For Sergey Ustiugov, the Tour de Ski (TdS) is picking up where he left it last year. Last January, the 25-year-old Russian finished 2017 Tour’s final competition as the overall winner, earning his first TdS title over Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby. In this season’s first stop — a freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland — the Russian reclaimed the coveted leader’s bib, earning not only the stage win, but the Tour’s overall lead with six stages remaining.
“I really wanted to win today to start the Tour strong,” Ustiugov said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
Ustiugov’s opening day began with his qualifier, which he won after covering the course in a time of 2:58.46 minutes. Italy’s Federico Pellegrino posted the second-fastest qualifying time, 1.08 seconds back from the Russian.
Ustiugov then advanced to the first quarterfinal, along with his teammate Andrey Larkov, Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh, Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson, and American Andy Newell (Newell previously qualified in 20th (+5.94)).
The six balled together into a tight group from the start, with Krogh setting the pace up front and Ustiugov positioning himself at the back heading into the first climb. Halfway through the hill, Ustiugov surged, moving from sixth to second before cresting the top. The Swede’s skis proved faster, however, and by the first descent, Halfvarsson had surpassed Ustiugov, while Newell tucked into fifth between Niskanen and Larkov.
At the bottom of the course’s second climb, a misplanted pole brought Halfvarsson down. Just behind him, Newell narrowly quickly maneuvered to the right of the fallen skier’s skis to stay in contact with the leaders.
By the time Halfvarsson picked himself up, the group had reach the top of that climb and a break was beginning to form. Ustiugov and Krogh cruised in the front while Newell chased in third.
Heading into the final 100-meter stretch, the battle for the top two spots was on: Krogh, Ustiugov, Newell, Niskanen, and Larkov all in the mix. In the end, it was Krogh and Ustiugov who went 1-2, with the Norwegian besting the Russian by 0.07 seconds.
Larkov finished third (+0.36) and Newell crossed in fourth, 0.55 seconds behind Krogh. Neither Larkov nor Newell advanced to the semifinals, and Newell ultimately placed 19th on the day.
In the semifinal, the Russian again took to the back of the pack for the first half of the course, a calibrated move for a racer who is known to prefer to control the pace from the front. The Russian would wait until just before the course’s second major climb to make a move. Nestled behind Krogh with one downhill left, Ustiugov waited for his chance to charge. It came in the final corner.
As the group rounded the final turn together, Ustiugov, Pellegrino and Krogh skied side by side, as if their skis were linked together with string.
In a photo finish, it was Ustiugov who crossed first in the semifinal, 0.04 seconds ahead of Pellegrino, who was just 0.02 seconds ahead of Krogh. The first of the day’s two lucky loser spots went to Krogh, the second went to Hakola in fourth (+1.11).
Heading into the final, it was Ustiugov, Pellegrino, Hakola, Krogh, Jouve, and another Frenchman, Lucas Chanavat, who had won both his quarterfinal and semifinal after qualifying in third.
By this time, Ustiugov’s tactic had changed. The cat was out of the bag and he was ready to lead. From the start he raced at the front, and Chanavat positioned to his left as they moved through the first climb. Pulling hard to their right was Pellegrino in third.
Ustiugov drove the front, pulling the rest of the finalists behind him. By the second climb it became obvious the Russian was ready to get what he came for. He gapped the field, leaving everyone but Pellegrino and Chanavat behind. In the finishing stretch, Ustiugov continued to distance himself from his competitors, finishing first in 2:57.28 while Pellegrino crossed 1 second later in second place and Chanavat finished 2.76 seconds back in third.
“The result is fine but I had some troubles with my legs today and I think that is from the training period before the start of the Tour,” the 27-year-old Pellegrino said, according to FIS.
For Chanavat, 23, Saturday marked his first individual World Cup podium.
“I knew the second lap is going to be the most important one,” Chanavat told FIS. “Ustiugov was really strong on the flats but I could keep up with him. I was little bit struggling on the uphill. In the end I was lacking the speed on the home stretch but I am very happy for my first podium.”
Hakola finished fourth (+5.91), Krogh fifth (+14.39) and Jouve sixth (+21.01). Rounding out the top 10 was Canada’s Alex Harvey in seventh, Switzerland’s Jovian Hediger in eighth, Bolshunov in ninth, and Great Britain’s Andrew Young in 10th.
