Falun, Sweden – The sight of Petter Northug (NOR) powering away from the field in the final meters of a race has almost become predictable.
The Norwegian star once again used his brutal finishing punch to claim victory in the 20km pursuit, and gain a significant margin in the overall World Cup Finals’ standings.
Northug started quickly and won the first intermediate sprint to gain 15 bonus seconds. He then dropped back in the pack, but move up at the transition to skate, and picked up another 15 seconds on the third bonus sprint.
Tobias Angerer (GER) took second in a photo finish over Lukas Bauer (CZE). All told eight skiers were within 4.4 seconds of the victory. While the lead group was tightly packed, the fact that it was no bigger is another indication that mass start racing is changing on the World Cup. In the past relatively short mass start races resulted in sprints of 20 or more.
Ten kilometers in, a small gap had formed after Marcus Hellner (SWE) in 12th, and several kilometers later Northug, Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA), Anders Soedergren (SWE), and Bauer had pulled five seconds in front.
The pack would regain contact however, setting up the final sprint to the line.
“I’m satisfied with my performance today, especially as I felt a bit tired,” said Northug. “I did not have the best classical leg, but when we went up on the Mördarbakken in the free technique the last time, I felt good and knew I was where I wanted to be.”
He now holds a 40 seconds lead over Hellner for tomorrow’s 15km handicap start.
“I now have a 40 second advantage on Marcus [Hellner]. It looks comfortable but I know it will be not easy tomorrow. He is a strong skater and has his home crowd behind him.”
Another Swede, Mats Larsson, is in 3rd overall, just six seconds behind Hellner. Angerer is 4th, another 14 seconds back.
Ivan Babikov led the Canadians with a solid 12th place result, +29.1. Babikov had an uncharacteristically slow skate leg – just the 27th overall.
Alex Harvey was 22nd, also dropping back in the skate portion. He won a photo finish over Ole-Marius Bach (NOR). He now sits in 18th in the overall standings while Babikov is just outside the points in 31st.
Devon Kershaw rounded out the Canadian squad (Graham Nishikawa did not start) in 37th.
The conditions were spring-like to say the least, with temperatures reaching +12C.
Andy Newell finished 39th for the US, just behind Swedish sprinter Emil Joensson and ahead of Axel Teichmann (GER) among others.
“Today was a big improvement on my last pursuit,” said Newell. “I think it’s one of those races that the more you practice them the easier it gets. I don’t think it was an awesome race for me but it was solid… a good sign that my distance racing is improving.”
Newell has commented in the past that mass start races are challenging for him as he can’t set his own pace, and often dies after trying to hang on. Today was different.
“I was in a good pack and skied most of the skate behind Teichmann, which was great experience. And for once I was feeling fresh enough on the last few K’s to put in a surge and drop some people. That was fun.”
He is now 41st in the overall, 1:17 out of the top-30, a bit behind where he hoped to be.
“When I found out I was going to be racing in this final World Cup mini tour, my goal was to able to be in the top-30, and get a shot at scoring some distance points. So I’m a little disappointed not to be in there – it would have helped to have had a better sprint in Stockholm, but considering it’s been a long season and I’m still feeling pretty fit, I can’t complain. Everyone is pretty relaxed at these races and we’re all having fun with all the other teams.”
Brian Gregg finished 48th in the 50-man field, and is off in no-man’s land in the race tomorrow. He is nearly two minutes behind the skier in front of him, and just about the same margin in front of the man behind.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.