Like ants swarming a bread crumb — skating ants — on ice. That was one image that could be conceived from the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle mass start on Thursday, which served as Stage 5 of the 2018 Tour de Ski in Obertsdorf, Germany.
After high winds and fallen trees Wednesday in Obertsdorf left race organizers scrambling to set a new course for Thursday’s distance races, the end result was a 2.1 k loop (the women’s sprint course plus a flat section) with a maximum climb of 16 meters per lap for both the men and the women. The men rounded it seven times for 14.7 k and the women lapped five times for 10.5 k.
While Oberstdorf’s distance courses are typically “challenging and hilly and filled with attacks and strategic moves”, according to U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb, Thursday’s race was mostly flat. “It was probably the flattest race that many of these athletes have ever raced on the World Cup so it made for a really exciting pack race.
“[The organizers] just couldn’t use the course with the hills because the trees and the forest were unstable,” Whitcomb explained on the phone Thursday evening. “They also didn’t have time to clear the wood that fell. There were six or seven huge trees that fell on the course.”
It had also rained on Wednesday — in fact, a lightening storm struck the venue and led to the cancellation of Stage 4 after the women’s qualifier — so organizers opted to salt the course to preserve it as much as possible for the mass starts. It was raining again on Thursday, leaving the course icy with a thin coat of slush on top by the time the men raced after the women.
The men’s field, led by Russians Sergey Ustiugov and Alexander Bolshunov for almost all of the first lap, completed Lap 1 of seven in 4 minutes and 16 seconds (with Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson leading through the checkpoint). There, at 2.1 k, all 67 starters were within 16 seconds of the lead.
One lap later, as Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave led the large group through the stadium, just ahead of Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, and Canada’s Alex Harvey, only one man had been dropped. Sixty-six still skied within 19 seconds of first.
Crashes dotted the entire race, with Bolshunov going down at least twice. Mostly, skiers tripped over one another on the slightly rolling course. Harvey even broke a pole at one point in the middle of the second-to-last lap. In a phone interview on Thursday, the lone Canadian in this year’s Tour de Ski (TdS) estimated he witnessed several crashes per lap.
“I saw for sure between 10 and 15 crashes that happened within my surroundings,” Harvey said.
For the first two laps, Harvey positioned himself in the top five, coming through the 3.6 k sprint bonus in fifth place to earn six bonus seconds (which count toward the overall Tour standings). On Lap 3, he dropped back to around seventh, still within 2 seconds of Musgrave and Norway’s Didrik Tønseth, who swapped the lead throughout the third lap.
On Lap 4, Cologna moved to the front, just ahead of Musgrave, Tønseth, Sundby and 30 others within 10 seconds of first at 7.8 k. There, Harvey was back in 30th, 9.2 seconds back. About 1.5 seconds behind him at 8.4 k, the end of Lap 4, was American Erik Bjornsen in 36th.
“I didn’t want to fall that far back, but I made a couple bad decisions, like picking wrong lanes and it was just a bit of a slower lane on one hill, so you’d lose five, six spots,” Harvey recalled. “Somebody would fall in front of you or in your lane, so then you’d come to a stop and lose 10 spots, so it was just real mayhem there. But my plan was to try to stay in the top five, top 10 all day, but I just didn’t do that.”
Lap 5 saw Cologna, Sundby, Tønseth, and even France’s Clement Parisse at the front of the pack, while Harvey moved back up to around 20th, just 3.5 seconds out of first.
On the penultimate lap, Harvey broke a pole.
“I had been kind out of position for a lap and half by then, so I was just trying to find ways to move, going on the outside, I think somebody just stepped on my pole, but it’s hard to tell,” he said.
Despite dropping to what he estimated to be 40th on that sixth lap, Harvey recovered, thanks to the tightly packed group, and lapped through the stadium in 27th, 5.3 seconds behind Tønseth in first.
Over the final 2.1 k, Harvey continued to pick off the places. One and a half k later, he was up to eighth, 3.4 seconds behind Norway’s Sindre Bjørnestad Skar in first.
“I was really focusing on staying outside the whole time, never going for the inside lane and then maybe people were starting to get tired a little bit, even though the course was not hard and the course was fast,” Harvey said. “… I think a lot of it was luck.”
