There were 16 teams entering today’s 4x5km relay for the women, including four teams flying the Norwegian flag. The air and snow temperature was 0°C at the start of the race with slightly overcast skis. All the ingredients for another Norway win.
From the gun, it was Sweden’s Ingemarsdotter who used her sprint power and led the race out extremely quickly over the first 90 seconds until gap was closed. Skofterud moved in front and began to dictate a much more realistic pace. It only took three minutes into the race for the first athlete to fall off the back and that was USA’s Ida Sergent.
Coming into the stadium for the end of the 2.5km loop, it was Jacobsen of Norway II leading the pack with Norway I and Norway IV right behind. There was a breakaway of five seconds for the first eight teams going out of the stadium as the Norwegians began to break the field.
Jacobsen’s pace continued to hurt the others as only Skofterud was able to stay on her tail but a gap was opening between Jacobsen and Skofterud and the chase group of four including Finland, France, Norway III and Norway IV. Ingemarsdotter quick start appeared to have been hurting her as she was dropping off the field quickly.
Coming to the 4.3km, Skofterud made her move and was able to shake Jacobsen and open up a six second gap on Jacobsen while it was another four seconds back to the chase pack of four.
At the 4.3km exchange it was Norway I, France, Norway III, and Norway II. The top 6 teams separated by 14 seconds. Jacobsen continued to go backwards and France’s Aurore Jean was having an amazing leg as she moved into second and no one from the chase pack was able to keep with her coming into the stadium.
At the first exchange, Skofterud had earned a six second lead for Norway I over the field as France, Norway III, Norway II, Norway IV and Finland were all within eight seconds of each other.
Out on the second loop, Johaug was doing well to further increase the lead and Martine Ek Hagen of Norway IV and France’s Barthelemy was struggling to hold onto the end of the chasers. Over the first 1.8km, Johaug had added another four seconds on the lead to increase the gap to 10 seconds.
After 2.5km of the second leg, the chase group led by Saarinen had done well to stop the increase in the lead as Johaug was still 10 seconds ahead. Both France and Norway IV had dropped off the pace and were in no-mans land.
The next time check was 4.3km and Saarinen was putting in her move and had only lost two seconds on Johaug. In the process, Saarinen was breaking the junior-stars Østberg of Norway II and Weng of Norway III as they were starting to lose contact with the Finn.
At the half-way point of the Norway I was in the lead by 14 seconds over Finland followed by Norway II another two seconds back and Norway III 11 seconds back of Norway II. Kowalczyk had an amazing leg and managed to pull Poland from 14th to 5th.
Steira was skiing the third leg for Norway I and the biathlete Berger was skiing for Norway II and Roponen for Finland and the battle for second was taking shape. At 1.8km, Berger and Roponen had stabilized the gains by Steira and were 17 seconds down. Berger was pushing the pace while Roponen was following close behind.
At the 2.5km mark of the third leg, Norway II and Finland were 18 second back and still skiing together while Norway III was 33 seconds back in no-mans land. A battle for 5th place was shaping up between Sweden, France and Norway IV as Sweden’s Rydvist was leading the threesome.
The battle between Roponen and Berger was intensifying as Roponen tried to pass a couple of times, but couldn’t find the room. At 4.3km, Berger and Roponen had closed the gap on Steira only slightly and were 16 seconds down. The next time the camera came to the fight for silver, Berger had pulled away from Roponen slightly and had opened a four second gap at the final exchange.
With a 15 second lead to work with Bjørgen for Norway I had nothing to really worry about so much of the focus was put on the fights going on behind the leader. Sarasoja-Lilja had done really well for Finland and closed the four-second gap between her and Norway II’s Kristoffersen. Further behind, it was Kalla who was gaining on Norway III’s Astrid Øyre Slind (not to be confused with her twin sister Silje Øyre Slind who was skiing the anchor lef for Norway IV) as the Swede had broken away from France and Norway IV.
At the 1.8km, Bjørgen had increased the lead by four seconds as the gap was 20 seconds between Norway I and the fight for second. Kalla had past Slind and taken four seconds out of Bjørgen and was now in fourth place.
The gaps for Bjørgen continued to open up and the lead was increased to 25 seconds at 2.5km and then 33 seconds at 4.3km as Sarasoja-Lilja and Kristoffersen stayed together. With 700m left in the race, Kristoffersen made her decisive move and Sarasoja-Lilja couldn’t react. At this point, Kalla was all alone in fourth and was the only athlete not losing time on Bjørgen.
At the finish, Bjørgen was all smiles to earn her second gold of the season while Kristoffersen opened up a big gap on Sarasoja-Lilja for the silver while Kalla had a great leg and put Sweden in fourth.
1. Norway I (Skofterud, Johaug, Steira, Bjørgen)
2. Norway II (Jacobsen, Østberg, Berger, Kristoffersen)
3. Finland (Lahteenmaki, Saarinen, Roponen, Sarasoja-Lilja)
Everything went as planned; Norway I dominated, Norway II was on the podium and then it was a toss-up between Sweden and Finland for third before the day started.
This has been mentioned before, but this utter domination could be harmful for the sport. The lack of competition outside the top three countries is a little worrying now that Italy and Russia seemed to have dropped off the deep end. Norway, Finland and Sweden are the only countries that seem to have realistic chances of making the podium. France had a great race today, but I can never see them beating out any of the Scandinavian countries this year.
For the race itself, Sweden was really let down by Ingemardotter who really bombed her first leg and single-handedly took Sweden out of the running as they were 42 second down after only 5km, but the Kalla’s freetsyle strength really showed on the day as she was able to pull Sweden into fourth and had the fastest final leg time.
Finland has to be pleased with their result today, 3rd place is a very decent start to the season and it was good to see Saarinen have a much better day today after her 27th from yesterday.
It was a great day for France too who finished a very impressive 5th place. It all started with a great lead-out leg by Jean and continued right through to the end. It will definitely instill some confidence in the team going forward which can never be a bad thing.
On individual performances, I have to highlight a couple of second leg skiers. Kowalczyk was amazing today as she had the fastest second leg by 13.5 seconds and pulled then up to fifth, but ultimately they finished 11th. The second fastest skier of the second leg was Randall for USA! Her improvements in her distance skiing over the summer are paying immediately paying dividends.