It took four tries, but Russian sprint specialist Alexei Petukhov finally got a World Cup victory on home soil, breaking away from the pack to win the men’s freestyle sprint in Rybinsk, Russia.
In the women’s event, a Petra Majdic-less Slovenia claimed the top two spots with Vesna Fabjan and Katja Visnar beating out Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
As in Friday’s pursuit, many of the top skiers were missing – including the entire Swedish team and any representation from North America. But the men’s race still featured plenty of firepower, and with final spots on the Norwegian World Championship team at stake, there was more than World Cup points and cash on the line.
Petukhov won the qualification round by .74 seconds over Anders Gloeersen (NOR) and easily advanced through the first two rounds. In the final he employed what has become the tactic of choice for Russian sprinters – go out hard, and open a gap early.
With teammate Nikolay Morilov in tow, Petukhov did just that. The strategy does not always work, but today, in front of thousands of fans at the Demino stadium, Petukhov opened an insurmountable gap, creating enough space to celebrate in the final meters.
“I am so glad,” Petukhov said. “I took second place here twice already, and of course wished to win. This time I decided to escape, not looking back.”
Morilov, along with the other four skiers in the heat, was unable to maintain the pace. Norwegian sprinter Ola Vigen Hattestad, after determining he could not match Petukhov, settled in to race for second. He bided his time before staging an impressive late attack with Gloeersen, giving the duo the final two podium spots.
“I’m satisfied with my second place,” Hattestad said following the race. “Alexei was very strong, and made such a gap that I could not reach him. But I chose good tactics staying behind the other athletes and was able to control the race.”
Martin Jaeger (SUI), in his first World Cup sprint finals appearance, just missed out on the podium when the two Norwegians overtook him. He still ended up a career-best fourth, topping his ninth in the same event one year ago.
The women’s race, despite strong Italian and Slovenian contingents, lacked depth – just 34 women started the qualification round, and there were clear gaps in ability level throughout the quarterfinals.
Qualification times accentuated these differences. Visnar set the pace, gapping the field by an impressive 2.49 seconds. Fabjan qualified second, and Magda Genuin (ITA) placed third, over four seconds off Visnar’s time.
Alenka Cebasek, a relatively unknown Slovenian participating in just her seventh World Cup race, was seven seconds back as the tenth qualifier – an eternity in sprint racing.
With the exception of Finnish skiers Aino Kaisa Saarinen and Riita Liisa Roponen, all of the top women advanced to the semifinals.
Fabjan, despite being a step slower in qualification than her teammate, was clearly in top form today. She and Visnar controlled the final, leading from wire to wire. Kowalczyk, participating in her weakest event – the freestyle sprint, managed to come back with a fierce attack on the last hill. She closed the gap, and was in position for the final sprint.
Fabjan was clearly the fastest, and Visnar secured second with a lunge. Kowalczyk settled for third – her first time on the podium in skate sprint this year.
For Fabjan, Rybinsk is quickly becoming a favorite venue. She won the individual sprint last year and teamed with Visnar to claim victory in the team sprint.
“It is just amazing,” Fabjan said. “I like the course in Rybinsk and I have good tactics for it – that is maybe the key of the success.”
Visnar was thrilled with her result – the first time she has stood on the World Cup podium in an individual event.
“Satisified” is the word Kowalczyk used to describe her feelings on the day, but she went on to express some disappointment.
“I am not normally often on the podium in free technique sprints, but on the other hand I felt I could do more today,” Kowalczyk said. She spent the first part of the final stuck behind the Italian trio of Genuin, Arianna Follis, and Marianna Longa.
In the battle for the last two spots on the men’s Norwegian World Championship team, Gloeersen easily came out on top. His coach informed him that his third place result earned him a trip to Oslo.
The last spot would go to Oystein Pettersen if today’s results are the final criteria. Pettersen placed seventh – the fastest man to miss the finals, while his competition, John Kristian Dahl and Johan Kjoelstad suffered significant misfortune.
Kjoelstad placed last in qualification, almost certainly due to a crash. Dahl, who was left of the 2010 Olympic squad despite a World Cup victory earlier that season, advanced to the heats, but crashed out in the quarterfinals, ending the day in 26th.
World Cup racing continues on Sunday with a 4×5/10km relay, before going on break until the pre-World Championship races in Drammen, Norway.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.