With the 2013 Tour de Ski winding down, Alexey Poltaranin (KAZ) has turned on the afterburners, winning his second consecutive stage.
The Kazakh’s charge up the standings comes too late for a run at the overall podium, but his victory in the 15k classic mass start puts him in 5th place, and in position to take advantage of any implosions by those ahead.
The finish came to down to a tight sprint amongst six men, and while Poltaranin took the top spot, the Canadian men packed the rest of the podium with big Lenny Valjas coming from behind to take second besting teammate Alex Harvey at the line.
The Val di Fiemme mass start was shortened in this version of the Tour de Ski, dropping from 20 to 15 kilometers in length, and the number of bonus sprints slashed as well, with the goal of creating a tighter field on the Final Climb.
With Petter Northug (NOR) holding a small lead over rival Dario Cologna (SUI) and Russians Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin, every second could prove critical.
After Friday’s prologue, Northug claimed he would not be challenging for early bonus sprints in the mass start, clearly a red herring.
With the first points available at the top of the biggest climb, just five minutes in, Northug attacked on the inside, running out of the tracks, powering by Vylegzhanin, before slowing to a walk as he crested the top.
First blood for the Norwegian, but the day would rapidly head south for the overall World Cup leader.
Daniel Richardsson (SWE), fourth through the preem, did not slow and Northug would have no time to recover.
The climbs are steep and the descents fast and technical on the Val di Fiemme courses. Rest is hard to find, and hills are easier to come by than a cheap and delicious cappuccino in these Italian mountains.
As the race headed down through the stadium at the completion of the first of three five-kilometer laps, Finn Hagen Krogh pulled teammate Northug up along the outside and back in position.
Northug had been lagging toward the back of the pack, in no place for a run at the next upcoming preem.
He would, however, have been better served to have handed Krogh his bib for all the good the ride did him.
He did not challenge for the next bonus sprint, slipping well back in the pack, looking severely fatigued. He would eventually straggle across the line in 28th, 29 seconds behind Poltaranin.
To his credit, Northug never let up fighting to minimize the damage in the overall standings.
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier that his skiers were planning to avoid any effort for the first preem, so early on.
“That first bonus sprint, we knew not to go for that one,” he said. “It pretty much ended Northug’s race.”
At the finish, Northug lay for minutes in the snow, as the rest of the racers flowed in. He told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that he felt tired from the get-go, and opted to contest the first preem to try to earn some seconds — get while the getting is good.
Canadian Devon Kershaw told FasterSkier that it appeared Northug did not have great kick, and spent much of the climbs running outside of the track.
“His skis were just not competitive,” Kershaw said.
Races without Northug at the front are still very much races, however, and certainly no one felt pity for the oft-brazen Norwegian.
Vylegzhanin took the second preem, closely followed by Legkov, who did not fight at the front the first time around.
The Russians overcame a bold attack by Lukas Bauer (CZE) early in the loop. The veteran opened a ten-meter gap, but could not get away, or even hold his margin through the bonus.
The pace overall appeared fast enough, but Kershaw described it as “crawling”.
It dropped even more headed out on the final loop, and the pack, strung out by the pressure of the preems, closed back up, even allowing the faltering Northug to regain contact, albeit at the back.
Headed up to the final bonus, Alexander Bessmertnykh (RUS) accelerated and created a small gap. But as he approached the 100-meter mark before the sprint, he backed off, allowing teammates Legkov and Vylegzhanin to come by.
Those two Russians grabbed the top two spots while an uncharacteristically tired-looking Cologna managed a push for 5th.
After the fast and sweeping descents, just two hills remained before the run to the line. The pace increased on the first, but the crux was the second. It was there that Poltaranin, who had moved up to the front of the pack earlier in the loop, made his move.
He attacked up and over the top, the ageless Giorgio DiCenta (ITA) on his heels. Legkov responded, as did Harvey, Valjas and Tobias Angerer (GER), leaving the rest of the field to fight it out for what seconds they could.
With six finish tracks, there was room to move. DiCenta and Poltaranin held the early edge, but Valjas swung wide, initially moving up outside of the track as he rode the slingshot off the draft.
He shot by DiCenta, and missed out on the victory by no more than 12 inches.
Harvey used a superior double pole to keep DiCenta off the podium and earn his second podium in this event in two years.
Legkov crossed the line next, but he ended up in between two tracks, and bumped into Angerer. The Russian was penalized for obstruction and given a 15 second penalty, dropping him to 17th on the day.
Perhaps more importantly, instead of wearing the red Tour leader’s bib and starting 8.5 seconds ahead of Cologna in the Final Climb, he is 6.5 back in second, with Northug and Vylegzhanin five and ten seconds behind respectively.
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth was not surprised to see Valjas on the podium, pointing to World Cup Finals last season where he finished third in this same race.
“15k classic, he is one of the best in the world in a mass start or pursuit start style,” Wadsworth told FasterSkier in an interview. “It is just nice to see it validated again that he can ski distance.”
Valjas executed his pre-race plan of ignoring the preems, and spent most of the race back in the pack.
He started moving up in the final lap, and was in position to respond to the final attack on the last climb.
“I just stuck to the skis in front of me, and was able to slingshot down into the finish,” he said.
Recognizing the importance of the homestretch on the Val di Fiemme course, Valjas said he chose a slightly longer pair of poles to aid his double pole.
“There is no bigger game-time skier that I have ever seen,” Kershaw said of his teammate. “I have seen him in a lot of workouts — it is ugly a lot of the time…and then when he puts the bib on he is there. He is just so darn talented and such a good racer.”
Kershaw was in the mix until the final hills, where once again, he was unable to shift into a high gear.
“When I need to tap into the power…I go from feeling very comfortable to nothing, there is no power in my body,” Kershaw explained. “The next thing you know you are 18 seconds down and struggling in.”
Kershaw ended up 21st, and fourth on the Canadian team.
Ivan Babikov skied to a career-best classic result of 7th, in the mix for the entire race.
Wadsworth said he has been working all year with Babikov on double poling “to set him up so when he is going up the uphills, he can be fresher.”
Increased fitness and the improved double poling support Babikov’s always strong technique according to Wadsworth.
“He is showing he is just really good in classic. He has always skied well — technically well – Russian style of classic skiing,” Wadsworth said.
Babikov now sits in 17th overall, and 5th place is not out of reach, especially for a skier who has won the Final Climb in the past.
Valjas starts in 11th while the 12th ranked Harvey will not race the last stage due to a leg issue that makes climbing difficult.
“By pushing it sometimes with that injury, it can shut down for periods of time or get more constricted for the rest of the season,” Wadsworth explained. “We just don’t want to take any chances there.”
Kershaw is 18th, but has no illusions of grandeur.
“It’s not going to be pretty but I am going to try to make it up there the best I can,” he said.