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Kowalczyk, Nygaard Win Big at Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet

Women’s podium at the 80th annual Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet. With Justyna Kowalczyk (c) in first, Katerina Smutna (l) in second, and Astrid Øyre Slind (r) in third. (Photo: Visma Ski Classics)

The 80th annual Birkebeinerrennet took place last Saturday, March 17, from Rena to Lillehammer, Norway. According to a press release, this year’s race was a cold one, leading even the top racers to use kick wax and diagonal stride, as opposed to double poling the entire course.

In the women’s race, Justyna Kowalczyk (Team Trentino Robinson Trainer) dropped the pack on the first long climb and held her lead to the finish, winning by more than three minutes in  3:06:10.7 hours. Behind her, Kateriná Smutná (Bauer Ski Team) and Astrid Øyre Slind (Team Koteng) worked together and ended the race in a battle for second, which Smutná took (+3:04.9) over Slind in third (+3:56.3). The overall leader of the Ski Classics series,  Britta Johansson Norgren (Lager 157 Ski Team) finished nearly 10 minutes later in fourth (+13:21.9), while Americans Chelsea Holmes (Alaska Pacific University) and Erika Flowers (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) finished 12th (+27:50.4) and 28th (+29:03.4), respectively.

“I was surprised that the others didn’t follow me when I broke away,” Kowalczyk said, according to the Ski Classics press release. “The first 20 kilometers suit me really well, but naturally I felt tired after Sjusjøen, the last control point, because 54 km is still a long distance for me. I knew I had nothing to worry about because my gap was over 5 minutes at one point, and I didn’t need to push myself that hard. It feels great to be back in the long distance game again, I will do the remaining two races if my recovery goes well and I stay healthy.”

In the men’s race, Ermil Vokuev (Russian Marathon Team) pulled away before the final climb on the second half of the course, but was quickly followed by Team Santander’s Tord Asle Gjerdalen and Andreas Nygaard. Behind them, Anders Aukland was able to catch his Santander teammates to make the finish quite interesting. Nygaard trailed Gjerdalen along the final downhill into Lillehammer, then took the win by 2.8 seconds ahead of Gjerdalen, crossing the finish line in 2:33:13.6. Aukland placed third (+2:01.8), while Vokuev faded to finish fourth (+2:16.4).

The men’s Podium at the 2018 Birkebeinerrennet, with Andreas Nygaard (c) in first, Tord Asle Gjerdalen (l) in second, and Anders Aukland (r) in third. (Photo: Visma Ski Classics)

“It feels a bit surreal to win both Vasaloppet and Birken back to back,” Nygaard said, according to the press release. “Gjerdalen and I didn’t really have a cat-and-mouse game in the end as we worked well together, and I was confident that I can beat him in the end. I’ve had a bit of rollercoaster feeling after Vasaloppet both mentally and physically, but it seems that spending time watching Netflix and playing video games on my couch paid off. I will now go to Nordenskiöldsloppet, 220 km, and then spend my Easter ice fishing and chopping wood at my cabin. That’ll be my preparation for Reistadløpet and Ylläs-Levi!”

The men’s overall standings did not change with Gjerdalen sitting atop with 3084 points. On the women’s side, Johansson Norgren continues to lead with 3720 points.

The next race will be on April 7 for the Reistadløpet in Norway.

Results: Men | Women

— Ian Tovell

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