Val di Fiemme, Italy – Lukas Bauer (CZE) became the first man to win two Tour de Ski titles, skiing away from Peter Northug (NOR) on the Final Climb for a clear victory.
Entering the day, the big question was what strength would win out – Bauer’s hill climbing ability, or Northug’s determination and finishing ability.
At the press conference following yesterday’s mass start each man selected the other as the favorite. But Northug was proven correct.
The Final Climb features a brutal three kilometer slog up the alpine slopes of the Alpe Cermis, and with just an 8.3 second lead heading into the stage, there was little hope that Northug would get away from the 2008 winner.
Fast Start for Bauer
Northug headed out of the gate fast in soft, relatively sloppy conditions. The course started with a series of tough climbs, before hitting the flat and gradual down run to the alpine hill. Bauer closed steadily out of the start and cut the lead in half by 1.5km. At the 3k mark, the two men were even.
Northug immediately let Bauer take the lead, and the Czech was happy to oblige. He won yesterday’s mass start by skiing his own race and not fearing Northug’s sprinting or penchant for riding in back.
The two cruised through the easy sections of the course, adding some seconds to their lead on the chase pack.
With third place over 1:30 back, the event was split into two race – the battle for the victory, and the fight for third. The former ended up being a bit of a flop – at least from the drama standpoint. This year there would be no cat and mouse on the climb, no aggressive attack by Northug, and no charge to the finish. On the first pitch of the bi climb, just after the 6.6km time check, Bauer accelerated slightly, and Northug was left behind.
Bauer skied smooth and relaxed, clearly in control, while Northug struggled – his technique deteriorated, and his face showed the effort he was expending. From the moment that Bauer broke away, it was clear there would be no comeback for Northug – the only question would be whether he could hold on to second.
The Race for Third
While Bauer was busy burying Northug, the race for the final podium spot was shaping up nicely. Dario Cologna (SUI) and Axel Teichmann (GER) started moments apart. Swedes Daniel Rickardsson and Markus Hellner were 12 and 15 seconds back in 5th and 6th, and Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) 28 seconds out of third.
Gaillard hammered out of the start, rapidly closing the 1 second gap on the Swedes, and the three proceeded to track down Cologna and Teichmann. At 2.7 kilometers the pack of five formed and the race for third was on.
Cologna spent the most time at the front looking strong and confident. The leaders remained over 1:30 ahead, so Cologna knew he was racing for 3rd, yet he was not content to sit and wait.
As the group hit the climb, Teichmann was the first to go – on the first big pitch, he slipped off the pace, initially just five meters back, but the gap continued to widen. Teichmann finished 3rd last year, overtaken by Northug on this very climb. But the German had already said that he didn’t care where he finished in the Tour, that the Olympics were his goal.
Whether it was fatigue or a lack of motivation, he was out of the race for the podium.
Cologna continued to drive from the front, and attrition off the back continued. At 8km, Rickardsson was the next to go – and he went hard. He would lose nearly a minute to Cologna over the next two kilometers, and would be caught by both Rene Sommerfeldt (GER) and Teichmann.
With just 350 meters to go, and Hellner and Gaillard still matching Cologna stride for stride, a final sprint seemed imminent. But Cologna thought otherwise – as the course flattened in the lead up to the last steep pitch to the finish, Cologna turned on the jets, breaking into a powerful V2. Both Hellner and Gaillard tried to respond. Gaillard couldn’t handle the pace and fell off the back with Hellner valiantly hanging on. But Cologna had too much, and followed up last year’s Tour victory with a third place finish.
Bauer Strong to the End
Bauer impressively maintained his strong pace to the end, despite his ever-widening lead. He single-sticked the steepest parts, in contrast to Northug, but kept moving quickly, never trusting Northug’s disapperance. For the first time, he looked over his shoulder with 200 meters to go, and seing no one, took a Czech flag in the homestretch and crossed the line.
Even with the small celebration, Bauer posted the fastest time of the day, 2.4 seconds better than Hellner, and 2.5 ahead of Gaillard.
Bauer, humble and gracious to the end, waited in the finish corral to shake hands with Northug and Cologna. He appeared to want to stay around, but with each finisher collapsing in a heap, shaking anyone’s hand was a challenge.
Bauer was confident in his shape after yesterday’s strong performance, and while he was understated at the finish, he did say he knew he was a better climber than Northug, and felt good entering the day.
“After yesterday my feeling was that I am very very strong, but this morning, and a few minutes before the start, my feeling was not so good,” said Bauer. “But once the race started, I felt that I was strong and fast enough.”
When asked if he was surprised that Northug couldn’t follow on the climb, Bauer responded “my feeling was that he would have a little problem in the uphill. Before the race I said that his strength was sprinting and mine was in the uphills. I gave it everything for the victory.”
Northug realized quickly he could not compete.
“I tried to follow Lukas all the way but after first 500 – 600 m on the Cermis I realized I did not have a chance. Than I focused on fighting for second place. I did not want to allow the second group behind to catch me,” said Northug.”
Canada Gets it Done
The Canadian team ended the Tour in strong fashion. Ivan Babikov led the way, almost defending his title of king of the hill. He posted the 4th fastest time on the hill, just 5.3 seconds behind Bauer.
The performance moved him up to 9th overall, the best Canadian finish ever in the Tour.
He was followed by Devon Kershaw in 16th, and Alex Harvey in 22nd.
A Race of Attrition
Of the nearly ninety men who started the Tour de Ski 10 days ago, only 39 reached the top of the Alpe Cermis. Each day a few more withdrew – due to illness, ineffectiveness, or to prepare for the Olympics.
With his performance in yesterday’s mass start, Northug easily won the Tour sprint cup over teammate Simen Oestensen. Hellner took the third spot.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.