Harvey’s seventh place was the top North American finish on Saturday and puts him in seventh in the overall standings. After qualifying 18th (+4.98) he advanced to the fifth quarterfinal. There, he took a lesson from Ustiugov’s book and paced the first half of the course before making his move. It was not until halfway through the second climb that the Canadian made his way from sixth to second, slipping in behind Switzerland’s Roman Furger. By the final descent, Harvey had moved into the front. Waving to the crowd as he crossed first in his heat was Harvey in a time of 2:58.8, 0.56 seconds clear of Young in second place.
Both Harvey and Young advanced to the second semifinal, where the Canadian finished third, 0.01 seconds behind France’s Jouve, who automatically advanced in second (0.34 behind Chanavat in first). For Harvey (and for Young, who placed fifth in that heat), that was the end of the road. He missed the final by one-hundredth of a second.
“Body felt great again. I feel like I did 2 mistakes though, first one was when I took the lead heading into the 2nd lap,” Harvey wrote in an email. “I kinda eased up a tiny bit and Chanavat took me by surprise when he launched into the hill, he gapped me instantly. I should have driven it hard as soon as I took the lead.
“Second mistake was when I was trying to overtake Jouve, I tried to take go by him on the outside right at the bottom on the downhill, and then again in the last corner before the finish,” he continued. “Looking back I should have just chilled behind him in those two corners, not ski the longer way outside and where the snow was a bit slower and the just have a tiny more power for the finishing stretch…0.02s more extra power could have gone a long way.”
“It’s still very early in the Tour but so far so good,” Harvey concluded. “I have a bit of an advantage on the allrounders, other than Finn and Usti, so that’s nice.”
Leading the U.S. men was Simi Hamilton, who qualified in 15th and advanced to the second quarterfinal. Out of the start, Hamilton stayed in the back of the pack, pacing off Pellegrino in fifth. Hakola manned the front through the first climb. Heading into the first descent, Hamilton picked off two positions, moving into fourth behind Hakola, Norway’s Sindre Bjørnestad Skar, and France’s Baptiste Gros.
After a tight corner with Gros, Hamilton edged into third for the course’s flatter V2 section before the second major climb. The group continued uphill, Hakola and Pellegrino now charging up front. Corning into the final stretch, Pellegrino had created enough of a gap to ease into the finish, crossing first 0.35 seconds ahead of Hakola in second and 0.56 seconds ahead of Hamilton in third. That finish put Hamilton in 15th at the end of the day.
Two Americans finished in the top 10, with Newell in 19th, and Erik Bjornsen qualified for the heats in 27th and went on to place 25th overall after finishing fifth in his quarterfinal.
“Andy and Simi were right there in the middle of their heats, but today you just needed to be in a more aggressive position later in the course because the moves that these guys are often able to make weren’t possible today, so they’re a little frustrated I think,” U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone. “And I think if we were to go back and do this again, we would ski the middle section of the course very aggressively and just put ourselves in front.”
Last year, Bjornsen completed the Lenzerheide freestyle sprint qualifier, cooled down and went back to the hotel without racing the heats. He had finished 69th, missing the top 30 necessary to qualify by 5.76 seconds.
“I’m not a regular heat skier, so just making the heats is usually my goal going into them,” Bjornsen wrote in an email on Saturday. “Today I was happy to feel strong in the heats and mix it up a bit.”
To kick off the 2018 TdS, Bjornsen bettered his finish by almost threefold. He qualified in 27th, 6.95 seconds behind Ustiugov, and then faced off with Jouve, Hediger, Bolshunov, Iversen, and Finland’s Martti Jylhä.
“Hopefully I can get some more practice in them because every time I feel a little more comfortable,” Bjornsen continued. He is currently 29th in the tour standings, based on adjustments for qualifying time and time bonuses. “Being in 29th is great but it’s really to early to start looking at overall tour position for me. The distance races are usually what start spreading people out.”
Out of the gate, Bjornsen tracked to the back, skiing in fifth just behind Iversen and Jylhä, while Hediger and Bolshunov commanded the front.
By the top of the first climb Bjornsen had moved around the inside of Jylhä and up into third. With the cheers of a homecrowd pushing him along, Hediger continued to lead up the second major climb. Bjornsen slightly lost contact in fifth as the group descended toward the finishing stretch, and in the final meters, it was Iversen clinched first, 0.2 seconds ahead of Jouve in second. Bjornsen finished fifth, 0.82 seconds out of first, to end up 25th overall.
Also racing for the U.S., was Paddy Caldwell who finished the qualifier in 74th. Devon Kershaw, the only other Canadian racing this year’s TdS, placed 86th out of 94 racers on Saturday.
–Harald Zimmer, Jason Albert, and Andrea Potyondy-Smith