Two lines of burly men, attired in identical red and white shirts, each carrying a massive cow bell that reached from waist to ground, marched in synch up the trail. They stopped in unison, and then with less then perfect acumen settled their bells and cheered. Behind came a larger crowd, carrying massive banners and countless flags.
The Dario Cologna fan club was out in force, and the parade up the final 100 meters of the brutal Alpe Cermis course celebrated their hero’s second Tour de Ski victory.
The Swiss Cologna grew up just over the border from the Italian site of the final stage of the 2011 Tour de Ski – the now-famous brutal climb up the alpine slope on the Alpe Cermis.
He did not disappoint the friends and family who made the short trip to watch him race. Starting with a 1:18 lead on rival Petter Northug (NOR), Cologna stayed calm even as Northug rapidly cut into that margin, before accelerating up the 2.6km wall and bowing to the crowd at the finish line.
Northug made it clear that he did not think anyone would be able to catch Cologna, and that he would be racing for second. Whether that was a red herring, or he felt better than expected, Northug was obviously on the hunt from the get-go.
The first 6.5 kilometers of the race is relatively mellow, including a long gradual descent to the base of the big hill. Northug attacked hard, and at each time check he had taken more time out of Cologna.
He got as close as 35 seconds, and it was time to consider an actual race for the win.
“I was a little bit nervous. I lost too much time on the flat part – I don’t know why,” Cologna told FIS following the race. “I was happy that the gap grew on the uphill.”
There is little that Northug does not excel at on cross-country skis, but the final climb is one of them. He needed to completely close the gap before the hill started in order to have a chance.
As soon as the grade steepened, however, Cologna was able to increase his lead. Northug never gave up the fight and while Cologna took the time to celebrate across the line, Northug sprinted through, crashing to ground, splayed on the snow exhausted as the other finishers came in.
And now three times has Northug been a bridesmaid in the Tour de Ski. Last year, Lukas Bauer (CZE) bested him on the Alpe Cermis. The Norwegian will have to wait another year for the chance to walk the aisle as bride in what has become the premier event on the World Cup circuit.
“My plan was to attack Dario, and that was my only goal,” Northug said. “I attacked the whole way to Alpe Cermis. After 1 kilometer in the hill I was really tired, and I had to go back to my normal pace.”
Once it became obvious that Cologna would not be challenged, the only excitement at the front came from watching the antics of Cologna’s mainly mustachioed fans. The real action had shifted down the hill where the chase pack was fighting for the final podium spot.
Martin Jaks (CZE), skiing a stellar Tour, started the day in third, but held a small 5.5 seconds lead on Canada’s Devon Kershaw. Eight skiers in all were within striking distance of third, and a chase pack formed just out of the start.
Jaks held his small gap through the first part of the gradual terrain, but was quickly absorbed by the chasers. His teammate, Bauer, the last of those with hope for the podium had some ground to make up, and he went after it with a fury.
The pack kept him at bay early, but as the hill approached he made contact.
No one is better on the Alpe Cermis than Bauer, and he proved that once again. It was now every man for himself as drafting would give no advantage on a grade that reached 33 degrees.
Jean Marc Gaillard attacked right from the bottom opening a gap immediately.
He pulled away with Curdin Perl (SUI) not far behind, but Bauer easily chewed his way through the pack, before slipping by Gaillard on one of the switchbacks. The Alpe Cermis does not make for sprint finishes, and the podium had been settled.
Bauer would ski away, also claiming the “man of the day” title by posting the fastest time by 32 seconds over Roland Clara (ITA).
The Czech star did not have a great start to the Tour, and was never able to move into position to fight for the win, foiled by his lack of sprinting speed, and his inability to break away in any of the distance races. Given the challenges, he had plenty to be happy about as he crossed the line, and the veteran was clearly thrilled to be third.
“Right after the start I did not have a good feeling about my performance. I had problems catching up with the group in front of me, but in the beginning of Alpe Cermis I felt better and better,” Bauer said at the post-race press conference.
“The Tour de Ski was my first goal for this season,” Bauer continued. “In the beginning I had several problems, so in the end I was lucky that my dream about being top three in the Tour was reality.”
Perl was next, greeted by teammate Cologna. It has already been quite a year for the Swiss men. They won their first ever World Cup relay earlier in the fall and today placed two men in the top-4 of the Tour de Ski.
Clara also had a great Tour, and as the first Italian, was greeted with raucous cheers from the hometown crowd. He appeared thrilled with his fifth place finish. The 28-year-old Italian had just three top-10 World Cup finishes in a career dating back to 2005 and was hardly a favorite to crack the top-10.
The rest of the top-10 trickled across the line. Gaillard, unable to maintain his early attack, took sixth, followed by Kershaw, who finally stayed healthy for an entire Tour and has to be pleased with his stage victory, four total podiums and seventh overall.
“It has been quite the journey. I still can’t believe I hit the podium four times in one week. It is unbelievable,” said Kershaw after the race. “The fact I was able to take my carcass up the hill today is unreal. I’m pretty tired and I just can’t wait to get home.”
Fellow Canadian Alex Harvey, smooth and relaxed on the flats, looked beat early in the climb, and could not manage the pace. He finished at the back of the chase group in a still very impressive tenth.
Ivan Babikov (CAN) and Kris Freeman (USA) started together in the wave that included all skiers outside the top-20 at the start. Babikov had his usual strong performance on the final climb, posting the sixth best time, and moving into 21st overall.
“It was not the best Tour for me this year,” Babikov told Cross-Country Canada. “I had a lot of tough luck, but I didn’t stop fighting. I knew this race was my strength. I never seem to mind the pain and it was nice to end with a good result.”
Freeman bounced back from a tough ski day in Saturday’s mass start, but his race was not apparent to most fans.
The top American distance skier reportedly forgot his timing transponders so all automated timing splits showed him as a “DNS.” But start he did, and he didn’t need official splits to get up the hill. He had the seventh best time of the day, 6.8 seconds behind Babikov. The performance moved him back into the top-30 overall, and he completes his first Tour in 28th.
With half World Cup points awarded for the day, both Babikov and Freeman will add a healthy number to their total.
Four skiers did not start the race, dwindling the field to a mere 36 skiers. Illness took a major toll on the 2011 Tour with the Germans and Russians especially hard hit.
For those continuing on the World Cup circuit, there is little rest for the weary. Action starts again in less than a week’s time in Liberec, Czech Republic. The three Canadians and Freeman, however are all headed back to North America, and if last year is any guide, many of the Tour participants will now take some time for rest and training.
Northug will also take some time before rejoining the circuit.
“I will relax and take it easy when I get back home. I will probably race in Otepää and of course the Championships in Oslo. We will send my little brother to the World Cup in Liberec next weekend, so he will do my job there,” Northug said, referring to younger brother Tomas.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.