Two weeks ago, young Alexei Poltaranin (KAZ) stood on the start line in Kuusamo wearing bib two. The race was the final event of the Ruka Triple, a World Cup mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland.
Powered by strong results in the preceding classic races, Poltaranin was in position to battle for the overall podium. And battle he did, but despite holding position through the early part of the race, he was dropped by the leaders, swallowed by the hard-charging chase pack, and relegated to a solid, yet unsensational, 15th overall.
But back to his preferred classic technique, the 23-year-old, dropped the hammer on the best distance skiers in the world, powering to a narrow .9-second victory over Russian Alexander Legkov in the 15km classic race in Davos, Switzerland.
Veteran Lukas Bauer (CZE) edged hometown favorite Dario Cologna (SUI) by a mere .3 seconds for the final podium spot.
Poltaranin, starting early in the A-seed, would not be getting splits off his top competitors. It was Legkov, as the World Cup distance leader who held the pole position at bib 61.
And it was Legkov who led the race at the five-kilometer mark, powering through the soft conditions brought about by a significant pre-race snowfall, to lead Cologna by 3.9 seconds.
Poltaranin, looking relaxed and smooth, was in no hurry, passing the 5k time check in 6th, 12 seconds down on Legkov.
This time Poltaranin would not slide back through the field. His pace remained even, and his face showed little signs of strain, even on the tough herring-bone sections of the course – this in contrast to the tense grimaces of many of his competitors.
Five kilometers later, Legkov still was fastest, but the Kazakh now sat in 3rd closing the gap to five seconds.
Meanwhile, another Russian, Maxim Vylegzhanin flew around the second lap to move from 9th to 2nd, and Cologna, Bauer, Sami Jauhojärvi (FIN), Martin Johsnrud Sundby (NOR) and Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) all were with within ten seconds of the lead.
Hindsight may allow us to reduce the race to the fight between Legkov and Poltaranin, but two-thirds of the way through, any of those eight men were in position to take the win.
Smart money, however, would be on Legkov, given his performance in Kuusamo – one does not easily forget the man who drops Dario Cologna on the final climbs of a 15km freestyle.
Such would not be the case in today’s individual start event. Vylegzhanin kept the hammer down, and over the next 1.6km actually took over the lead and opened a 3.7 second gap on his teammate. You cannot question the courage of Vylegzhanin’s aggressiveness, but he ended up a case study for “too-much-too-soon” fading hard over the last kilometers, and turning the race over to the strongest of the group.
Poltaranin brought the race home in fine form as the sun broke through the grey Swiss sky. Driving a powerful double pole down the finish stretch, he took over the fur-draped leaders chair, getting comfortable for the inevitable waiting of individual start racing.
Jauhojaervi was not in the A-seed, and the man Poltaranin replaced in the chair. He would have to be satisfied with 5th, his best World Cup distance result since winning the 50km classic in Trondheim in 2009.
And so Poltaranin sat, watching the rest of the field cross the line, their times flashing on the scoreboard, always some seconds off his pace.
First came Johnsrud Sundby, 9.5 seconds back, ultimately good for 6th, a strong race for the classic specialist.
Next was Vylegzhanin, now 13.8 down, the last 3.4 kilometers dropping him from 1st to 9th.
Poltaranin continued to look unconcerned in his seat, even as his main challengers approached the stadium. He had done what he could, and in a few minutes all would know if it was enough.
Defending Tour de Ski Champion Bauer made the next run, coming up four seconds short. Cologna was just behind, entering the stadium to the roar of the passionate Swiss crowd. Their exhortations could not drive him ahead of Bauer, and he, like Poltaranin, could only wait for Legkov to see if his effort was worth a podium spot.
Legkov crested the final climb and dropped into the backstretch. All with an eye on the clock knew it would be tight, and the seconds ticked by as the Russian came around the final hairpin and shifted into a full sprint. He lunged for the line, collapsing in exhaustion in the soft snow.
As he was helped up and led form the finish corral, he held up two fingers in answer to a question – second place and Poltaranin had his first major international victory.
Interviewed in English following the race, Poltaranin struggled with the language, but said enough, repeating “I am very happy!”
Later, through a translator, Poltaranin told FIS, “I felt strong today and my skis were very good as well.” He described his race as his “best ever.”
Legkov was happy for Poltaranin and satisfied with his second place effort, his first race wearing the overall World Cup leaders bib.
With temperatures just below freezing, and the new snow, waxing presented a challenge. Both Poltaranin and Legkov were happy with their skis, and Bauer, despite making a final call on wax just three minutes before the start, did fine.
The Czech was pleased to ski so well in the classic race, noting he was not pleased with his technique in the previous World Cup events.
Devon Kershaw (CAN) led the North Americans with a strong 9th place finish, skiing up after a slow start.
Kris Freeman (USA) was 23rd.
Petter Nothug (NOR) made his World Cup debut, placing 13th, 38.5 seconds down.
Northug raced two FIS events in Norway last weekend to get his 2011 season back underway after a delay due to illness.
In a post-race interview Northug described his race as “ok,” and telling reporters “I need some races to get in shape…I feel good.”
His training has been going well, and he is looking to return to the podium fight next weekend in La Clusaz, France.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.