In Monday’s 20 k pursuit, in Oberhof, Germany, instead of Petter Northug (NOR) turing heads with an impressive sprint finish, it was Finland’s Matti Heikkinen who displayed remarkable finishing speed to secure victory in the fifth stage of the 2011 Tour de Ski.
The Finn, who has had difficulty on the World Cup so far this season, put on a massive attack on the final steep uphill, surprising the field. Heikkinen had been very quiet throughout the race, skiing consistently in the top group, but never challenging for the many intermediate sprints.
However, holding back during the race appeared to have given Heikkinen an edge, as with about 600 meters to go, he forced his way to the front of the pack, and let loose with explosive power.
As Heikkinen forced the large group of more than 20 men to react, things went haywire: Alexander Legkov (RUS) went down, causing a pileup, and Heikkinen escaped over the top with a big gap, leaving Dario Cologna (SUI), Martin Jaks (CZE), Lukas Bauer (CZE), Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA), Devon Kershaw (CAN) and two or three others scrambling for position.
Heikkinen staked himself a large lead on the last descent into the stadium, and even had time for a quick celebratory fist pump in his last few strides. Cologna managed to cross the line just behind Heikkinen, while Martin Jaks, a Czech who has cracked the World Cup podium just once before, out-lunged Gaillard for third.
As a result, Heikkinen received 15 bonus seconds, while Cologna took 10, and Jaks five, in addition to the bonuses collected out on the course.
With 165 bonus seconds up for grabs at different points around the course, the fight for the intermediate sprints spiced up the regular pack racing. With 11 different skiers scoring bonus seconds, the lion’s share went to Marcus Hellner (SWE), who picked up 35, despite finishing 10th. Bauer and Cologna each collected 25, while Maurice Manificat (FRA) won 15, and Petter Northug (NOR) had to be satisfied with 10. A large variety of skiers pushed to the front each time the opportunity arose, and vicious sprints ensued, including one where Northug wove back and forth across the hill in an attempt to hold off his challengers – though the points he won in that move were later negated by the race jury.
Kershaw, who had previously stated that the pursuit in Stage 5 was where the Tour “really starts,” began the race in second place overall, and spent most of it ensconced in the front two rows of the pack, battling for position and the occasional bonus seconds – ultimately picking up five. Over the last hill, Kershaw was able to up the pace, and finished in the seventh spot, just seven seconds back of Matti Heikkinen.
Meanwhile, Alex Harvey had a similarly strong race, and was a constant fixture in the lead back, also collecting five bonus seconds on his way to 15th place, in the middle of a 10-skier photo-finish.
Both Kershaw and Harvey picked up their bonus seconds during the classic leg, something Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said was part of the race plan.
“We told them, ‘if you guys are up there, especially on the classic leg, go for it,’” he said. “Getting those bonus seconds helps a lot, and both [Harvey and Kershaw] are still in the top five, so it was a good day.”
While Kershaw and Harvey are still sitting comfortably, their teammate Ivan Babikov had a trying day.
For Babikov, things went off the rails early in the classic portion: just before one of the major climbs, another racer’s ski slipped under his binding – opening it, and leaving him missing a ski. As Babikov scootered up the hill, one of the Canadian staff ran a ski down to him, but the damage was already done.
“It blew him off the back of the pack pretty quick,” Wadsworth said.
Babikov was extremely disappointed with his race, judging from his immediate reaction on Twitter: “This Tour is not going my way. Should I continue?”
However, Babikov sits in 35th position, just under four minutes back of the lead, and his best stages are still to come – the 36 k point-to-point, and the brutal Final Climb.
While the Canadian distance specialist struggled, American Kris Freeman showed that he is turning into an all-around skier. After finishing in the top 30 in the sprint Sunday, Freeman crossed the line eleventh in Monday’s pursuit, some ten seconds after Heikkinen.
“It was an awesome race for him!” USST Head Coach Chris Grover said of Freeman.
Chris Grover described Freeman as skiing “relaxed” and “controlled” for the race. Freeman was not targeting any of the intermediate sprints for time bonuses – for most of the race, he skied near the back of the lead group, moving up as high as seventh during one portion. On the last lap of the skate leg, Freeman picked up the pace, moved up through the pack, and ended his race with strong sprint, being narrowly beaten by Marcus Hellner.
The 11th place finish puts Freeman in 22nd overall at the halfway mark of the Tour, no small feat for a rookie in the demanding event.
As for Andy Newell, Grover said the sprinter had suffered another tough distance day.
“He and I have been scratching our heads over why the distance races have not been great this year,” said Grover. “Other than the 10 k during the relay in Gallivaere at the start of the season, he has had difficulty. He’s definitely frustrated.”
Sitting in 58th overall, Newell remains healthy, and with another sprint set to go on Wednesday, he is looking to collect a few more sprint points to add to his World Cup total.