Val di Fiemme, Italy – Lukas Bauer (CZE), the 2008 Tour de Ski Winner, skied away from the field to win the 20km Mass Start on the second-to-last day of the 2010 edition.
Bauer and Norwegian Petter Northug (NOR) broke away at 8 kilometers, and Bauer never looked back. Northug held on to second, after getting caught by the chase pack with 200 meters to go. Axel Teichmann (GER) took third.
Action Starts Early
With bonus sprint seconds available every 3.3km this was not going to be a standard World Cup Mass Start, with one big pack, and few attacks. The action heated up nearly from the start. Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) charged off the front at 1.7km. As the first sprint approached, a small group of Gaillard, Simen Oestensen (NOR), Bauer, and Matti Heikkinen (FIN) were clear by 40 meters.
Oestensen, leading the Tour sprint rankings, overtook Gaillard to claim the first 15 bonus seconds. Gaillard was second and Bauer just behind in third. They dropped the pace dramatically and were quickly consumed by the pack once again.
The next 3km were without drama as the field made its way around the challenging loop. Conditions were not easy, with temperatures above freezing, and the snow soft and wet.
As the second bonus approached, a group once again broke off the front, this time consisting of Markus Hellner (SWE), Gaillard, Dario Cologna (SUI), Bauer, Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) and Northug.
The run-up to the sprint featured a steep climb at 400 meters out, before flattening out for a long double-pole, with one short sharp rise to the line.
Sundby led out on the flat, with Bauer and Northug close behind, and the other three just off the pace.
Norway engage a bit of team tactics, with Sundby pushing the pace, and then quickly dropping off, allowing Northug to move by and take the 15 seconds. Bauer was behind Sundby and unable to get around. The two Norwegians exchanged a fist bump after the line as Northug thanks his teammate for the help, and the field closed up once again.
So Much for the Pack
As the halfway mark approached, it appeared that the race might turn into a series of short attacks for the sprint, and then a regrouping of the field. But at 8.5km, Bauer stepped up the pace, with Northug hot on his heels. The only man to respond was Ivan Babikov (CAN). It is likely that the rest of the racers expected the pace to drop after the sprint.
Babikov was unable to maintain contact on the climb leading to the sprint and Bauer and Northug approached the line together.
Northug waited until they were 30 meters out, calmly stepped out and easily passed Bauer. He minimized his energy output, edging into 1st, and checking his competitor several times, just staying in front.
Babikov was clear for 3rd and 5 bonus seconds.
At this point Bauer went against expectations and continued to hold a high price. Northug latched on, and the two skied away from Babikov. The Canadian tried hard to hang, but was ultimately caught in no-man’s land, looking tired. He held out for nearly an entire 3.3km loop, and for a minute looked like he might be up for another 5 seconds. But the pack caught him on the climb toward the sprint, and quickly swallowed him up.
Northug once again easily went by Bauer at 13.2km, with Gaillard taking the third without a fight as the pack moved through, nearly 30 seconds down on the leaders.
Bauer Too Strong
Over the next 1.5 kilometers, the race took another change, and not for the better if you were Petter Northug. The Norwegian start appeared fatigued, and his skis less than perfect. While Bauer smoothly strided up each climb, Northug was slipping, and out of the tracks running on numerous occasions. It didn’t take long for a 20 second gap to open, and with just 5km to go, the race was Bauer’s and the big question was whether Northug could hold on for seconds.
After the race Northug told reporters that his skiers were good, but that Bauer broke him and his technique faltered, causing the slipping on the uphills.
“I was so tired that it was difficult to keep my technique together,” said Northug.
Bauer easily took the 16.6km bonus sprint with Northug still clear of the field by 19 seconds. Cologna won the final 5 seconds.
As the kilometers ticked by, Bauer showed no signs of wavering, and Northug slipped closer and closer to the chase pack. At 18.3km he was only six seconds up and barely hanging on.
Each climb looked agonizing, but he attacked every flat and downhill with his powerful double-pole.
As Bauer charged to the finish (with every second counting in the overall, there was no homestretch celebration today), Teichmann and Cologna finished closing the gap on Northug.
But Northug has built his reputation on his closing ability and he found a little extra on the final hill. Once they hit the flat, Northug’s double-pole brought him home in 2nd, Teichmann just behind in 3rd.
Bauer finished 31 seconds up on Northug, with the rest of the field packed behind.
The next significant gap was 11 seconds between 13th and 14th.
Bauer did not plan on attacking off the front, but with all the contenders for the overall challenging for bonus seconds earlier, he adjusted and took advantage of the opportunity. Originally he hoped to be in position to step up in the second half.
“I was worried about the conditions and the hard course, but when Gaillard attacked, I knew I needed to be at the fron if I want to be in the running,” said Bauer.
He was also surprised when he pulled away from Northug.
“I was surprised because he was saving energy behind me, but I was not looking for him. I needed to ski my own race, and not worry if he was stronger in the last five meters of the sprints.”
Harvey Strong Again
Alex Harvey (CAN) continues to step up in the second half of the Tour. Following his 9th place two day’s ago, he finished 13th today, battling the pack depstie slow skis.
“I felt really good today, but I’m a little disappointed because I blew up at the top of the course. I really felt like I could have fought for the podium today,” said Harvey. “My skis were a little slow, but I found the energy to fight through and get my way up to that front pack.”
Harvey is ranked 19th in the overall, with a significant two minute gap up to 18th.
“I do believe now with all the racing that I’ve done that on a good day I can compete for the podium out here,” Harvey continued. “These races have given me a lot of confidence to know that I can be there.”
Babikov ended up 25th betrayed in part by his skis, which stopped working well on the 4th lap.
“That was a very hard race,” tweeted Babikov. “My skis gave up on me after lap 4, but I felt good, even got 5 bonus seconds! Last race tomorrow. TIRED….”
Devon Kershaw was 22nd and is now 15th overall, with the top-10 within a minute.
Baikov is 13th, and for the man who posted the fastest time in the final stage last year, a top-10 or better result is very much a possibility.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.