On The Women's Side:
Ariana Follis (ITA) jumped up to second in the Tour de Ski overall classification with an impressive victory today in the Freestyle Sprint in Prague. Follis won the 1km qualifying time trial then led all the way through the semi-final and A-final to win ahead of Pirjo Muranen (FIN) and Marit Bjoergen (NOR), the Norwegian taking enough bonus seconds to hold onto her overall lead in the Tour.
The 450m loop in the centre of Prague had some tight corners and there was some fierce racing through the head-to-head rounds. The snow was soft which made it more challenging, but there was plenty of space down the main straight for overtaking.
Follis and Mischol (SUI) progressed through from the first heat. Kalla (SWE) had some bad luck in her quarter final, leading most of the way before breaking a pole in the final straight and ending up fourth behind Jacobsen (NOR), Roponen (FIN), and Korosteleva (RUS). Muranen and Genuin (ITA) led all the way through their quarter-final, as did Kuenzel (GER) and Kowalczyk (POL) who held off Bjoergen in the final straight. Kuitunen (FIN) lead Prochazkova (SVK) in the last heat, with Majdic (SLO) fighting her way up to third but unable to catch the Finn and the Slovak in the final straight. Korosteleva and Bjoergen were the fastest of the third placed finishers and took the last two places in the semi-finals.
The first semi-final was relatively uneventful. The pace was high with Follis at the front leading Genuin and Bjoergen. Bjoergen pulled up to Genuin down the finish straight and pipped her on the line, with Muranen also finishing fast to be only 0.7 back in fourth and still with a chance of qualifying for the A-final on time. The second semi-final saw Kuitunen squeeze in ahead of Prochazkova and Kowalczyk into the first corner. A lap later Kowalczyk tried unsuccessfully to overtake Prochazkova, and maybe the pressure was too much as the very next corner Prochazkova stumbled and went down, bringing Kuenzel down behind her. Jacobsen must have gone down as well, as then there were only three fighting for the line. Kuitunen got in first, with Kowalczyk ousting Korosteleva in a photo-finish. The second semi was a couple of seconds slower, so four skiers went through to the final from the first semi.
Next up was the B-final. Prochazkova looked a little uncoordinated but still managed to be fastest out of the start ahead of Mischol; the Swiss skier sat behind then overtook at the end of the first lap. Kuenzel was in touch and tried to make her move down the final straight but the line came too quick, Mischol kept her lead and took 7th place ahead of Prochazkova.
In the A-final Follis got off to a good start as usual, with Muranen on her heels into the first corner. Kowalczyk fell by herself and was out of the running. Bjoergen was in third place ahead of Genuin then Kuitunen. And that's how the places stayed until the finish. Muranen tried her best down the finish straight but Follis was too strong.
In the overall classification, Bjoergen now has a nine second lead over Follis, with Kowalczyk in third 22 seconds behind. It will definitely be another interesting Pursuit in Nove Mesto on Stage 4 on New Years Day. Kalla, The fastest skier from Stage 2 is sitting in 6th, 38 seconds off the pace, with Kuitunen and Mischol in between. Another fast Finn, Roponen, will start only 7 seconds behind Kalla, while the German trio of Sachenbacher, Kunzel and Zeller will start five seconds apart one minute off the lead, together with Italian Valbusa. Follis and Valbusa will both be looking to be as high as possible in the standings before the tough individual classic stage on January 2.
For the Men:
Twenty-one year old Nikolai Morilov (RUS) won his first World Cup in the Stage 3 of the Tour de Ski in Prague today, holding off fast finishing Norwegians Simon Oestensen and Tor-Arne Hetland in the Sprint A-final. Morilov now leads the Sprint classification in the Tour, while Oestensen's bonus seconds have catapulted him past Lukas Bauer (CZE) into the golden bib of the overall tour leader.
The men's heats were hotly contested, with many sprinters trying to make the most of their specialist event and the top overall contenders knowing that they would gain valuable seconds on their rivals if they make it through to the next round. When the snow and broken poles had settled from the heats, four Norwegians, three Russians, two Italians, a Finn, a Czech, and an Estonian readied themselves for the semi-finals.
In the first semi-final Oestensen, Hetland, Northug and Gjerdalen (NOR), di Centa (ITA), and Parfenov (RUS) got to steady their nerves a little longer after di Centa broke at the start. At the second attempt the start was clean, but 50m into the race di Centa stuck his pole between Hetland's skis and fell over — amazingly Hetland kept his feet. Northug lead into the first corner ahead of Parfenov, but the Russian put in a burst before the next corner and hit the front, and behind Hetland moved up to third past Oestensen. Parfenov lead the rest of the way to the final metres where he was out-lunged by Northug, while right on their heels Oestensen out-lunged Hetland. On to semi-final number two.
Morilov, Vylegzhanin (RUS), Kozisek (CZE), Simonlatser (EST), Pasini (ITA) and Jauhojarvi (FIN) all gave no quarter down the starting straight, fighting to be first into the corner. Morilov made it there first ahead of Pasini, while right behind Kozisek and Simonlatser caught skis and spun each other around. Vylegzhanin and Jauhojarvi made it around safely, and then Vylegzhanin worked hard to pass Pasini and move up into second. The Russians held on down the finish straight, and though Jauhojarvi kept going all the way to the line the time was slower and so once again four skiers progressed from the first semi-final.
In the B-final Simonlatser was out to prove that he should have been in the A-final, and went straight to the front. Kozisek clashed skis with Pasini this time, but stayed up in second place while the Italian hit the snow. Jauhojarvi made a nice overtaking manoeuvre past di Centa into third place, but then di Centa took him straight back before the next corner. In the finish Simonlatser held on ahead of Kozisek, with the next three all lunging together and Gjerdalen coming up on top for third place and hence 9th overall.
The A-final: three Norwegians and three Russians. Morilov won the start ahead of Oestensen, with Parfenov third and Hetland fourth. The places stayed the same for a full lap, with Morilov looking strong at the front. Hetland overtook Parfenov into third place. They hit the finish straight and everybody gave it all they had. Morilov punched the air two, three times as he crossed the line — he is a happy man and very full of adrenaline. Oestensen finished second just ahead of Hetland; Northug is 5th and Vylegzhanin 6th.
Now the implications for the overall standings. With the exception of Morilov, all the A-finalists were in the main bunch of the Pursuit yesterday, so now they fill six of the top eight spots. Bauer, who failed to make the finals, is in second place behind Oestensen, 12 second back, and Hetland, Vylegzhanin and Northug are within five seconds of Bauer. The field is spread out more than before, with Soedergren (SWE) one minute behind in 15th place. But then it is tight again, with the next 14 skiers within ten seconds: including Sommerfeldt (GER), Kershaw (CAN), Chebotko (KAZ), Checchi (ITA), Jonnier (FRA), Teichmann (GER), Dementiev (RUS), Piller Cottrer (ITA), Nousianien (FIN), and last year's winner Angerer (GER). This pack will be doing their best to steamroll through the Pursuit on New Year's Day like they did on Stage 2. However Oestensen, Bauer, Hetland and others will have other plans. The stage is set for another exciting race in two day's time.