Oslo, Norway – Maybe it is ski switching, maybe the courses are harder, or most likely, the skiers are more aggressive. Whatever the reason, the long mass start races that are now standard on the World Cup are becoming more and more consistently exciting.
Last year the traditional Holmenkollen 50km was held in Trondheim due to construction at the Oslo venue, and the race set a new standard for a World Cup mass start race.
Instead of the large pack stampeding around the course like a herd of enraged bison, each charging hard, but no individual willing to break away from the safety of the group, the race featured numerous attacks, breaks, and comebacks.
The bar had been raised, aided by several clever decisions by FIS. The addition of bonus World Cup points at intermediate distances manufactured attacks and despite many of the drawbacks of ski switching, the ability to stop and swap skis created another opportunity for strategy and breakaways.
The 30km pursuit at the Olympics featured a gutsy break by Johan Olsson halfway through the race, and a heart-stopping finish. The 50km was certainly not as thrilling as the Trondheim race, but close observation revealed an exciting race underneath the veil of pack skiing. And depending on the conditions, the course, and even the time of year, mass start races will still feature large bunch finishes. But it does appear that those races are becoming less prevalent, replaced by the type of competitions witnessed in Trondheim, and today in Oslo.
If anyone had any doubt that Petter Northug (NOR) is the best all-around skier in the world, today’s race should provide final proof. Northug withstood attacks from the French duo of Vincent Vittoz and Maurice Manificat and a stunning comeback by Pietro “Killer” Piller Cottrer to claim his 2nd 50km victory in a row.
Just three days after finishing 2nd in the Drammen classic sprint, Northug won the race at the opposite end of the distance spectrum. Vittoz and Manificat attacked hard near the 12 kilometer mark, immediately opening a gap. Northug was the only one to respond, and the trio continued to push the pace.
One of the criticisms of Northug (at least in the US) has been that he sits back in the pack letting others do the work. But anyone familiar with bike racing knows that being in a three-man break when you are solo against two teammates is not an easy spot. And the general rule is that if a team is two strong in a lead pack of three, you had better win.
Northug withstood the efforts of the Frenchmen to tire him out, taking his turn at the front.
“I tried to stay in the leading group from the start,” explained Northug. “I felt there would be many attacks during the competition. When the French attacked I just tried to stay with them.”
The lead over the large chase pack grew steadily, reaching a maximum of 1:38 at 33 kilometers. At this point the chase pack had dwindled to 14 skiers, though in another break from standard 50k protocol, this was not a result of slow attrition – fading skiers dropping off the back consistently over the course of the race.
The leaders were aided by the work of Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA), who slowed the pace of the chasers to allow his teammates to pull away.
At the 20k mark, the group chasing Vittoz, Manificat and Northug numbered only 13, with a gap of 20 seconds to the next pack. And while the focus was on the front, efforts to bridge back up to the chase group provided secondary drama.
With the large lead approaching two minutes, and just over 15 kilometers remaining, it seemed the podium was set. But as is often the case in cycling, the pack stepped it up as the leaders began to lose the pace slightly.
Between 33 and 35 kilometers, the chasers took 26 seconds out of the lead. As each time check came and went, the gap closed steadily. At 42k, the lead was down to 28 seconds, the chase pack of ten led by none other than Anders Soedergren, the Swede known for his aggressiveness in mass start competitions.
Soedergren had done his part, but couldn’t hold the pace over the next two kilometers when the race completely blew up. Manificat ran out of gas, losing contact with Northug and Vittoz while Piller Cottrer staged his own attack, quickly swallowing up the fading Frenchman and shattering the chase group.
At 44k, Piller Cottrer was still 20 seconds back in 3rd. Four kilometers later he was in the lead, pushing Vittoz and Northug.
Vittoz, like Manificat before him, was spent, and couldn’t match the Italian veteran. With just 1.4 kilometers to go, Vittoz was 10 seconds behind, and out of the race for the victory, though he still held a solid 30-second lead on 4th.
Piller Cottrer and Northug sped past the .5k mark, still glued together. Piller Cottrer, well aware of Northug’s famed finishing sprint, threw down one last attack on the final climb. He was nearly successful, but “nearly” will never be enough when it comes to Northug.
As he has done so many times before, the Norwegian star opened the throttle in the stadium, skiing clear of Piller Cottrer to claim his first victory at Holmenkollen.
“When Pietro came he was really fast,” said Northug following the race. “He almost killed me in the last uphill, but I made it and won.”
Vittoz hung on for 3rd, crossing the line 25 seconds ahead of Soedergren. The Swedes continued to show fine form, with Johan Olsson, the bronze medalist in the aforementioned 30km pursuit at the Olympics, was 5th,9 seconds behind his teammate. They were joined in the top-10 by Marcus Hellner, who finished in a tie for 8th with Martin Bajcicak (SVK).
Manificat blew up in stunning fashion, dropping a total of 2:35 on the leaders in the last 8.4km. Despite his work for the majority of the race, he ended up 12th.
Piller Cottrer, who won this same event 13 years ago was plenty satisfied with 2nd.
“I won in Holmenkollen 13 years ago, so I know how it feels. I really wanted to live this feeling again.” It wasn’t to be, but midway through the race Piller Cottrer believed he was out of contention completely.
“In the beginning I was skiing in the chase group and was staying a bit behind. At that time I thought the race was over for me, but after changing my skis I felt better and better, and my strength increased. When I caught Maurice [Manificat] it gave me extra kick and energy. I am happy to be second!”
Vittoz explained the French strategy, saying, “we did not speak before the race about tactics but we knew that if the pace is slow we do not have any chance for podium. Therefore we tried to set a high pace from the beginning. It could seem to be crazy but it was working.”
Vittoz was grateful to both Gaillard for his efforts slowing the pack and to the French service team who provided very fast skis.
“You know without great equipment you cannot think of winning here,” Vittoz said. “It was tough day for our service men with a lot of work…And Jean Marc [Gaillard] did a great job.”
“It was a very exciting race today,” concluded Northug. “It was not hard for me to find motivation as this is Holmekollen and I wanted to win this 50 km in front of the home crowd.”
And Piller Cottrer wished the young Northug the same skiing longevity he has enjoyed.
“I am happy to be second, and I wish Petter to win here again in thirteen years.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.