The Tour de Ski (TdS) theater was treated to a solo-skier drama during the Stage 3 men’s 15-kilometer freestyle pursuit on Monday in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
On New Year’s Day, it was a homegrown skier, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who stole the show winning the race in 34:56.6 minutes. Cologna is a three-time Tour de Ski winner, who until Saturday’s 15 k classic stage win, hadn’t won a World Cup race in three years.
“It was an amazing day already yesterday,” Cologna told the International Ski Federation (FIS) in a post-race interview. “Today I didn’t plan to already go away [from Ustiugov] on the second loop, but I felt very good. It was amazing with the crowd again here, with a home crowd it gives you so much energy. The last loop was very tough, Sergey came back strong, but I was just pushing and really wanted this win. It was one of these amazing days.”
Russia took the remaining podium spots with Sergey Ustiugov in second, 17.6 seconds behind Cologna, and U23 skier Alexander Bolshunov in third (+45.5). The lone Canadian in the race, Alex Harvey, outsprinted a six-man group to finish in fourth (+46.8). Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin was fifth (+47.1), Norwegians Martin Johnsrud Sundby sixth (+48.1) and Hans Christer Holund seventh (+48.2), Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin eighth (+49.9), Finland’s Iivo Niskanen ninth (+51.5), and Sweden’s Marcus Hellner 10th (+1:21.7).
For the last day in 2017 and the first in 2018, Cologna is ringing in the new year with a vigorous resurgence. On paper before the race, Cologna’s potential top spot on the podium seemed possible, but based on recent stats, uncertain. Yes, Stage 2’s win was a statement, but a horde of would-be winners and chasers weren’t far back from Cologna at the start.
As the red-bibbed Tour leader, Ustiugov started first with only a 0.01-second wisp of time before second skier, Cologna, skied away. One-two, they were gone, with Bolshunov 12 seconds back, and the likes of Sundby and Harvey 39 seconds and 53 seconds behind, respectively.
In a quote to media after his Saturday win, Cologna noted he was hoping to pace together with Ustiugov from the start to keep the chasers at bay. The duel-with-Ustiugov tactics looked like they might play out for the duration — Ustiugov is known as a near-impossible skier to break.
At 2.7 k, it was a Cologna-Ustiugov tandem; they were separated by 0.4 seconds. But the impressions of the physical strain on 25-year-old Ustiugov were apparent — the strained facial expressions, the suddenly faltering technique. Cologna, on the other hand, looked like he had turned back the clock to his old dominating ways — the 31 year old’s skiing was big, smooth, and powerful.
At 4.7 k, Ustiugov was 7.3 seconds back. In the next k, Cologna pulled ahead. By 5.8 k, the time gap to Ustiugov had ballooned to 19.3 seconds. And with no apparent flaws evident in Cologna’s skiing, it was game over — Cologna eventually skied across the line on a blue-sky Swiss day waving to the home crowd.
“I was surprised myself. It really was my tactic to ski together exchanging in the lead, and initially that worked very well,” Cologna told Swiss broadcaster SRF, according to a translation. We regularly exchanged, and then he suddenly couldn’t quite keep up. I had thought that he started extremely fast, I barely could hang on at the beginning, but then he paid a little for that. I was surprised myself. But later he was able to recuperate and kept the gap constant. For me, it worked out great.”
The Tour takes a rest day on Tuesday and will ramp up again for a Stage 4 classic sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany, on Wednesday. After that, the distance races reign until the Tour concludes with the Stage 7 final climb in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“It’s looking good right now,” Cologna told SRF. “Classic sprint is surely my weakest discipline in this tour. Ustiugov will try to win again and then he might be ahead. But then we have three distance races again, and I have shown that I can hold up. The starting position is better than ever. And now I’ll try to pull through.”
For now, Cologna asserts with understated confidence that he can crack last year’s TdS winner Ustiugov.
“I think when you are in this position that has to be the goal. It won’t be easy, the day after tomorrow you can win another minute [in bonus seconds] and that rather will go to Ustiugov than to me. So it’s still very wide open. One also knows that he can rest up very quickly. And the others are also not out of the picture yet, there are some very strong athletes behind who will try everything they have, but I will also give it my best.”
