Petter Northug (NOR) did everything he could, but even a “late birthday present” from rival Dario Cologna (SUI) was not enough to get the Norwegian within striking distance of the overall Tour lead.
On a warm day, starting with drizzle, and shifting to sun, Northug displayed the top form he has been struggling to find all season in the penultimate stage of the 2011 Tour de Ski.
In winning the 20km classic mass start event, Northug captured all five intermediate bonus sprints, leaping into second place overall.
But the unflappable Cologna made sure to stay right on Northug’s heels, placing second every step of the way, limiting the damage to five seconds per sprint. At the end of the day all of the work only bought Northug just over 30 seconds on Cologna, and the man who has won just about everything else will have to wait another year for a Tour de Ski title.
The 3.3km loop, virtually identical to last year, featured plenty of tough terrain, including a solid climb just before the bonus sprint, and with challenging waxing conditions many skiers struggled with kick.
The first bonus sprint was a clear sign of things to come – bad news for any in the pack looking to make a big move.
Lukas Bauer (CZE) struggling through a disappointing Tour in which he has never been able to get free of the main group, attacked on the climb toward the first sprint. But once again, his gap was quickly closed. As a group of six hammered down the hill into the flat run-up to the line, Northug came flying by on the outside, making up 20 meters in no time.
He took the lead, and managed the pace, until Cologna attacked with 30 meters to the time check. Northug accelerated and took bonus.
This would repeat in some similar fashion every lap – Northug always ending up first with Cologna hot on his heels, leaving the rest to fight for the remaining five bonus seconds.
Martin Jaks (CZE), surprisingly the top Czech skier in the Tour, twice took those seconds, with Curdin Perl (SUI), Devon Kershaw (CAN), and Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) claiming the third spot once each.
Bauer made several attempts throughout the race to ski off the front, hitting the hills following the run through the stadium with desperation. But he could never get clear and repeat his 2010 performance when he and Northug blasted off the front, giving the sprint-challenged Czech the bonus seconds he needed.
Despite the battle for bonus seconds, and the occasional attack, the race featured little drama – more an event of attrition. Skiers faded off the back, and main pack shrunk, but it was evident that it would all come down to the final half a kilometer.
Daniel Rickardsson (SWE), content to sit in the group for the entire race, made a move off the front with 1.7k to go. He managed to open nearly twenty meters, but like every other rabbit this day, he was reeled in, and Northug, showing his crushing double pole one last time, easily took the win.
“I knew that I had to be offensive from the start, and fight for the bonus seconds,” said Northug. And after hearing that Marcus Hellner (SWE) had fallen off the pace early, Northug focused on cementing his hold on second.
Hellner struggled mightily after starting the day in second overall, placing 23rd, nearly two minutes out.
Cologna was happy to settle for second, and Devon Kershaw kept his impressive Tour run going, finishing on the podium for the fourth time in seven races.
His teammate Alex Harvey challenged for several bonus sprints, but ended up fourth both times. He had another quietly impressive day, skiing consistently in good position, and crossing in fifth.
“It was a good race for me,” said Cologna. “I had everything under control, focusing on taking some bonus seconds.”
Cologna felt both he and Northug skied very well, but realized he couldn’t challenge the Norwegian in the sprints.
“I saw he [Northug] would take every sprint, so I focused on coming second. You can say it was a late birthday gift from me to him,” said Cologna. Northug turned 25 on Thursday.
Bauer slipped down to 13th, and is now over three minutes back in the overall.
Cologna holds a 1:18 lead on Northug, and with the final climb perhaps the only ski race that does not seem to favor the Norwegian, Cologna should take the overall title tomorrow on the Alpe de Cermis.
Northug sits in second, 1:28 up on Jaks.
“I think it is impossible to close the gap to Dario, and I don’t think he is beatable tomorrow,” Northug said after the race. “I will focus on winning second or third place.”
The battle for third, however, should be an exciting affair. Bauer, back in 10th, is just 27 seconds off the podium, leaving the final podium spot up for grabs.
Northug isn’t taking anything for granted, saying “It is possible to reach the podium tomorrow, but I know it will be really hard. Lukas [Bauer] can beat me by 3 minutes tomorrow – we all know he is strong.”
Both Kershaw and Harvey, in fourth and seventh, have as good a shot as any, and along with Bauer, will fight the likes of Perl, Jaks, Gaillard, Rickardsson, and Roland Clara (ITA) for third.
Cologna is confident off the front, saying, “I am satisfied with the gap, if nothing happens tomorrow I think it will be alright.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.