Big wins, small wins – wins of all sizes and over all sorts of rivals. That’s how Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov has built his lead, over a minute and a half now, in the FIS Tour de Ski.
For his fifth consecutive victory, Ustiugov started last in the field in the 10 k freestyle in Toblach, Italy. He knew exactly what he had to do: beat the pace set ten bibs earlier by Maurice Manificat of France.
Ustiugov built a lead of several seconds by the middle of the race. But Manificat had closed hard, and Ustiugov could barely hold on. In the end he took the win by just 0.4 seconds.
“I pushed very hard from the start,” Ustiugov told FIS. “I wanted to extend the overall Tour de Ski lead.”
He did, aided by a less-than-perfect day from Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
Sundby is a two-time Tour de Ski winner who now sits in second place. He seemed like he might be within striking distance of Ustiugov after the fourth stage of the Tour: 42.2 seconds back, with three more races to go.
But Sundby only skied to 14th place in the 10 k skate, finishing 36.9 seconds behind the Russian. With the winner receiving 15 extra bonus seconds, he is now 1:34.1 out of the lead.
“This is the worst distance race I’ve done in a year and a day,” Sundby told NRK, recalling finishing 23rd in the 15 k classic mass start in last year’s Oberstdorf Tour de Ski stage. “I’m miles away from top form.”
Yet Ustiugov wasn’t taking his lead for granted.
“For Martin a minute does not mean anything — that showed in the Ski Tour Canada,” he said, according to skisport.ru. “Tomorrow will be a very tough race, the 15 k classic… The main thing is not to lose all that has been so hard-earned in these five races.”
Manificat and Krueger
While Sundby faltered, Manificat surged and came closer than anyone has to beating Ustiugov’s time on the clock.
“I had a great day,” he told FIS. “I felt perfect on skis, I got a great glide and I found a very good rhythm. Love the course in Toblach. There are steady climbs and nice downhills.”
It was the first individual podium of the season for Manificat, who had helped his French teammates to a relay podium in La Clusaz before Christmas.
Instead of Sundby, another Norwegian was third: 23-year-old Simen Hegstad Krueger.
Krueger was last year’s U23 World Champion in the 15 k skate, and he has had strong World Cup results this season, notably a fifth place in the 10 k skate in Lillehammer.
But he wasn’t expecting to get on the podium for the first time in Toblach.
“It is absolutely unbelievable,” he marveled to FIS. “I would not have thought I could be third today. It’s a big moment for me to win the first World Cup podium.”
Nevertheless, Krueger told NRK that this was “a favorite distance,” so he knew he had a chance of a good race, wherever that landed on the results sheet.
“I took a chance with hard opening and that burned me toward the finish, but I was able to keep it all the way in,” he said.
By the middle of the race Krueger – who started a few bibs before Ustiugov – was closer than anyone to catching Manificat. But over the last few kilometers he faded, suffering the consequence of that hard start.
It was still enough, though, to best fourth-place Matti Heikkinen of Finland by 0.7 seconds.
Marcus Hellner of Sweden was fifth (+25.8) and Didrik Tønseth of Norway sixth (+27.2).
Cologna and Harvey Battle for Third
Seventh place went to Swiss veteran Dario Cologna who has won the Tour de Ski three times (+27.9).
He had been fourth coming into the day, and had hoped for more – maybe a podium. He has said that the Tour de Ski is his favorite race.
“I was able to make up time on the direct opponents,” Cologna told Swiss broadcaster SRF. “So in that regard it was okay. Surely I would have liked to be a little faster, but I believe I am now on the podium in the overall standings… everything is still very close together, and the next two stages will be important.”
He did get on the podium – by bumping off Canada’s Alex Harvey, who had been in third. Harvey finished 11th on the day (+34.2) and is now half a second behind Cologna.
“I was really optimistic about the race, but then just didn’t ski super well,” Harvey said in an interview. “And… It’s Toblach, it’s always been hard for me. Like last year, I was out of the top 30 on that 10 k skate and lost a lot of time. I don’t know, it’s a weird course, not much rest and all work. It seems to be working better for Jessie Diggins than for me.”
