Tick-tock. An appropriate intro in a place like Switzerland — a nation and culture known for accurate timepieces and punctuality.
Depending on how you look at it, for 31-year-old Swiss skier Dario Cologna, one of two things has been on-the-dot: his three year slide in results since winning the 2014/2015 World Cup overall and his battle with both injuries and an ascendant Martin Johnsrud Sundby; Or his rejuvenated Lenzerheide, Switzerland Tour de Ski (TdS) Stage two kick, glide, and pole performance in the 15-kilometer classic individual start on Saturday.
In the final 100 meters, the clocked ticked down precious seconds for Cologna as he attempted to keep his grasp on a hair-thin margin over classic ski specialist from Kazakhstan, Alexey Poltoranin. Until Cologna’s appearance near the finish line, Poltoranin looked locked in the leader’s chair.
But as Cologna came into the home stretch, with the Viessman markers indicating 100m, 75m, 50m and 25m before him, the clock read -13.7 seconds. For Cologna to win. Thirteen point six of those 13.7 seconds could tick off for the Swiss skier to win.
As the time passed, it looked physically impossible for Cologna to cover the ground fast enough — the seconds seemingly ran off faster than the meters covered.
With his toe crossing the line and the Swiss flags waving, Cologna won with a margin of 0.6 seconds over second place skier Poltoranin. For most, a razor-thin time margin for a 15 k race. But in Switzerland, coming in on the good side of a 0.6 second win might as well be an hour cushion— early is early, late is late, and a win is a win.
Cologna covered the 15 k distance in 35:29.5 minutes, winning the second stage of the 2018 Tour de Ski for his first World Cup victory in three years. Poltoranin placed second (+0.6), and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby scored his first podium since early December. Sundby placed third, 13.1 seconds out of first.
“After a sprint, it is always a little harder to get going again,” Cologna told Swiss broadcaster SRF, according to a translation. Cologna placed 14th in the TdS Stage one sprint. That was Cologna’s best sprint result since a 13th in last seasons TdS opening day sprint.
“But I already showed yesterday that I am well on my way, that I could race a good prologue, and today it worked out great,” Cologna continued. “I had good material. And I think I could make a good race towards the finish. It’s amazing, the first victory in Switzerland. I think it’s my 22nd, but the first one at home, which is very beautiful. And after a two-year break, it really is a great satisfaction.”
The race wasn’t only a contest between Cologna and Poltoranin. With Cologna starting in bib 62 and Poltoranin in bib 27, the time stamps for success had been laid down. Starting six spots back behind Cologna was Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov in bib 68.
Bolshunov started hot and sustained that pace for the first two laps. On the other hand, Cologna began a bit more tempered, posting the ninth fastest split at 2.5 k. Cologna then throttled up and posted the fastest splits at 6 k, 8.5 k, and 10 k. Those times held up until Bolshunov steamrolled through.
The Russian U23 skier posted the fastest splits until the finish. Bolshunov began the last lap at 10 k with a 7.4 second lead on Cologna but faded on the final lap to place fourth, 14 seconds behind the winning time.
“I felt good and I think I paced myself well,” Cologna said in the SRF interview. “In the beginning, I didn’t feel that I was going so fast, but the split times were alright, never far away (off the pace), and in the end, I could really push the tempo again. Especially the long climb out of the stadium, I timed that well and never over-paced there, that worked out perfectly. And surely the equipment was also super until the end.”
Another Russian U23 skier, Alexey Chervotkin skied to fifth (+16.2). Norway’s Hans Christer Holund was sixth (+21.2), Finland’s Iivo Niskanen seventh (+22.9), Italy’s Francesco De Fabiani eighth (+27.2), Norway’s Didrik Tønseth ninth (+37.1), and Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov 10th (+37.1).
Despite his 10th place, Ustiugov remains the TdS leader. On Monday’s 15 k freestyle pursuit, Ustiugov will ski off first, followed by Cologna in second (+1.6), while Bolshunov will ski off third, 13.1 seconds behind.
This position, just behind the leader Ustiugov, appears to suit Cologna heading into stage three.
“The starting position, I think just one or two seconds back, that is pretty much optimal,” Cologna said to SRF. “Then I can ski with Ustiugov from the start, and I hope we will be fast. That is really ideal. If I was ten seconds ahead that wouldn’t help much, I probably would just get caught quickly. This way, we can work together right from the beginning. It’s going very well so far, and I hope it will continue like that.”
Cologna is a three-time winner of the TdS — having placed first overall in 2008/2009, 2010/2011 and 2011/2012. Asked by SRF if he felt like he is back to his old form, Cologna expressed hope that the old self is the new self.
“I hope so! I also had a good feeling at the beginning of the season, always close… but it never fully worked out, and today it didn’t,” Cologna said. “In the finish, the six-tenth of a second were on my side for once. And yeah, I hope I am back.”
Having never left the top-end of the sport is Canada’s, Alex Harvey. After placing seventh in Saturday’s sprint, and coming into Sunday’s race ranked 6th overall in the TdS, Harvey began as the 48th starter. The race did not play out to Harvey’s liking
“It was just a bad day,” Harvey said according to a Cross Country Canada press release. “The 15 kilometre classic is my weakest event, but I was still expecting something better today. I just have to forget about today and focus on tomorrow.”