In the final meters, when everyone at the front of the race turned it up another notch and Norway’s Emil Iversen attacked on the final rise before descending into the stadium, Harvey came out on top off a three-way photo finish for fifth place, edging Musgrave in sixth and Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh in seventh. All three were within 4 seconds of first place, which went to Iversen.
The win was Iversen’s first of the season, and Norway’s first on the men’s side in the 2018 TdS, and puts him in 13th, 2:13 minutes out of first, with two stages remaining.
“It was a fight from the start to the end, and I just had to be in my head… doing the right things,” Iversen told reporters in English after the race. “I did that really good today so I am satisfied with that.”
Iversen crossed finished first in 29:49.8, just 0.4 seconds ahead of his Norwegian teammate Skar in second place. Italy’s Francesco De Fabiani — who had been 34th at 8.6 k, seven seconds back and just ahead of Bjornsen — claimed third place, just 0.9 seconds behind Iversen. Cologna finished fourth (+3.7) to extend his overall TdS lead, followed by Harvey in fifth. Harvey is still fourth in the Tour, now 1:23.1 behind Cologna.
Asked if he was mostly focused on finishing close to Cologna, Harvey said he was actually keeping track of Bolshunov, who ended up 40th (+15.9) on Thursday. Heading into Stage 5, the Russian U23 skier was third in the Tour, 6.3 seconds ahead of Harvey in fourth. So Harvey knew that even 6 bonus seconds at one of two sprint bonuses on the course could be the difference between third or fourth in the standings.
At the first bonus sprint, where Harvey picked up 6 seconds, Bolshunov picked up 3. Then, at the second bonus sprint at 7.8 k, the Russian clocked through in sixth for 5 seconds. Harvey was 30th there for zero. At the end of the day, Harvey held onto fourth in the standings, 1:21.3 minutes behind Cologna, 30.1 behind Ustiugov, who’s still in second, and 15.5 behind Sundby, who improved to third. Meanwhile, Bolshunov slipped to fifth, 3.6 seconds behind Harvey.
“… He ended up crashing on the last lap, I think,” Harvey said of Bolshunov. “I was focusing more on the guys that are closer to me because Dario, he’s so solid, he never really has a bad day. I think a lot of people — nobody’s giving it to him, but it’s going be hard to get back on him, so I think people are starting to fight more for second place. It was more about Bolshunov and Ustiugov.”
Ustiugov finished 28th on Thursday (+11.1) and now trails Cologna by 53 seconds in the overall. Sundby finished eighth (+4.2) and picked up 23 bonus seconds in Thursday’s mass start to move up from sixth to third overall (+1:07.6).
“For sure, it has been difficult weather, difficult conditions for those who make this race, and I think you can argue in a lot of ways today, the race was difficult and blew many racers’ chances, both with the difficulties with the skis and poles,” Sundby told reporters in English after. “But I am happy that they decided to do the race. They found a short track we could ski in and no cancellation I think that was good.
“My main goal for the season is Olympics,” Sundby continued. “I think we use this Tour for, one: I love the Tour de Ski; it’s a beautiful competition, and two: to get in better shape for the Olympics. That is the main goal this season, but I still want to fight for the first [in the Tour]. It looks a bit a long ahead at this point, but we have two more races to go.”
For Harvey, the race was also about distancing himself from some of his biggest threats in the final climb on Sunday, such as Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, who entered Stage 5 in 10th and about 35 seconds behind him overall, and France’s Maurice Manificat, who was previously 36 seconds behind him in 14th overall. They’re still at least 37 seconds behind Harvey after Manificat finished 10th on Thursday to move up to 10th overall (+1:59.0), tied with Germany’s Thomas Bing, who placed ninth Thursday to put himself ninth overall (+1:59.0). Hellner follows in 11th overall (+2:05.3) after finishing 22nd in Stage 5.
“I think for me today was a really good opportunity to make some time, especially on the guys close behind me, like Manificat and Hellner,” Harvey said. “I didn’t lose much, but I kind of missed the opportunity to give myself a bit more of a cushion for the climb, so that’s mostly what I’m bummed out about. That and looking at the schedule of the Tour, [this mass start] was for sure where I thought my best chance at a podium would be. So I’m a bit bummed out that I missed out on that, but it’s part of the game.”