But to still be in fourth place, and so close to Cologna, is a good sign at this stage.
“Overall I’d say this was definitely the stage I was fearing the most in the Tour, just because of my history here,” Harvey said. “I think I came out of it pretty good, because I’m still half a second behind Dario. And I feel like Dario could have won or been on the podium and put a lot of seconds on me.”
Indeed, Cologna had tried to game the system by picking bib 20 and hoping that Sundby would be starting while he was on his second lap, and that the two could ski together.
But it didn’t work out – the lap time for the 5 k course was faster than expected, and Sundby was slower than expected.
“At the end of the day you have to be ready to make your own race,” Cologna told SRF. “I was able to pull through and make up some time on the second loop.”
Both men are looking forward to the next stages. Saturday’s 15 k mass start classic is a race that Harvey has been waiting for all Tour.
“Yeah, I’m really excited for it,” he said. “Classic felt really good in the skiathlon, so I’m hoping to get the similar feeling. It looks like the waxing conditions will actually be pretty similar to what we had in Oberstdorf. It’s been cold in Central Europe so it has made for some nice classic skiing. And I’ve had good results here in the past — I have good memories of this place.”
Both are shooting to beat each other, but also to possibly move even higher up the food chain.
In the 15 k, Ustiugov is on Harvey’s radar.
“In Oberstdorf, I felt that Ustiugov was struggling a little bit in the classic, so you never know,” Harvey said. “He’s on another planet right now, but I still believe it’s possible to beat him.”
Fellow Canadians Devon Kershaw and Graeme Killick were 32nd (+1:06.0) and 35th (+1:11.9), respectively, and currently rank 24th (+5:56.2) and 39th (+9:43.3) overall in the Tour.
Hoffman in the Points, Bjornsen Just Out
For the U.S., Noah Hoffman placed 25th (+55.8) for his first top 30 of the Tour to move into 31st overall (+8:14.8). Erik Bjornsen just missed the points in 31st (+1:04.6) for 42nd overall (+10:13.6).
Hoffman had a fast start. But by the time Ustiugov, who had started one bib behind him, caught up, Hoffman was burnt up.
“It was set up to be quite good,” Hoffman said. “I was very good on the first lap. Then I just faded. Ustiugov started 30 seconds behind me and I was probably running a little scared from him. And as I started Heikkinin was lapping through about 100 meters in front of me. I got close to him, but I never got there. That probably combined for a bit of a hotter start than I should have had. I wasn’t able to hold it on the second lap.”
He saw those two potential rides as missed opportunities, but still found some merit in his race.
“Sticking even close with Ustiugov would have been a great result,” he said. “But I’m happy to be in the points for sure. It’s a step in the right direction.
After a slow start to the Tour, Bjornsen feels that things may be turning around.
“Today was good,” he wrote in an email. “I think the pursuit start skate 15 k in Oberstdorf was a little better, and I guess the result showed that as I was 27th on time of day there. Today was comparable though. I’m definitely starting to feel like I’m getting some snap back in my step. I’m guessing my training block post La Clusaz was a little too hard and that’s why I didn’t feel very powerful in the first few stages of the Tour.”
Bjornsen skied the whole race alone, which he said was a disadvantage.
“It’s a very grindy course out there with not much rest, so that usually doesn’t play to my favor,” he wrote.
But his woes were soon behind him: later in the afternoon, his sister, Sadie, got the first World Cup podium of her career in the 5 k skate.
“My result was forgotten pretty quickly,” Bjornsen wrote. “I kind of feel like I won today just because Sadie had such an outstanding race! I’ve pretty much trained besides her since we started taking this sport seriously. I’ve seen her make steady improvements over the years, but this summer/fall she took another big step in her skating… It was really cool to see it all come together for her today. She’s a ridiculously dedicated and hard worker, she deserved that result more than anyone!”
Hoffman agreed: “The most important thing – the day is highlighted by that win. I’m so psyched for Jessie, and then Sadie breaking through to the podium level. It’s pretty awesome and it’s fun to be part of that. It’s their day.”
-Harald Zimmer, Aleks Tangen, and Gerry Furseth contributed