Six laps. Three climbs per lap. Fifteen-kilometer classic mass start. If you’re in it to win it, where do you make your move?
That was the kind of calculating Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby was doing throughout Saturday’s Stage 6 mass start, the second-to-last stage of the 2017 Tour de Ski, in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Every time he rounded the 2.5 k loop, the man he needed to beat — Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov — was right there, either leading or within a few strides of first.
Through five Tour stages, the 24-year-old Ustiugov was unbeaten. Could he be beat? Yes, Sundby thought, but it was going to take some brains as well as brawn.
He had to be patient, despite being extremely frustrated with his race on Friday, when he placed 14th in the 10 k freestyle in Toblach, Italy. That put him more than a minute and a half behind Ustiugov in the overall Tour with two stages to go.
“Yesterday’s race was really bad and it is good I could win today,” Sundby said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “I was little bit conservative at the beginning. I wanted to win some bonus seconds. I had some power left and I am happy about victory.”
He attacked on the last lap just before the 13.9 k mark, after pulling up alongside Ustiugov on the first long climb out of the stadium, while Switzerland’s Dario Cologna did the same on the other side of the Russian in the Tour leader’s bib.
Sundby’s move wasn’t obvious then, but it was along a long false-flat, where he began dropping the field with an unmatched double pole. Heading into a tricky descent before the final climb, Sundby had successfully broken away and frequently checked back to make sure Ustiugov wasn’t anywhere near him.
Ustiugov and two of his Russian teammates, Andrey Larkov and Alexander Bessmertnykh, continued to lead the chase, followed by Cologna, Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug, and even Italy’s Francesco de Fabiani had worked his way into the mix.
Up that last steep climb, Cologna switched from the right to the left tracks suddenly, appearing to cut off Heikkinen, who moved outside the tracks to get around him. A few strides later, Dyrhaug stepped outside the right tracks to get around Ustiugov, but Ustiugov wasn’t having it. He stepped out as well, forcing Dyrhaug to file back in behind him. All of this was shaping up to be a fight for second; Sundby was too far gone.
The second-ranked man in the Tour, Sundby finished in 40:40.0 minutes, while Ustiugov caught a draft and out-double poled the chase pack for second place, crossing 2.2 seconds later. That still puts Ustiugov 1:12 minutes ahead going into the final climb (yep, he’ll start 1:12 minutes ahead of anyone else in the 9 k freestyle hill climb up Alpe Cermis), but at least for Sundby it’s not 1:34.
But as Ustiugov said Friday, “For Martin, a minute does not mean anything … The main thing is not to lose all that has been so hard-earned in these five races.”
“Today’s performance gives me a different starting point in tomorrow’s race,” Sundby told NRK. “I need a little miracle tomorrow, but I’m not going to quit before I cross the finish line.”
Finishing 0.6 seconds behind Ustiugov on Saturday, and nearly being taken out by the Russian at the finish when Ustiugov collapsed sideways across the line, was Heikkinen in third (+2.8). Fourth through eighth place were all within 1.1 seconds of the podium, with de Fabiani taking fourth (+3.2), Larkov fifth (+3.3), Dyrhaug sixth (+3.5), Cologna seventh (+3.8), and Bessmertnykh eighth (+3.9).
After that, there was a 6-second gap Norway’s Hans Christer Holund in ninth (+9.9), Sweden’s Marcus Hellner finished 10th (+10.3), France’s Jean-Marc Gaillard 11th (+13.6), Sweden’s Jens Burman 12th (+14.9), and France’s Maurice Manificat 13th (+16.3).
The fact that Ustiugov finished second was largely in part to his teammates, Larkov and Bessmertnykh, who drove the pace and helped box out competitors up front, especially early in the final lap. Ustiugov even drafted one of them on the final descent into the stadium before switching to an open lane in the finishing straight and double poling to the front of the chase pack.
“I am grateful to my teammates,” Ustiugov said, according to a loose translation. “If they did not help me, one of them could have won the mass start. Tomorrow’s race? We’ll see. In any case, it will be interesting. I understand perfectly … what is waiting for me, despite the fact that I was only passed once on the final uphill.”
