FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – When you’re as cool as Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, getting your ski tails stepped on and faceplanting with almost 90 guys behind you doesn’t faze you.
Just over a kilometer into the men’s 30 k skiathlon at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships on Saturday, Cologna became one of the first casualties in an anxious and tightly packed group after the mass start. But no matter. The 26-year-old got up and clawed back into the top 10 by the end of the first 3.75 k classic lap.
That’s the power of an Olympic gold, three Tour de Ski titles and numerous World Cup victories, and Cologna also had the drive for his first World Championships medal on his side.
The Swiss rose from a minor slipup to the front of the pack by the second of the four-lap classic leg, challenging defending champ Petter Northug and his Norwegian teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby, as well as Russia’s Alexander Legkov, Jens Filbrich of Germany, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, and more in the 60-man strong crew.
Despite changing leaders, the pace mostly stayed the same, even on the third lap when Hellner and Jean Marc Gaillard of France attempted to make something happen. Cologna had told himself before the race that he needed to take charge in the skate leg, and by the transition, he appeared in fighting position.
The first into the exchange zone at 15 k, Norway’s Eldar Rønning stepped out of his classic skis and into his skates the fastest and led the group out of the stadium. Hannes Dotzler of Germany went with him, as did Legov, and Cologna hovered around 10th with Northug.
In front of them, Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson surged ahead. Sundby answered, passing him and keeping the pace high. The group dropped to 20, and Cologna stayed steady take the lead with three laps remaining. Not long after, Cologna looked around for someone to share the load. He pulled over and started walking up the first big climb before Sundby decided he’d had enough and pushed onward up the other side.
With no takers to help chase him down — perhaps part of Norway’s plot — Cologna made a bit of a gamble. Let Sundby go and be confident enough to rein him in, or make sure he doesn’t get away for good?
Unrattled, the Swiss went with the first choice.
Despite Sundby gapping the group by nearly 20 seconds, Cologna’s calculated move turned out to be spot-on; they caught him with about five kilometers to go.
“I really want to fight for the gold medal and not for the silver medal so I decided to close the gap myself,” Cologna said at a post-race press conference. “In the end it was the right decision. Everything was perfect for me.”
By “perfect,” he was referring to his attack up the second to last hill, dropping all but three: Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin, Røthe and Sundby, respectively. They went with him with two kilometers to go, but couldn’t match his kick on the final climb. Cologna opened up a several-second gap on the other three, with Northug also closing from behind.
Charging hard through the stadium, Cologna looked back as he entered the finishing lanes. He stopped pushing and cruised over the line with his hands in the air. Finally, he had done it, and his first World Championships medal just happened to be gold.
Cologna finished in 1:13:09.3, and Sundby placed second, 1.8 seconds back, to top his individual bronze from the 2011 World Championships 15 k classic. Røthe, 24, was third for his first individual world medal, and seven-time world champion, Northug placed fourth (+5.2).
“It was really a dream to win here and to win the first race is even better,” Cologna said in this first distance race of the Val di Fiemme World Championships, just a two-hour drive from his hometown of Val Müstair, Switzerland.
“I felt great the whole race and to come alone into the stadium is always a great feeling,” he added. “It was also my plan.”
Cologna said he expected someone to attack earlier, and when they didn’t, he took it upon himself to do so. After trying to drop the pack initially in the skate leg, he said it didn’t work so he chose to conserve while Sundby went for it.
Meanwhile, he visualized that last uphill. Three weeks ago at the pre-Olympic World Cup in Sochi, Russia, Cologna dropped several Russians up something similar to win the skiathlon.
“Dario was the best today,” Sundby told reporters after Saturday’s race. “We [Norway] managed to get second and third and for me second place is like a victory.”
A strong classic skier, Sundby took it upon himself in the offseason to make some major improvements to his skate technique, NRK reported. It paid off, as he felt strong enough to leave the group around on the first of four skate laps.
“I did not quite know what happened. Suddenly I had fifteen seconds without really knowing what to do,” he told NRK.
“I didn’t at any point think that this would hold for a gold medal,” he said at a press conference. “So for the third lap I tried to calm down, rest a bit and wait for the guys and be prepared for a very tough fourth lap.”
That last lap turned out to be tough, with Sundby outlunging his teammate, Røthe, by two-tenths of a second for silver. After Vylegzhanin trailed Cologna up the last hill, Røthe and Sundby went on either side to pass the Russian. They soared down into the stadium in second and third, while Northug made a late move to pass Vylegzhanin as well.
Røthe told reporters he was extremely satisfied with his career best, especially in sharing the podium with Sundby.
“It’s my own fault that I wasn’t in back of Dario, but I’m really satisfied and it’s good that Martin’s by my side,” Røthe said.
Norwegian men’s coach Trond Nystad said it was a good day for Norway with two medals in the men’s race and a podium sweep for the women.
“Dario wins, that was deserved; he was a better skier today,” Nystad said. “We got two, three and four and we have to be happy with that.”
As for which of his athletes he thought might be in the hunt for gold, Nystad said he wasn’t surprised by Sundby or Røthe, who was third in the Canmore World Cup skiathlon in December.
“Of course, Petter who was fourth, he was also expected to be in there and fight for the medals, but he was sleeping a little bit on top of the hill,” Nystad said.
“I would like all medal, so it was a disappointing race for me,” Northug told NRK. “Fortunately, two Norwegians medaled.”
After Northug, Vylegzhanin led the Russians in fifth (+6.1), Legkov was sixth (+10.1) and Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden was seventh. Hellner placed eighth, Tobias Angerer of Germany was ninth and Gaillard finished 10th.
– Audrey Mangan contributed reporting