Harvey was 15th, 17th, and 18th at the 6 k, 8.5 k, and 10 k marks respectively. He finished in 20th (+57.9).
“The beginning was good, but I just didn’t ski well and struggled the rest of the way,” Harvey told Cross Country Canada. “I didn’t blow up or explode. I was just bleeding time the whole way. It is a really hard course with a bit of altitude and I think I lost most of my time on the climbing sections.”
After Sunday’s race, Harvey slipped from seventh to ninth place in the overall standings. He’ll start Monday’s pursuit 53 seconds behind Ustiugov and 14 seconds back from sixth overall skier Sundby.
Canada brought two skiers to the TdS, Harvey, and teammate Devon Kershaw. Kershaw has started all 12 TdS editions.
“I had the 2nd most starts in stages, but now Jean-Marc Gaillard (FRA) will pass me and I will be 1 or 2 down on Petter (Northug),” Kershaw wrote in an email “ If you look at the stats, it’s incredible that Petter has started and finished 10 Tours, and has been top 4 in all those. That’s amazing. He’s missed here.”
On Sunday, Kershaw did not start due to illness. According to the skier, early Friday morning, he was “rocked hard” by a stomach illness.
“Friday I was in bed all day long and could not eat anything except for two pieces of white bread at about 19:00 and about 1L of sport drink… It was agony,” Kershaw emailed.
“I tried to race on Saturday (in hopes of just getting through the sprint in case I bounced back fast), but obviously I was completely empty. In the sprint I had no energy and no power whatsoever,” Kershaw explained. “But by Saturday after the race I was eating some “actual” food again, so I was hoping for a miracle today. This 15km classic was a target race of mine when the World Cup calendar came out, so it was hard to let go of. I went up to the stadium, tested my skis, and skied with Ivan some kilometres to judge how I was feeling. The verdict was depressing: I just had zero power in the body, and felt so empty again, so I couldn’t justify starting. Now it’s time to eat as much as I can, and drink a ton to get back feeling normal again.”
Kershaw now plans on traveling to Davos for some training until Jan. 4. After, Kershaw will begin his Olympic prep with a three week altitude block in Seiser Alm, Italy.
“With me missing these vital races, I will change my plans a bit and most likely race in Planica, SLO on the 21st weekend,” Kershaw added. “The main thing now is to fill up the tank again. I am so disappointed and sad to miss my favourite event – I love the Tour de Ski and it’s been good to me in the past. Not much I can do now, it was horrible timing to get a stomach bug, but I should be a-ok in a few days and back on track after taking a decision like this (to stop).”
On the U.S. side in Saturday’s 15 k classic, Erik Bjornsen led the U.S. men in 27th (+1:22.4). Bjornsen was Sunday’s third starter and as such was in a virtual time-split void.
“I would prefer to start around the seeded guys, just to have a better idea of where I’m at in the overall, but it was fine to start bib three,” Bjornsen said over Skype. “I started behind two French guys that I kinda followed their results in the past. So it was fun to have a rabbit out there that I really wanted to catch. I got some feedback, but nothing super-useful because it’s hard to give splits to someone who’s starting so far up in the pack. They’re able to give me splits at like 6K when I was finishing, and it sounded like I was in a pretty decent spot so, yeah, I mean, the splits weren’t super-useful today.”
This is Bjornsen’s third Tour and being an Olympic year and the possibility that he’ll contest the sprints in Dresden on Jan. 13 and 14, he’s still unsure he’ll race until the Tour’s final stage.
“I guess finishing this tour is still a little bit up in the air, which, I think, in the past two years, I went into the Tour thinking I would for sure finish,” Bjornsen said. “I guess that’s a little bit of a different mindset going into it. But the approach is still the same, I mean, hopefully, I hope to be competitive every day, work hard at trying to make sure I’m recovered after every race, and prepared for the next one.”
Bjornsen will begin Monday’s pursuit ranked 25th, 1:46 minutes behind Ustiugov. This time around, it will be a controlled mass start in ways and Bjornsen will have plenty of rabbits to chase. French standout and World Cup distance list leader, Maurice Manificat, starts in bib 24, nine seconds ahead of Bjornsen.
It should also be noted that Bjornsen is on a distance race roll. He has started five World Cup distance races of seven and scored World Cup points in each. (The top-30 skiers score points.)
“I’m pretty excited that I’ve actually finished top-30 in every distance race I’ve started this year, so hopefully that’ll be the goal again for tomorrow,” Bjornsen added. “I was definitely hoping for a little better result today–I tend to be a little better classic skier. But, I mean, tomorrow, just kinda hold the position. I haven’t looked at which guys I’m around but I’m sure it’s pretty tight. So hopefully we can have a good group to work with and, yeah, I mean, definitely stay top 30 is the big goal.”
Other U.S. finishers were Simi Hamilton in 58th (+2:41.8), Andy Newell was 71st (+3:11.5), and Paddy Caldwell 75th (+3:36.2).
Eighty-five men finished the second stage of the Tour de Ski.
— Harald Zimmer, Andrea Potyondy-Smith, and Alex Kochon contributed