The typical plot line never materialized.
Norway’s Petter Northug was supposed to spend the first several laps on Falun’s controversial track back in 25th and then surge to the front for the victory in the final 100 meters at World Cup Finals in Sweden.
Instead, Northug’s teammate Eldar Rønning salvaged a tough season with a surprise 15-kilometer classic mass start victory, posting a time of 43:26 minutes on the 2015 World Championships course.
Rønning, a classic specialist, made use of his late-season form, narrowly outsprinting Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin in the finishing straight with Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby just behind in third.
Saturday’s competition had three separate stories at work. First was the fight for the overall World Cup between Northug, Russia’s Alexander Legkov, and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna. Second was the standing in the Falun mini tour, made more dramatic by the bonus seconds offered at the 5.6 k and 12.2 k marks. Third was the contest for the race honors itself.
Northug began the mass start with two victories in a row and appeared to be in indomitable late-season form.
Legkov and Cologna are off their best, but even after Northug’s two successive victories, Legkov and Cologna only trailed the Norwegian by 56 and 69 points, respectively.
It was up to Legkov and Cologna to deliver a strong result and stop Northug’s momentum.
Northug was up to his usual antics in the first few laps of Falun’s unforgiving course, lazing to the back of the field while others took up the pace.
It opened the door for someone like Legkov to up the pace. However, Legkov appeared to be missing a gear, as Northug observed.
“It looked like Legkov had spent a night out on the town,” Northug told told NRK. “He looked tired.”
Cologna initially looked dangerous.
He gamely came to the fore at the first intermediate sprint for bonus seconds at 5.6 k, narrowly denied the full 15 seconds by Sundby. Cologna stayed at the front, and appeared to have recovered after a recent period of illness.
But Cologna’s pace wasn’t enough to break the field. With Northug and Legkov jostling at the back in their own private battle, others were left to shape the race. Initially Finland’s Matti Heikkinen took up the donkey work at the front, but his moment was short-lived and he quickly disappeared back into the pack.
The decisive pace change came from the unlikely figure of Emil Jonssen, the overall World Cup sprint champion.
Many would bet on Jonssen dying quickly, but as the kilometers ticked by, it appeared the sprinter had could go the distance as well.
At the 8-kilometer mark he made a move, with Northug lagging at the back of the field. By Northug’s account, this was the pivotal move of the race, and unlooked as it was initiated by the Swede.
“The Swede brought up the speed and that’s what dropped Legkov and Cologna,” Northug told NRK. “I hadn’t expected help, so I must thank them for that.”
Northug, ever an antagonist, was asked by a Swedish journalist whether he would repay the Swedish the favor.
“No,” he deadpanned.
In any event, Jonssen’s attack injected speed into the race. His aggression was more than a hubristic charge for a moments glory, and he took 10 bonus seconds at the 12.2 k mark, beaten again by a hungry Sundby. Jonsson looked like he was in contention for a breakthrough distance result.
Northug had finally moved toward the front and crossed the intermediate sprint line in sixth place, seven seconds behind the winner.
Legkov held on to the frantic pace at the front, crossing the 12.2 k mark in 10th place. Cologna was starting to break, dropping down to 12th, 12.2 seconds off the pace.
After the final intermediate sprint, Jonssen faded. Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson, Sundby, Vylegzhanin, and Rønning all revved their formidable distance motors and charged, Northug clinging to the group. Legkov and Cologna were dropped.
As the leaders began the final 3.3 k loop, the race was on, led by the giant, searching stride of Richardsson.
Coming into the last hill, Sundby found another gear and led Rønning and Vylegzhanin into the infamous downhill, as Richardsson and Northug lost a few meters. Sundby was tearing the field apart.
“I had a F***ing good day,” confirmed Sundby to adressa.no.
Lurking just behind was the unheralded Rønning.
As the frontrunners crested the big uphill and plunged down the final chicane Northug passed an ailing Richardsson and appeared to be within striking distance of Rønning, Sundby, and Vylegzhanin.
As the camera angle panned to an aerial view of the race, however, it became evident that Northug left himself too much to do.
“I was busy trying to stay focused on what happened behind rather than chase victory,” Northug said.
Meanwhile, Rønning kept his feet on Falun’s tricky downhill, jumped into his slipstream, and slingshotted past the Russian in an impressive display of double poling. Sundby coasted in for third place, his double poling power failing him in the end.
“I killed myself to get out that little extra, and I had good skis,” Rønning said. “In addition I’ve been working hard on my finish.”
The victory came as a relief for Rønning.
“It was great fun to win today. I have been struggling this season a bit and the victory here today means a lot for me,” Rønning said. “Now I can go into my Easter holiday with a good conscience.”
Sundby concurred. “It’s great that Rønning took the win,” he said. “It’s been a tough season for him.”
Northug never contested the victory, but his fourth-place finish was enough to solidify his lead in the mini tour and the overall title race.
Contenders for the overall World Cup title, Cologna and Legkov didn’t deliver the result needed to unsettle Northug. Cologna finished 12th, and Legkov was 15th, respectively 17.9 and 25.6 seconds behind Rønning.
Northug will go into the final day of the mini tour, a 15 k freestyle pursuit race, with a 30.5-second head start on Vylegzhanin. Rønning will start 40.2 seconds behind Northug in third. Northug had a 1:47 lead on Legkov as his closest title-rival.
In the overall World Cup, Northug leads Legkov by 80 points, and Cologna by 87. For Legkov to win the overall title he would have to win Sunday, and Northug would have to finish lower than third.
It would take a spectacular meltdown on the Norwegian’s part to relinquish his advantage.
So does Northug think he’s secured his second overall World Cup title?
“Normally I’d think it was over,” Northug said. “But it’s about being focused and trying to a have another good race in the morning. I’m going to focus on resting until then.”
Sundby isn’t so equivocal.
“He has it in the bag.”