One thing Saturday showed: the Russian is beatable. Last year, Sundby won the climb, both as the first man at the top and with the fastest time up the 9 k grind. France’s Robin Duvillard, who is not competing in this year’s Tour, was second (+7.2) for time of day, and Heikkinen was third (+11.8).
Ustiugov as the fourth starter clocked the 13th-fastest time, 47.6 seconds behind Sundby. Of note, American Noah Hoffman was 15th (+56.4) and Canada’s Alex Harvey 16th (+1:07.4) for final-climb time.
Ustiugov ended up third overall in the 2016 Tour, arriving at the top near four minutes after Sundby.
“… I think he’s in better shape now,” Harvey said on the phone Saturday about Ustiugov. “So I think those two guys [Ustiugov and Sundby] will stay in front, and Sundby probably second. I think it will be just a really good fight…”
On Sunday, Harvey will start sixth in this year’s final climb, 2:42 minutes behind Ustiugov and 38 seconds behind Cologna, who is third overall.
“I am third at the moment with a lead of more than 20 seconds, that surely looks positive, but it’s a long flat section before the climb,” Cologna told Swiss broadcaster SRF. “It’s almost a minute to Sundby, and he is not a bad climber, either. So I really have to look how I can defend my third place. That’s the goal for tomorrow.“
Harvey entered Saturday’s 15 k classic mass start in fourth overall but dropped two spots when he finished 19th, 38.7 seconds after Sundby. Also slated to start ahead of Harvey on Sunday are Heikkinen, who is fourth overall (+2:33) and Manificat in fifth (+2:34).
“Manificat will try early on the hill, and then Heikkinen. I’m sure they’ll be pushing really hard down the flat to kind of close that 26-, 28-second gap that they have on Dario [Cologna],” Harvey anticipated. “… When you see someone up the hill, like 10 seconds, it seems like they’re three meters ahead, always. So I think that it’s a good position to be in, for Heikkinen especially. My guess for the podium is probably Ustiugov, Sundby, and Heikkinen, but I’ll be in there, too, so we’ll see.”
On Saturday, Harvey surged to the front of the pack early, leading at 1.1 k, with superior skis on the uphills, he said. Also up there with him was Romania’s Paul Constantin Pepene — sort of a surprise at this point in the Tour.
“The Romanian guy started really fast and then he blew up right away,” Harvey said, of Pepene falling off the pace after 2.5 k. “There was a prime in the second lap early on … and I think I had one of the best grip out there today, so on that steep hill it was pretty easy for me to just run in the track and get that prime [for 15 bonus seconds].”
Heading into Lap 3, Harvey said the wheels started to come off.
“When we lapped into the stadium, I was starting to get kind of yo-yoed a bit near the end of the group,” Harvey recalled. “And then tried to fight my way back up on the climbs, but I was getting yo-yoed a bit, and then the elastic just broke.”
Fewer than 5 seconds out of first at 5 k while skiing in seventh, Harvey was down to 15th by the end of the next lap, yet still within 7 seconds of Ustiugov in first.
Early on the fourth lap, he was 15 seconds back in 18th, just ahead of Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave and Harvey’s teammate Devon Kershaw in 19th and 20th, respectively. Another three seconds back, a third Canadian, Graeme Killick was skiing in 25th (+18.7) at 8.6 k.
“I actually didn’t know he was there until he just passed me, but yeah, I skied with him for a bit,” Harvey said of Kershaw, who passed him shortly after.
Harvey recalled that Kershaw “got kind of tangled up with a Russian in the herringbone part, and then I think he said he lost our group there.”
Kershaw could not be immediately reached for comment after Saturday’s race.
The start of Lap 5 saw Harvey 10 seconds back from the leaders in 18th and Kershaw another five seconds back in 24th, with Killick following roughly three seconds later in 26th. Harvey was nearly 20 seconds behind one lap later, skiing in 17th, and he closed the race out in 19th (his worst result after placing 11th on Friday in the Toblach 10 k) of the Tour.
“I don’t know. The body was good,” Harvey said.
As for Sunday: “Oh I’m ready,” he said. “I kind of want revenge after today.”