In a Cross Country Canada press release, Harvey was quoted on his frustration with the mass start being held on a short, narrow and relatively easy course.
“It’s just too bad, the organizing committee or the jury should have just made it a sprint or an individual start,” Harvey told FasterSkier. “It was just kind of a stupid race. I was lucky that I ended up not losing too much time but I didn’t feel like I raced. It was easy the whole time, with just nerves the whole time, trying not to fall and stay out of trouble, even though nobody I think was able to stay fully out of trouble today.”
Bjornsen ended up 32nd at the finish, 11.7 seconds out of first, and leaves the TdS in 20th (+3:10.7). After initially planning to race the entire Tour, he spoke with Whitcomb about withdrawing after Stage 5 on Tuesday night.
“Erik is in a great spot,” Whitcomb said. “He’s had a really strong period [1 on the World Cup]. He’s skiing a really strong Tour. He’s made a distinct step forward this year, and we want to not lose sight of the goal of doing well at the Olympics. Erik’s a guy where in a number of events, but especially in the team sprint, a medal could be on the table for him, so we’re really focused on making sure we don’t tap things too deeply when we don’t need to. So Erik decided to ski through today, then head to Ramsau for a little rest, then a training camp.”
“It was a hard decision since I’m feeling good and sitting in 20th place,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “There is a team sprint coming up in a little over a week [in Dresden, Germany] that I want to prepare for. There are only a couple team sprints each year and I feel that is my best chance of stepping onto a World Cup podium. I can’t let those opportunities pass me by.”
“I was pretty disappointed with my result,” Bjornsen wrote of Thursday’s mass start. “I’ve been feeling strong and felt like I wasn’t able to use my fitness out there today. It was great practice skiing in a tight pack. The finish came way too fast.”
Also for the U.S., Paddy Caldwell raced to 39th on Thursday (+15.5), and Andy Newell was 53rd (+43.2) while Simi Hamilton did not start. Newell and Hamilton have also decided to leave the Tour, as they had originally planned after Oberstdorf, and head to Ramsau, Austria, in advance of the Dresden city sprint World Cup weekend Jan. 13-14.
“I chose to race today because I had held back a bit in the last skate race on stage 3 to rest up for the sprint, and then sure enough It was canceled,” Newell wrote. “So I felt like I still had some good energy and It was worth having one more hard race.
“I felt a lot better racing today than in the distance races at altitude so I was stoked about that,” he added. “It was raining and icy and fast so it made for an exciting time. Lots of crashes and broken poles for sure, it felt more like rollerski racing with such a tight pack. Aside from several small tangles on the uphills, I tried to avoid trouble and was happy to ski with the main pack during the the majority of the race.”
Unlike Harvey, Newell — a sprint specialist — actually liked Thursday’s race.
“Kind of a weird stage for sure but I think it’s actually good for the TDS,” he wrote. “Adds some excitement and plays to a different skill set to race on an icy flat course like that. Racing is racing. We have an all uphill stage of the TDS, I think it should be customary to have a flat one:) similar to cycling.”
He leaves the Tour in 65th (+9:37.1), while Caldwell will continue in his first-ever Tour de Ski ranked 60th (+6:58.2) out of 67.
“I felt like I was skiing with new people all the time,” Caldwell wrote in an email about Stage 5. “It was a very dynamic and chaotic race. There were countless crashes and tangles out there. Absolute mayhem. Poles breaking every climb and at least one serious pile up every lap.
“I am happy with my performance today though it is bittersweet being so close to the points and the top guys,” he wrote of his 39th-place stage result. “It has been a pretty rough Tour for me so far fighting a cold, but today was definitely a step in the right direction. Right now I am just hoping to keep working out this cold and be able to put together good efforts for the next two races.”
“I actually thought he skied fantastically today,” Whitcomb said, “and he’s sounding much better tonight so I think there’s quite a bit of hope for Paddy. He’s looking good right now.”
Other notable withdrawals from the Tour include Sweden’s Halfvarsson and Finland’s Iivo Niskanen. Halfvarsson placed 54th on Thursday to leave the Tour in 24th overall. Niskanen did not race in Oberstdorf.
— Harald Zimmer and Ian Tovell contributed