Harvey 4th, Bjornsen 22nd
As the ninth starter in a sea of podium-shot skiers, Harvey had to ski strategically from the go. Sundby, starting sixth and 14 seconds in front, was a world-class rabbit to chase. Soon after, by 2.1 k, Harvey had locked onto Sundby.
“I talked with Holund just before the race and since I was starting just ahead of him, like a second, we agreed that I would just start fast and try to reel in Chervotkin first and then do the first 2 k in the front,” Harvey explained on the phone about his race plan. “Then [Holund] said he was going to help if he felt good, so he was able to help to close the last I don’t know 6 seconds to Sundby. … I was expecting Sundby go a bit hard. I don’t know if he was playing it conservative knowing that the course bites you in the ass on the last lap with the slow snow condition, or if he felt a little tougher today, but it was a bit unexpected to be coming back on him. At like 3 k we were back on him — it was fairly fast to close 15 seconds on him.”
At 6 k, Harvey was part of a strong group of seven skiers, all of whom except Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola, were glued together until the final straight. Beyond Harvey and Hakola, the group included Holund, Poltoranin, Sundby, Niskanen, and Chervotkin.
“The group was working well, but it was kind of such slow snow on the climb that no one was feeling good enough to do really good pulls,” Harvey said. “We would do a pull, and then your legs would get so tired and people would move over but it was the same for everybody. … It was really hard actually. The snow on the climbs especially was cold and dry, and then the downhills were a bit faster, but it was really hard, especially muscularly on the legs.”
In last year’s Lahti World Championship men’s 50 k freestyle mass start, Harvey showed he’s a master of gamesmanship and crushing sprint efforts after a distance effort. Sometimes leading, sometimes drafting in the pack on Monday, Harvey in part, let his brains dictate the strategy.
“I was trying to help a bit on the sections I am the best, and I had really good skis,” Harvey said. “I was trying to, on the flatter sections where it’s more high speed, take some lead, and on some downhills push some baskets if I am following. I know on the steep terrain, the long grindy hill is maybe not my strength compared to Sundby — they were doing a lot of the work there — I was trying to push it on the flat and the more high-speed sections. … when you are in a pack with Sundby, it is kind of up to him to try to break us. I think everyone knew he was the strong man of the group, he is not the World Cup overall leader now, but he still is still one of the favorites, he is top-three overall.”
In the closing kilometer, Bolshunov’s gap on the Harvey pack was closeable. Perhaps with a few more meters and coupled with Bolshunov’s fade starting around 13 kilometers, Harvey could have snagged the last podium spot. Harvey showed he’s still a standout finisher by outsprinting his cohort and nearly catching Bolshunov as he captured fourth place — 1.3 seconds behind Bolshunov.
“I knew with the good skis, I could have a good kick at the end if I was feeling OK,” Harvey said. “So my card was more to be in good position for the last two k instead of trying to break the group.”
Harvey plans on finishing the Tour. The Quebec native explained he’s being treated well after the other Canadian who started the Tour, Devon Kershaw came down with an illness and withdrew after Stage 1.
“We still have five wax technicians; I still have seven total staff working just for me,” Harvey said. “It’s actually pretty sweet. With the small group it is really quick to turn around, we drove out of the hotel 15 minutes ago and we saw the French guys pulling in, so they hadn’t showered yet, they hadn’t packed their bags so we are probably 30 minutes in front of them. It makes it good for the recovery and more seamless for all the transitions. I am really lucky.”
With time bonuses factored in, Cologna leads the Tour standings with 1:12:46.6 hours of cumulative time. Ustiugov is in second, 22.6 seconds back, Bolshunov third (+55.5), and Harvey fourth (+1:01.8).
Harvey is joined by several skiers closely separated from fifth to ninth. Poltoranin is fifth overall (+1:02.1), Sundby sixth (+1:03.1), Holund seventh (+1:03.2), Chervotkin eighth (+1:04.9), and Niskanen ninth (+1:06.5). Hellner sits in 10th (+1:36.7).
For the U.S., Erik Bjornsen’s distance skiing remains a highlight. He kept his personal streak of skiing into the top 30 in every distance race he’s entered this season alive. Bjornsen notched a 27th in Saturday’s classic pursuit, a result that set him up for success on Sunday. He started one spot and 11 seconds behind World Cup overall distance leader, France’s Maurice Manificat.