“Alex is a competitive guy and is hungry,” Canadian World Cup coach Ivan Babikov said, according to a Cross Country Canada press release. “He will be in a group of about four guys who are all good climbers. Dario is always strong, but anything is possible.”
Kershaw finished the race in 27th (+1:21.1) and Killick 32nd (+1:31.0). They will start the final climb in 23rd (+7:19) and 37th (+11:25), respectively.
“Coming into the Tour this year the priority races for me to target were the 10km in Val Mustair and the 15km tomorrow in Val di Fiemme,” Kershaw wrote in an email on Friday. “… [The 15 k mass start] will be a real battle royale and it’s the crux of this tour for the top 10. A lot of really strong guys are grouped close together and aside from Ustiugov who has made a mockery of this years event I would say it’s wide open.
“What that means is that with the two bonus sprints on course and the time at the line – there is 45sec available – there will be a lot of hungry racers gunning for it. Blend that with a difficult and punishing course here in Val di Fiemme and I think this race will be blown open pretty good,” Kershaw anticipated. “I hope to have a good start and really just feel good in the body because you are going to need that for sure if you want to have a good race.”
“It is a tough course and the guys are pretty tired but they dug deep today,” Babikov said Saturday, according to the press release. “We might have missed it a bit with the skis. We may have gone with something a bit too sticky.
“It was really hard-packed snow and this is a tough course to get the skis right,” Babikov added. “Ideally you want to have good kick and a fast glide, but it is a gamble on a course this tough. The tracks were firm and icy but there were some sections where there were no tracks and others with powdery snow. We will debrief on it tonight.”
The lone American to finish, Noah Hoffman landed in the points for the second-straight stage in 30th (+1:17.1) after skiing in 34th for the first two-thirds of the race. By 12.5 k, Hoffman was up into 29th, right behind Russia’s Petr Sedov in 28th and about 50 seconds behind the leaders.
“I actually felt like I skied the second half pretty well,” Hoffman said on the phone. “I was able to make contact with that group that contained all the way up to 22nd place by the end. I didn’t really lose that much time … But I mean, yeah, certainly not a standout result. I kind of feel like a broken record, when every race I’m like, ‘Well, there were some good signs and I’m optimistic that it’s going to come around, but it’s not here yet.’ That’s kind of where I’m at.”
Hoffman will start the final climb — a race he hopes to place in the top 15 in for time of day — in 30th (+9:42).
“I’ve been top 20 on time on day a couple times, but I’m kind of frustrated, I feel like I haven’t shown what I can really do up a climb like that,” he said. “It’s a stage that was built for me, especially if I have help down in the valley, which I do tomorrow, because I’m starting with Sedov and that Swede [Viktor Thorn right behind me].
“So I will definitely rely on some help to get to the base of the climb, and then I feel like once we get there, then I just need to use my energy and show what I can do,” Hoffman added. “I think I can move up. Certainly a spot or two would be great, but there’s some pretty good time gaps [ahead of me]. But I would love to be at least top 15 for time on day, and I feel like that’s something I can do if I show my aerobic capacities.”
American Erik Bjornsen started the race but crashed on the first lap on a climb which plagued top competitors in the women’s race as well.
According to Hoffman, he and Bjornsen watched the women’s race on TV in the athletes’ lounge before their race.
“And it was in that exact same spot, Kalla and Pärmäkoski went down. … That corner does not ski challenging when you’re alone, but it’s a corner that when you get into a pack, it transforms a bit,” Hoffman recalled. “There was just an ice patch that opened up. I kind of couldn’t believe it when Erik went down, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that is exactly what we just watched Pärmäkoski and Kalla do.”
Hoffman was behind Bjornsen at the time and narrowly avoided a pileup Russians he created.
“I believe [Erik] broke a pole, but I have not had a chance to talk with him about why he decided to drop out,” Hoffman said of Bjornsen pulling out of the race at the halfway point at the end of the third lap.
Bjornsen could also not be immediately reached for comment.
— Gavin Kentch, Aleks Tangen, Harald Zimmer, and Chelsea Little contributed