He won the mini tour. He won the BMX trophy drive. He won the overall World Cup.
“We’re going to let loose and do something fun tonight, but whatever that is, I still don’t know,” Petter Northug (NOR) said after finishing the 15 k freestyle pursuit on Sunday.
You can hardly blame him. Northug completed an astonishing reversal in the season standings, finding late winter form and motivation to take his second overall World Cup title, his first since the 2010.
With this victory at World Cup Finals, Northug becomes only the second Norwegian to take more than one overall title. He’s still shaded by Bjørn Dæhlie’s six triumphs, but Northug is in rare company.
Leading into Sunday’s 15 k freestyle pursuit the question on everyone’s lips asked what Northug’s tactics would be. Would he try to keep the chasing pack away, or would he be caught and have to sprint for the finish?
A yawning gap separated Northug from his closest competitor in the Falun mini tour on the start line; Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) started 30.5 seconds after Northug.
Northug wasn’t concerned about Vylegzhanin.
In prerace interviews he indicated to FIS that “I don’t care much about Maxim Vylegzhanin. I have to keep Legkov and Cologna behind.”
Realistically, neither had a chance to overthrow Northug. Cologna started 1:20 behind the Norwegian. Indeed, Northug had gone as far to say that he would cancel his holiday if he lost it.
“I’ll go on a camping trip in Falun,” Northug said to Aftenbladet after being asked what he’d do if he lost. “I don’t think that’s very pleasant.”
Legkov, the closest to Northug in the overall, started 1:47 back. Barring a spectacular implosion, the title was Northug’s for the taking.
Judging by Northug’s start, it appeared his tactic would be to slot in behind Vylegzhanin and pace himself to the finish. Northug came out of the starting gate sluggishly, without his characteristic spark.
At the first 1.4 k checkpoint the clock revealed another story. Northug passed the mark in 3:47.7, with Vylegzhanin coming through 32 seconds later. The Norwegian had started in earnest.
Further back, Martin Johsrud Sundby (NOR) had already latched onto Eldar Rønning, whom had started third, 40 seconds behind Northug.
Rønning, the classic specialist, was already leaking time. After the first 3.6 k loop, the race began to take shape. Rønning faded, and Vylegzhanin formed an elite group of chasers containing Sundby and Finn Hagen Krogh (NOR), whom had already eaten up a significant margin after starting 54.4 seconds behind Northug.
The chase was on, but the spirit of the chasers might have dampened after one lap through the stadium when they found themselves 39.8 seconds down to a determined Northug.
As the chase group approached the uphill spectators were treated to some theatrics by Vylegzhanin when he took a drink from a coach and face planted after he poled between his legs. Perhaps World Cup racers are more human than we suppose. That misfortune effectively ended Vylegzhanin’s fight for a mini-tour podium. Seeing the Russian lying on the track behind them, Sundby and Krogh ratcheted up the pace and left the Russian for dead.
Northug passed the 5 k mark in 12:38.5, coaxing his 83 kilograms up the long uphill. Half a minute later Sundby and Krogh roared past in hot pursuit of their teammate, taking 8 seconds out of Northug’s lead in the steep pitch.
Northug’s overall rivals hadn’t made the necessary inroads to pose a real threat, with Cologna and Legkov passing the 5 k mark over 90 seconds down.
It appeared the real drama would be if Northug could hold off his teammates. Sundby and Krogh were clearly hunting Northug, and if they didn’t have the same race suit on you’d have hardly thought they were Norwegian. Northug wasn’t getting any favors. Yet for all of Sundby’s and Krogh’s advances on the uphill, their downhill track craft muted their climbing prowess.
Northug conceded seconds on the climbs but stabilized the losses on the downhill, taking advantage of the untidy snowplowing of his teammates.
As they came into the stadium for the second time, a huge group had formed 1:36.7 behind Northug, led by Legkov. Even if the overall appeared out of his reach, the fight for second place between he and Cologna was on.
As Northug crested the big hill again, Sundby and Krogh had sight of their teammate, only 24.9 seconds back at the 8.6 k mark.
Vylegzhanin passed through in damage control after his fall, 1:10 behind Northug, while the pack led by Legkov and Ilia Chernousov (RUS) came through 1:26.9 seconds down.
In the chasing pack Krogh took charge and tried to close those final meters to Northug, but the tall Norwegian was doing just enough to keep the chasers at bay. At the 12.2 k mark Northug had 14.9 seconds to play with in the final 3.7 kilometers of the season.
Out of the stadium Northug grimaced up the last hills and swooped into the stadium, while Sundby and Krogh attacked each other behind.
A few quick glances over his shoulder, and Northug knew he had done it. He cruised into the stadium and took his time towards the finish while Krogh and Sundby lit up the afterburners to fight for second place.
In the end Northug stuck his toe across the line only 0.7 seconds ahead of Krogh, who got the better of Sundby in the end. Northug finished in a time of 35:48.3.
In the end Northug’s margin of victory in the overall flattered to deceive, with a 180-point margin over Legkov by virtue of the 200 points awarded the Falun mini tour victor.
Northug afterward was unexpectedly emotional.
“It’s really fun to do it,” Northug told the NRK.. “It’s not simple to win the World Cup; many of my competitors prioritize the overall over world championships, and that is huge.”
With Ja Vi Elsker, the Norwegian national anthem, playing over the loudspeakers as he raised the second crystal globe of his career, tears welled in his eyes. The jubilant champion felt relief after the pressure of the last two weeks.
“It feels a little like I’ve stolen the overall title,” he said. “It has been a fantastic season. I won an individual world championships gold, additionally in an individual start, and the world cup overall. I’m very satisfied.”
Even the head of the Norwegian ski federation Vidar Løfshus expressed his admiration.
“We came here to win the crystal globe, and we did it,” he told the NRK. “Both the support crew and the athletes have done a great job.”
Northug leaves Falun with a hefty payday and a new BMW. But you won’t see him driving it, as he’s donated the vehicle to charity.
It was Northug’s day, but he wasn’t the only one with something to celebrate.
Like Rønning the day before, Krogh delivered one of his best results of the season to take second place in the mini tour. He also posted the fastest time on the day in 34:54.6.
“On a good day I can deliver a good result,” Krogh said to the NRK. “In the future I will deliver more consistent results than this year. I am prepared to train a lot to be even better next year.”
Sundby was third and Legkov fourth in a time of 35:05.5 and 35:14.7 respectively.
In the final analysis Legkov fell just short of his first overall World Cup title, but he can take consolation in claiming the distance world cup, winning the Tour de Ski, and improving upon two successive seasons where he finished the season fifth in the overall rankings. If his career arc continues on the same trajectory, he’ll be a contender for the overall next year.
Northug topped the prize money list for the season, earning himself a substantial payday of 212,500 CHF. Legkov and Cologna were second and third, padding their bank accounts with 165,625 CHF and 136,250 CHF respectively.
Norway took the Nations Cup competition with a 14,208 points. Russia accrued 9,130 points for second place, and Sweden third with 6,352 points.