Ariana Follis (ITA) jumped up to second in the Tour de Ski overall classification with an impressive victory today in the Freestyle Sprint in Prague. Follis won the 1km qualifying time trial then lead all the way through the semi-final and A-final to win ahead of Pirjo Muranen (FIN) and Marit Bjoergen (NOR); the Norwegian taking enough bonus seconds to hold onto her overall lead in the Tour.
The 450m loop in the centre of Prague had some tight corners and there was some fierce racing through the head-to-head rounds. The snow was soft which made it more challenging, but there was plenty of space down the main straight for overtaking.
Follis and Mischol (SUI) progressed through from the first heat. Kalla (SWE) had some bad luck in her quarter final, leading most of the way before breaking a pole in the final straight and ending up fourth behind Jacobsen (NOR), Roponen (FIN), and Korosteleva (RUS). Muranen and Genuin (ITA) lead all the way through their quarter-final, as did Kuenzel (GER) and Kowalczyk (POL) who held off Bjoergen in the final straight. Kuitunen (FIN) lead Prochazkova (SVK) in the last heat, with Majdic (SLO) fighting her way up to third but unable to catch the Finn and the Slovak in the final straight. Korosteleva and Bjoergen were the fastest of the third placed finishers and took the last two places in the semi-finals.
The first semi-final was relatively uneventful. The pace was high with Follis at the front leading Genuin and Bjoergen. Bjoergen pulled up to Genuin down the finish straight and pipped her on the line, with Muranen also finishing fast to be only 0.7 back in fourth and still with a chance of qualifying for the A-final on time. The second semi-final saw Kuitunen squeeze in ahead of Prochazkova and Kowalczyk into the first corner. A lap later Kowalczyk tried unsuccessfully to overtake Prochazkova, and maybe the pressure was too much as the very next corner Prochazkova stumbled and went down, bringing Kuenzel down behind her. Jacobsen must have gone down as well, as then there were only three fighting for the line. Kuitunen got in first, with Kowalczyk ousting Korosteleva in a photo-finish. The second semi was a couple of seconds slower, so four skiers went through to the final from the first semi.
Next up was the B-final. Prochazkova looked a little uncoordinated but still managed to be fastest out of the start ahead of Mischol; the Swiss skier sat behind then overtook at the end of the first lap. Kuenzel was in touch and tried to make her move down the final straight but the line came too quick, Mischol kept her lead and took 7th place ahead of Prochazkova.
In the A-final Follis got off to a good start as usual, with Muranen on her heels into the first corner. Kowalczyk fell by herself and was out of the running. Bjoergen was in third place ahead of Genuin then Kuitunen. And that's how the places stayed until the finish. Muranen tried her best down the finish straight but Follis was too strong.
In the overall classification Bjoergen now has a nine second lead over Follis, with Kowalczyk in third 22 seconds behind. It will definitely be another interesting Pursuit in Nove Mesto on Stage 4 on New Years Day. The fastest skier from Stage 2 Kalla is sitting in 6th, 38 seconds off the pace, with Kuitunen and Mischol in between. Another fast Finn, Roponen, will start only 7 seconds behind Kalla, while the German trio of Sachenbacher, Kunzel and Zeller will start five seconds apart one minute off the lead, together with Italian Valbusa. Follis and Valbusa will both be looking to be as high as possible in the standings before the tough individual classic stage on January 2.