In Switzerland last weekend, Russia’s Alexander Legkov skied to his second podium of the year, continuing a strong start to the winter. But in an interview afterwards with the Russian newspaper Sport Express, he said he was trying to relish the results as much as possible, knowing that soon, Norwegian star Petter Northug would be back on the circuit at full strength.
“Make no mistake—a couple of races, and Northug will return to the level we’re all used to,” Legkov said. “Therefore, I’m enjoying the victories over him now.”
Good thing, too. Because if Saturday’s mass start race in La Clusaz was any indication, it could be a while before Legkov gets the better of Northug again.
After battling illness and overtraining for the first month of the season, Northug came roaring back in the 30 k freestyle, putting in a near-superhuman effort to catch Legkov and his teammate Maxim Vylegzhanin in the final kilometer.
Vylegzhanin then did the impossible, just holding off the Norwegian in a sprint, but the message was clear: Northug is back.
Legkov, who did a lot of work in the early stages of the race, was third. Devon Kershaw (CAN) was the top North American, finishing 13th, while his two teammates Ivan Babikov and Alex Harvey were 16th and 24th. Kris Freeman (USA) looked strong for the first half of the race, but faded to finish 25th.
While he made his presence known in the final kilometers, Northug was nowhere to be seen at the start of the race. With just 103 World Cup points on the season, he was given bib 22, outside of the seeded group.
An attack by Anders Soedergren (SWE) and Sergei Dolidovich (BLR) animated the race over the first few kilometers, but the breakaway wasn’t given much of leash—La Clusaz’s trails, winding around wide-open fields, meant that nobody ever got out of sight.
Freeman made a few appearances at the front; Babikov and Kershaw also mixed in among the leaders for the first half of the race. Northug, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen, sitting no higher than 16th place before the finale.
His patience was probably wise, because for the majority of the race, the only real action came when the field arrived at the first three intermediate sprints. Those offered 15 World Cup points to the first athlete across a banner at 6.25 kilometers, 13.75 kilometers, and 21.25 kilometers.
Legkov and Lukas Bauer (CZE) collected the lion’s share, earning a total of 35 and 30 points, respectively. (Points were also awarded for second and third place in those sprints.)
But it was the efforts of Petr Sedov, the 20-year-old Russian phenom, that really broke the race open, with roughly five kilometers to go.
Sedov is a lanky, three-time world junior champion who has turned heads with top-10 finishes on the World Cup this year. And on Saturday, he turned the screws on plenty of veterans with his powerful, fluid skate technique.
At the 27.5-kilometer mark, the Russians had a stranglehold on the race, as Sedov and his teammates Legkov and Vylegzhanin held three of the top four spots. Their efforts whittled the front group down to 10, which included heavy hitters like Northug. Bauer, Soedergren, and Dario Cologna (SUI).
The pace was too much for the North Americans, who were all left behind. Kershaw and Babikov made it into the first chase group, while Harvey and Freeman were farther back.
As the leaders neared the final intermediate sprint, which organizers had placed at 28.75 kilometers, they were presented with what seemed like an interesting dilemma: go for the points and risk fading on the homestretch? Or conserve energy for the finish?
Legkov, though, went for broke. He attacked on the hill leading into the sprint, and was the first to the banner, collecting the 15 points. And with Vylegzhanin just behind, he kept on charging—all the way up the climb and over the top.
Only two men could respond: Cologna, and Northug. Head down, upper body swaying in his familiar climbing technique, Northug led the pair away from the pack and towards the Russians. After his mediocre performances in Switzerland last weekend, it didn’t seem plausible for Northug to close the gap—but he finally made contact with Legkov and Vylegzhanin at the very top of the hill. Cologna couldn’t hang on.
The ensuing descent dropped the leaders into the stadium, where they fanned out for the uphill finish. After figuring in the first 29.8 kilometers of the race, Legkov was finally out of gas; despite an impressive sprint, he couldn’t match the closing speed of Vylegzhanin and Northug.
Northug almost never loses sprint finishes, and as he swung to the far righthand side of the trail, it seemed that he was about to add to his legend.
But after blowing up in the closing stages of his race last week in Switzerland, Vylegzhanin had saved just enough on Saturday. And after more than 50 World Cup starts and a handful of podiums, the 28-year-old finally took his first win.
All in all, it was an impressive display by the Russian team, who took two of three podium places and added Sedov and Ilia Chernousov in 10th and 11th, respectively.
With the Swedes only putting two in the top 20, the Russians will be the favorites in the men’s relay tomorrow—though the Norwegians also looked strong in the 30 k.
In the post-race press conference, Vylegzhanin said that he would anchor his team. With Northug typically taking that position for the Norwegians, fans could be in for a reprise of Saturday’s thrilling finish.
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.