Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Noah Hoffman.
There were moments in Sunday’s 9-kilometer freestyle climb up Alpe Cermis, the seventh and final stage of the 2017 Tour de Ski, that Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby appeared to be putting some serious time into Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov up front.
In the first two kilometers, Sundby as the runner-up entering the day had gained three seconds on Ustiugov, who had won all but one stage so far in the Tour. Norway’s reigning Tour de Ski champion lost about six seconds over the next four kilometers leading up to the climb itself, which began in earnest around 6.2 k, but after that, Sundby regained about 13 seconds on Ustiugov by by 8.1 k.
Despite looking relatively strong on a course that ascends an alpine run with an average grade of 28 percent, with less than a kilometer remaining, Sundby was still 53.8 seconds behind Ustiugov. At one point, an unofficial, TV-generated speedometer estimated Sundby was going 1 k per hour on one of the steepest sections of the course. At that rate, there was no possible way he could catch Ustiugov, unless the Russian stopped before the finish line at the top.
Ustiugov didn’t let off, and actually took back nine seconds on Sundby in the final kilometer. The Russian crossed the line without anyone in sight in 30:27.7 minutes for his first Tour de Ski title at the ripe age of 24. Sundby finished 1:02.9 minutes later — with a net gain over his 1:12-minute starting deficit — to place second overall.
“There is no other venue in the world that makes the best skiers in the world look like amateurs.” — Canada’s Devon Kershaw on the Tour de Ski’s final climb up Alpe Cermis
“He’s a worthy winner,” the 32-year-old Sundby told NRK after. “The gap was too great, and my chances would have been slim either way.”
He noted that his leadup to the race wasn’t ideal.
“I’ve had a stomach problem all night, so the buildup to the race wasn’t that good. It’s frustrating,” Sundby said. “It was brutal.”
Overall, Ustiugov moved into second overall in the World Cup standings, 177 points behind Sundby. Before the Tour, he ranked eighth, and had won one World Cup this season: the freestyle sprint in Davos, Switzerland. This year, Ustiugov became the first man to lead a Tour from start to finish, through every stage. He lost just once, in Saturday’s 15 k classic mass start, and for a grand total of approximately 128,000 Swiss francs (about $125,700 U.S. dollars) during the Tour.
According to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release, Ustiugov became the first man to win five consecutive stages of a Tour de Ski, surpassing Sundby’s four-straight wins last year. After Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, he is the second-youngest man to win the Tour. (Cologna was 22 when he won it in 2009.) And he’s the second Russian to win it after Alexander Legkov (currently provisionally suspended) won it in 2013. Russia is now the second nation, other than Norway, with two different Tour de Ski winners.
In a televised post-race interview with FIS, an emotional Ustiugov started off by thanking his original coach.
“As for now, I don’t have any emotions, no thoughts,” he said through a translator. “I did it for all my guys, so boys, we did it, and thank all of Russia. I know everyone was watching and they all were supporting me.”
According to FIS, Ustiugov later said it was “like a dream come true. I fought very hard for this. Today was incredibly tough. I thought I was on autopilot, I did not actually realize I crossed the finish line. It is an amazing feeling to be a Tour de Ski champion.”
Starting behind Ustiugov and Sundby on Sunday, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna ended up posting the fifth-fastest course time (in 29:42.7) to hang onto third overall (+1:19.1). He finished 16.2 seconds after Sundby and 7.8 seconds ahead of France’s Maurice Manificat, the “winner of the day” based on his course time (29:20.0) and fourth overall (+1:26.9).
At the start, Cologna had 52 seconds separating him from second and 29 seconds between him and Finland’s Matti Heikkinen in fourth. Heikkinen started 1 second before Manificat and 9 seconds before Canada’s Alex Harvey, who entered the final stage ranked sixth.
By the 4 k checkpoint, still skiing along a thin ribbon of snow winding through the valley at the base of Alpe Cermis, Harvey was leading Manificat and Heikkinen with Cologna in clear view, about 20 seconds of them. Harvey had previously caught the Frenchman and Finn by 1.8 k.
