 0.2 seconds faster than the biathlete. The Norwegian lead was temporarily halted as Randall had a very strong start and was just sliver ahead of Østberg.

After about 50 starters, the track started to become very crowded since the athletes had to do the loop three times with groups of up to five athletes on different laps skiing together. As Steira took the 2.5km intermediate from the lead from Randall, it was Stephens at the finish line to put up the first decent time of 25:52. Just after Steira went by the time check, Skofterud took another four seconds out at 2.5km and dropped the time to 5:47. It took a few more athletes before Kristoffersen took the lead and dropped the time by a second.

Further up the course, the race was beginning to take shape as Tore Berger continued to put the hammer down as athletes were starting to drop off her pace at the intermediate splits. Randall was one of the few athletes doing a good job to stay within a few seconds Berger’s time.

Back at the finish, Weng took 12 seconds out of the lead. However, only three bibs later Berger blazed the final home stretch and took a massive 35 seconds out of Weng for a new lead time of 25:05.

To get an early reading on how Bjørgen was going, she took an amazing 6.7 seconds out of Kristoffersen’s time at 2.5km. Worryingly for Polish ski fans, Kowalczyk was already a big 17 seconds behind her rival at the first time check. To show how impressive the Norwegians were, with all the athletes through the 2.5km, Norway held seven of the top nine spots.

As more and more athletes came across the finish-line, more athletes failed to beat Berger’s time until bib 47 in Skofterud came through and took 14 seconds out of the biathlete and became the first athlete to go under 25 minutes on the day in 24:51.

Back on course, Skofterud’s intermediate times were the real place markers and at 6.9km, the likes of Kalla and Johaug were both slower, but Bjørgen wasn’t as she took a massive 14 seconds out of her teammate. At the same time check, Kowalczyk continued to go backwards and was a horrible 41 seconds behind Bjørgen sitting in ninth place. With all the athletes through, it was eight Norwegians (Bjørgen, Skofterud, Steira, Kristoffersen, Johaug, Jacobsen and Østberg) in the top 11 and only Kalla in third place as the only non-Norwegian in the top seven.

The race between Kalla and Skofterud was heating up and with the information Kalla got from her coaches, she was able to erase the 5.5 second hole she was in at 6.9km to beat Skofterud by 1.9 seconds. Kalla held the lead only for short while as Bjørgen came across the line an amazing 27 seconds ahead of Kalla to earn her first of many victories this season.

RESULTS

1. Marit Bjørgen
2. Charlotte Kalla
3. Vibeke Skofterud

Analysis

Well in one way, today finished a lot like we thought and a lot different at the same time. Bjørgen won the race and almost everybody expected that, but by how much she won today is a little worrying for the rest of the women’s field. 27 seconds ahead of the next athlete is a huge gap and the question if anyone can close it will have to wait until next weekend.

It was truly a great race by Skofterud today to earn third. Looking at her FIS profile, it’s interesting to see all her individual podiums dating back to 2003 have come in the first month of the World Cup season, either in Beitøstolen, Kuusamo, Gallivare or Davos. Hopefully, she’ll be able to continue this good form right into 2012.

The talent of Norway’s women’s team is nothing short of spectacular. Today has got to be one of the most dominating performances by a nation in recent history. If it wasn’t for Kalla and her 2nd place, Norway would’ve swept the top six positions. They still managed to earn nine of the top 13 spots which is almost unheard of these days in the sport.

The American team have to be really excited about how Randall (8th) and Stephens (18th) skied today. I believe those are both career best placings in distance races which is a great way to start the season.

The biggest news for me today though was the Russian women, it’s been well documented that their women’s side is weak, but today has got to sound some alarms and inject some panic in the Russian ski federation. Not a single woman finished inside the top 30 today with Nikolaeva the best at 39th. Also, Khazova in 44th is shocking and unacceptable and for a woman who had such a strong season two years ago, being 2:23 behind the lead is very troublesome.

I know I put a lot of light on Kowalczyk or her short comings, but her rivalry IS the rivalry in skiing right now. Kowalczyk has some serious work to do because being 1:12 behind Bjørgen is a huge chunk of time. Some of that lost time can be accounted for the fact that the snow was extremely hard and crusty which made it much harder to balance today and we all know how Kowalczyk deals with balance problems on skis… #bambi.

I’ll be back in a bit with the men’s recap.