You can tell that North American skiing has come a long way when a day with two men in the top 15 of a World Cup race is closer to disappointing than exciting.
In the final stage of the “Ruka Triple”—a three-day mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland—Canadian Devon Kershaw led the way for the North Americans with a 10th place in the 15 k skate pursuit. But with Alex Harvey dropping 13 places and Kris Freeman breaking a pole and missing out on a chance for the top five, there was a sense that there could have been more.
Alexander Legkov (RUS) captured the overall victory on Sunday, putting in a huge move in the last kilometer to drop the two other members of the lead pack, after a tactical final lap that had them at a near-standstill. Switzerland’s Dario Cologna was second, while Daniel Rickardsson (SWE) continued his strong early season run with third place.
While Legkov was the winner, it was Sweden’s Emil Joensson who was the first out of the gate in the pursuit start. In the past, Joensson has been almost exclusively a sprinter, but this year he has made a huge jump in his distance skiing, finishing eighth in Saturday’s 10 k classic.
On Sunday, he was off the line like a rocket, and for good reason: He was being chased by Cologna, and Kazakhstan’s rising star, Alexey Poltaranin. And despite Joensson’s improved fitness, he didn’t stand much of a chance against Cologna, the Olympic gold medalist in the 15 k skate in Vancouver.
On his blog, Joensson wrote afterwards that he knew it would be a rough day—especially after two intense competitions on Friday and Saturday. In comments to the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet before the race, he said that he felt like he hadn’t eaten for a week, and had been stuck in a freezer while fighting Mike Tyson. (What Joensson meant about eating and boxing isn’t clear, but temperatures in Kuusamo this week were close to the legal limit for racing.)
He was quickly swallowed up by Cologna and Poltaranin before the five kilometer mark, and that pack was joined shortly thereafter by the next chase group of Legkov, Harvey, and Rickardsson.
But Harvey didn’t last very long with the leaders. He was quickly dropped, and faded hard to finish 17th.
“He felt good warming up, but for whatever reason, the body didn’t react the way he wanted it to,” said Canadian Development Coach Eric DeNys, with the team in Kuusamo. “Three days of racing in -17 C, or colder, caught up with some people.”
After Harvey fell off the pace, pressure from Legkov chewed up and spit out Joensson, then Poltaranin as well. By the time the leaders reached 10 kilometers, it was down to just Legkov, Cologna, and Rickardsson.
Behind, a large chase pack of roughly ten athletes had formed, including Kershaw and Freeman, who both took turns driving the train.
“It was going really well,” Freeman said, adding that he couldn’t believe how fresh he felt in the middle of the race.
But with three kilometers to go, Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) skied over Freeman’s pole and broke it, forcing him to ski 500 meters through the stadium before he could get a replacement from U.S. Ski Team coach Bryan Fish. The mishap, Freeman said, cost him a chance to fight for fourth place, which was “disappointing.” He ended up 12th.
“I wasted a lot of energy skiing with a pole and two-thirds through the stadium,” he said. “Stuff happens, and especially in ski racing…it stinks, but it happens.”
Meanwhile, at the front, Legkov had let up on the gas after dropping Poltaranin and Joensson, but neither Cologna nor Rickardsson wanted to work, either. According to de Nys, cold temperatures, slow snow, and a tough course in Kuusamo meant that nobody “was too keen on leading.”
“It was a really tough race to work in,” he said. “It was quite tactical at the front.”
At the top of one of the downhills, the lead group nearly came to a full stop. But finally, Legkov decided to make a move, and no one could match it. The Russian skied to the finish line with a 10-second lead on Cologna for his first World Cup win since the spring of 2009.
“I realized I could win the race in the uphills, as I was confident and believed in my strengths,” Legkov said afterwards. “I would like to win Tour de Ski. I’m waiting for you, Petter!”
Behind, Kershaw entered the final kilometer in a tight battle, and his bid to move up further was foiled in the finish stretch.
As Kershaw stepped out to make his move, he discovered that two of the lanes had not been skied in, and that despite clear skies, a significant frosty layer had built up. Ultimately, he was forced to drop back in to the clear lanes and settle for 10th.
Kershaw didn’t answer a call after the race, but on his Twitter account, he said that he’d had a good day.
“Best I have felt this season so far,” he said. “A little surprised, actually, but in a good way.”
Ivan Babikov, the third Canadian starter, had his first strong day of the winter, skiing up from his 89th-place starting position to finish 41st—posting the 31st-fastest time of the day. De Nys said that the effort was even more impressive considering that Babikov was skiing through traffic for the full race.
American Noah Hoffman had a similarly strong day, moving to 42nd from 79th, with the 34th-fastest time. Based on the strength of his results over the past two weeks, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said that there was a chance that Hoffman could remain in Europe for two more weeks, to race the World Cup races in Davos in early December.
–Kieran Jones contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.