The three continued to pursue Cologna in a hunt for third, skiing together into the base of the climb, with Manificat leading at 6.2 k, and with Heikkinen sharing the load up front though 7.1 k. Over the next kilometer, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner (who started seventh, 12 seconds behind Harvey) successfully caught the Canadian and was a second ahead of him by the 8.1 k checkpoint.
The two were 14 and 15 seconds behind Heikkinen in fourth, while Manificat began to drop Heikkinen in his quest for Cologna. With 0.5 k remaining, Manificat had caught Cologna, even leading him at one point, before Cologna passed him back and held onto his position through the finish.
“I had to fight hard with two of the strongest climbers behind me,” Cologna told Swiss broadcaster SRF. “It was a difficult position, having to push right from the start. I went into the climb with a little gap, and could ski my own tempo, then I noticed they were getting closer. But the moment Manificat came up to me I slowed down a little, saving a little bit for the counterattack, and that worked out great.”
Manificat finished 7.8 seconds off the overall Tour podium in fourth, but outlasted Heikkinen by 6.1 seconds for to win the “time of day” and with it, Stage 7.
Norway’s Hans Christer Holund placed third for course time (+15.8), ahead of Hellner in fourth (+19.0). Harvey’s time ranked 14th (+1:04.9) ahead of American Noah Hoffman in 15th (+1:05.3) and Ustiugov in 16th (+1:07.7).
Harvey ended up seventh across the line, 2:39.7 minutes behind Ustiugov and 33.9 seconds behind Hellner in sixth, for Harvey’s best Tour de Ski result. His previous best was 10th in the 2011 edition. With his seventh-place Tour finish, Harvey improved to fifth in the overall World Cup standings — after entering the seven-stage series ranked ninth in the World Cup.
“If it was a one-day race it would be relief when you reach the finish line. Throw in six races before this race and it is absolute relief when you get to the top,” Harvey said, according to a Cross Country Canada press release.
“It was quite good today. That was the best position ever for me up the climb, and I had the 14th best time on the day,” he said. “I was skiing with Manificat and Heikkinen, who had the top-two times on the day. I was with them for a bit, but it was just a bit too fast for me. They crushed everyone on the hill.
“The first part is not so bad, but when you hit that first pitch your legs feel like concrete and then you have to tough it out for the last 15 minutes,” Harvey explained. “Normally you have a downhill, and flats, to recover, but here you don’t flush any lactate. You just keep going and it is a battle against yourself.”
Moving forward, Harvey was positive about his chances in next year’s Tour.
“This gives me a lot of confidence for next year to know that if I’m in the top three, I am fast enough to keep it together on the last day and get on the overall podium,” he said. “It feels great to have my best finish ever. I had a really good start of the season with a number of top 10’s, but sometimes you start to think, is seventh the best I can do? I wanted to take that next step and get on the podium in the Tour and I did that.”
Two Canadians and an American raced the final climb, with Devon Kershaw (Canadian World Cup Team) placing 25th (+9:32.2) after starting 7:19 back in 23rd. Of 40 finishers, the least amount ever in 11 years of the Tour, Kershaw’s course time ranked 39th. (Of note, the 34-year-old Kershaw is one of three athletes to have started all 11 Tours, according to Cross Country Canada.)
“It was a raunch-fest today for me up the hill, I am actually kind of embarrassed,” Kershaw said on the phone after. “I was destroyed after that classic race yesterday so I think I just didn’t recover well enough, and going up the hill, it’s not a ski race, it’s just survival. I mean, there is no other venue in the world that makes the best skiers in the world look like amateurs and when you’re a bit off, like I was today … it was awful, but I am happy to stay 25th in the overall of course. That is not where I want to be, but all things considered 25th is better than I was last year at the Tour de Ski.”