Right away, Manificat set a too-hot pace. By 2 k, the Frenchmen had moved up to 19th place (+1:37.0), while Bjornsen bumped to 26th (+1:57.7). Manificat, in fact, skied the fastest time of day, covering the 15 k in 34:41.8 minutes.
Bjornsen soon found his groove and his mates for the remaining kilometers.
At 10 k, Bjornsen skied in 28th place in a dense ski train of approximately 11 skiers. The group accounted for places 32nd through 23rd.
For another 2 k, Bjornsen seemed married to his 28th spot. But, seeking an opportunity, Bjornsen, along with Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson and Britain’s Andrew Musgrave, moved to the front and pushed the pace of what would be a line of close-in-contact chasers.
In the final kilometers, the Bjornsen group closed nearly ten seconds on Cologna. With his constant up-tempo pressure and smart skiing, Bjornsen finished in 22nd place (+2:20.7) with the 26th-fastest time of day.
Bjornsen goes into the rest day now placed 22nd in the Tour and 2:35.7 minutes behind Tour leader Cologna.
“He’s really consistent,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said on the phone from the U.S. “He is really strong every event whether in a distance race, sprint, classic, skate. I think he wanted a little bit more out of the classic a day ago, I know it was a tough waxing day for all of those guys.”
Monday’s 22nd place was Bjornsen’s second-best result of the season — he placed 20th in the World Cup 30 k skiathlon last month in Lillehammer, Norway.
Bjornsen is now faced with deciding if he stays or goes as it relates to the Tour. Grover stated Bjornsen will contest the Stage 4 sprint in Oberstdorf, but will then determine his race plan.
“He can have some great races in Oberstdorf,” Grover noted. “He will be one that is actually trying to make the decision, that at what point coming out of Oberstdorf where it makes sense to complete the entire Tour or whether it makes sense for him to stop and race in Dresden.”
The Dresden World Cup weekend runs Jan. 13-14 and features a freestyle team sprint. That team sprint in Dresden is the only opportunity to contest that event before the Olympics. (The team sprint is also an Olympic event and Bjornsen is targeting the team sprint at the Games.)
“He is the one that is keeping his eye on that possibility,” Grover explained. “He’ll make his own determination after the next two days of racing which path he wants to go on. Both of them are great ways to go. It just depends whether he wants to really try to move up in the last few of the TdS standings or if he feels like it is more valuable for him to be in a tactical sprint experience of the team sprint.”
Also for the U.S. Ski Team on Monday, Simi Hamilton placed 48th (+4:13.9), Paddy Caldwell 68th (+6:04.4) and Andy Newell 74th (+8:15.6).
After Sunday’s racing, Caldwell, who had intended to finish the whole Tour, sits 51st in the Distance World Cup standings. For the 23-year-old Caldwell to meet the objective criteria for an Olympic spot, he’ll need to be in the top 50.
“He knew the deal going in,” Grover said of Caldwell’s decision to race the Tour. “He knew that he would have to qualify using World Cup or he would have to qualify using U.S. National Championships and racing SuperTour in the fall. For him, he felt like it was more valuable to race World Cup to gain the experience and have a lot of starts during this period. He has weighed the options and he fully realizes that he may not qualify for the Olympics if he chooses what could be the more difficult path. He really felt like the World Cup was the more valuable experience for him because he wants to be a World Cup skier in the future and he wants to be someone who is having good results on the World Cup in the future.”
Grover also recognized Caldwell’s presence at the Tour as beneficial in the long run.
“As the youngest guy on the team, he’s skiing all of these races, in all of these venues for the very first time,” Grover said. “For him, it is about building experience for the future. If you can just go and learn these venues and learn these course, learn how to manage his energy in a Tour de Ski, in a seven-stage, nine-day event, that is really critical. That will be the kind of preparation he needs for the future.”
Tuesday is a rest day for Tour skiers. Racing resumes on Wednesday in Oberstdorf with a classic sprint.
— Harald Zimmer, Alex Kochon, Ian Tovell, and Andrea Potyondy-Smith contributed