Marcus Hellner (SWE) has ended 2010 on the top step of the podium. The Swede used his powerful skating to capture the stage victory in the 3.75 k prologue in Oberhof, Germany, on the opening day of the 2010-2011 Tour de Ski.
Hellner beat out Alexei Petukhov (RUS) by 2 seconds for the win over the short distance. While Petukhov has never competed in the Tour before, he is no slouch – the Russian is a sprint specialist with a lengthy resume of medals, including a bronze from the Vancouver Olympics last February. Petukhov also has no designs on the overall title – he is simply looking to collect sprint points, and will exit the Tour after the Toblach sprint in stage 5.
Norway’s Petter Northug rounded out the podium, finishing 2.9 seconds back of his poker-playing friend. While Northug has missed a large portion of the early season due to a combination of illness and overtraining, his results seem to rebounding of late.
“It was a good race, I had a good feeling. I feel my shape is good now and I look forward to continue the Tour,” said Northug in a post-race interview, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
While Petukhov was the fastest of the field over the mid-point split, Hellner erased the 3.8 second deficit by the finish to earn the win, and Northug closed almost five seconds on Petukhov to end within a second of the Russian.
Hellner finished fourth last year in the Tour de Ski, and hopes to crack the podium this year, but he acknowledges that it’s going to be difficult.
“I am hoping to be in the top lead this year,” Hellner said, “but on the other hand I know it is hard for me with all the classic disciplines.”
With five extremely strong men starting, the North American contingent looked to have a good start to their Tour de Ski.
Andy Newell nailed the pacing, as at the mid-point split seemed to be well off the pace, sitting in 42nd, 11.9 seconds behind Petukhov. By the finish, Newell was 11.7 seconds back of the leader, this time Hellner, but finished in 14th spot.
“It was definitely a lot better than any other prologue I’ve done,” said Newell in an interview with FasterSkier.
Newell had a new strategy – he wanted to ski hard, but make sure he skied the last one kilometer like it was a sprint.
“I was really spent at the finish,” he said, “I felt awful the last hundred meters, and then puked, which is always a good sign that you worked hard enough.”
For Saturday’s 15 k classic, Newell is aiming to avoid a large loss of time, in order to set himself up to take advantage of his strength, the classic sprint on Sunday.
“I feel like my classic sprinting is good right now,” he said, “But they aren’t giving those bonus seconds away, you still have to work for them.”
Newell’s pacing feat was almost matched by Alex Harvey (CAN), who crossed the min-point in 34th position, but climbed 18th by the finish.
“I didn’t feel amazing so it was nice to get into the top-20 and know that I have more to give,” said Harvey in a Cross Country Canada press release following the race.
Devon Kershaw (CAN) finished in 37th, 17.8 seconds back of the lead, while Ivan Babikov (CAN) battled through one of his weaker race types to finish 45th.
“Not my best discipline, but I kinda have to race it,” commented Babikov Thursday via Twitter about the prologue.
Kris Freeman (USA), who is taking on the Tour de Ski for the first time in his career, finished 55th.