At last year’s Tour, Kershaw placed 32nd, while Harvey placed 14th. In the penultimate stage of this year’s Tour on Saturday, Kershaw finished 27th in the 15 k classic mass start, one of his target races. His best result of the Tour (and best result in nearly three years) came in last week’s Stage 3 in Oberstdorf, Germany, where Kershaw placed 10th in the 20 k skiathlon.
“What I take forward from it is the 10th place and being so close to the podium there. That really meant a lot to me,” he reflected. “… The goal for the season is to have a few great races and I have had one that was that was so close to great that I hope to, at World Championships and beyond, have some more races like that.”
Hoffman of the U.S. Ski Team moved up four spots after starting 30th and 9:32 back to place 26th overall in the Tour. With the 15th-fastest course time, Hoffman crossed the line 8.1 seconds after Kershaw and 9:40.3 behind Ustiugov.
Last year, Hoffman placed 22nd in the Tour, again with the 15th-fastest time of day up Alpe Cermis (to improve from 26th to 22nd). Hoffman said Saturday that his goal was a top 15 for time of day on Sunday.
“I am definitely pleased to have a top 15 time today, and to move up solidly into the top 30 for the Tour,” Hoffman wrote in an email. “I definitely feel like this race can be a stepping stone for me for the rest of the season. I haven’t skied at a world class level yet this year, but I know that I’ve trained at that level and I believe I can show it in the remainder of the season, especially at World Champs.
“This hill climb is really fun for me,” he added. “It plays to my strengths and it’s just a cool unique event. I’m glad I had another opportunity to race it.”
Canadian World Cup Team skier Graeme Killick was slated to start 37th and 11:25 back on Sunday, but did not start.
Killick and Harvey could not be reached for comment.
The Canadians left Val di Fiemme shortly after the final climb and planned to head in different directions. On Saturday, Hoffman said the U.S. team planned to stay there until Tuesday, then venture to Seiser Alm, Italy, to recover.
“Alex [Harvey] is heading to Seefeld … and I am headed home to Oslo tomorrow morning,” Kershaw said. “Graham is heading back to Canada for a couple of weeks to recharge. The midpoint of the season is over and we are all going to go back and regroup and recharge and get ready for the next part here.”
Getting back to Ustiugov’s victory, which is certainly a high point for Russia, after the nation has been embroiled in the revelations of its state-sponsored doping program dating back to before the 2012 London Olympics and marring much of the 2014 Sochi Games.
“It’s gigantic,” Ustiugov’s coach Markus Cramer said to German broadcaster ZDF of his athlete’s overall win on Sunday. “I am incredibly happy for Sergey, and of course for the whole team with how much we recently were shaken up with the whole circumstances. Of course, it’s really beautiful to bring, in the end, a convincing victory home into the finish.”
The circumstances Cranmer was referring to were the provisional suspensions of six Russian cross-country skiers being investigated as a result of the McLaren report. Ustiugov, along with all of the Russians still competing on the circuit, was not reportedly named in that report.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to him, the guy had five wins and then today…,” Canada’s Kershaw said Sunday. “Ustiugov came into this tour, like, ‘I have been around a decently long time.’ … We didn’t know that when he won world juniors and then swept U23 [World Championships] and won some sprints, then now we know. … He won so many different ways this Tour; I have never seen anything quite so dominant…”
“… I will maybe take some heat for this, but you have to be innocent until proven guilty,” Kershaw continued. “FIS did take a position and banned six athletes and Ustiugov wasn’t one of those people. … The only thing that I didn’t really like — but I understand maybe he doesn’t know or maybe none of us really know, it’s pretty murky — is when he said, ‘This is for the boys back home.’ I realize he is a bit pissed [about the suspensions], but he is a young athlete.
“If we cant believe in our winners than it’s probably time to step away from the sport altogether,” Kershaw continued. “I really hope he is clean, and we have seen dominance in skiing before and we will see it again, and this was something pretty special.”
— Ian Tovell, Harald Zimmer, Aleks Tangen, and Chelsea Little contributed