The Rybinsk World Cups may lack the usual robust field, but if nothing else, it is a great opportunity for the Russians to showcase the sport to a passionate fan base.
The men’s team did just that, overcoming a tough third leg by Petr Sedov to eke out the win over a strong Italian team.
Evgeniy Belov and Maxim Vylegzhanin skied from the front on the classic legs, setting the pace, and opening up a 20 second gap on third place Italy by the halfway point.
Russia II was the only team that could match the pace, and when Sedov faltered on the first skate loop, it was Konstantin Glovatskikh who took over. He gave up 13 seconds on Italy, but tagged to anchor Sergei Shiriaev in first.
Sedov was diagnosed with a heart issue prior to the U23/World Junior Championships, and his career was in doubt. Just getting back onto the course is a victory for Sedov, and he was clearly a bit rusty. He lost 40 seconds, and left the Russia I hoped to Alexander Legkov.
Legkov has had an up-and-down season of his own – the early overall World Cup leader, he was one of many to succumb to illness in the Tour de Ski. But today’s performance proved he will be a favorite at the World Championships.
He attacked from the start, consistently reeling in Italy’s Pietro Piller Cottrer – no slouch in skating. Shiriaev struggled mightily for Russia II, dropping the quartet off the podium. He lost 1:44 to Legkov over the final 10km.
Meanwhile at the front, the pace had slowed, and Legkov was able to close the last of the gap. Piller Cottrer did not show much interest in leading, so the Russian set the pace, eventually throwing down a charge on the last climb before the stadium to set up a 6.4 second victory.
The German team finished third, +32.5, and Russia II held on to fourth.
Tobias Angerer skied the anchor eg for the Germans, and set out in a dead heat with Legkov, but could not manage the pace.
“I felt good this morning but I have to admit today that Alexander Legkov was stronger today,” Angerer said. “I tried to follow him but it was not possible. I recovered well during the race and caught Shiriaev.”
Only nine teams completed the race, three from Russia, and two each from Italy and France.
“I am very satisfied with my competition today and the victory of our relay team,” Legkov said. “After my sickness [at the Tour de Ski] I had a training camp in Davos and I was not sure if I was ready for these competitions. But my shape is getting better and better. I felt good in the pursuit and today it was even better.”
The women’s 4x5km relay featured a mere seven teams, four of which represented Russia. The battle for first had enough drama to keep the race interesting, but from the start it was clear that only Italy and Russia I had the firepower to compete for the win.
A young Russian women’s team has struggled this season, and is in a rebuilding phase. But today they skied like veterans. Valentina Novikova broke away on the first leg, gapping the field by 27 seconds.
Not unexpectedly, Italian sprinter Magda Genuin could not hang, but she stayed close enough to give her teammates a chance. Marianna Longa cut the lead to 10 seconds over the next 5km, and Silvia Rupil posted the fastest split on the first skate leg, but didn’t take any more time out of the Russians.
But with Arianna Follis skiing anchor, Italy was in good position, and the all-rounder did not disappoint. She quickly hunted down Olga Mikhailova, and then backed off, biding her time. She had plenty in the tank to drop the Russian, attacking on the climb leaving the stadium on the second lap, and opening a substantial lead that was 12 seconds at the finish.
“It is great to win here in Rybinsk,” Longa said. “The audience is amazing. After the first leg, we had a gap to the Russian team as Valentina Novikova was very strong. I tried to close the gap and I came closer but not close enough. But I am satisfied with my own race, and I feel ready for the final preparations towards the World Championships.”
The Russian women could not be displeased with the podium performance in front of the enthusiastic crowd.
“I’m very glad,” said Yulia Tchekaleva who skied a strong third leg for the Russian. “I worked 100% percent for the team, for the country and for the spectators. They were amazing – they formed a live corridor along the whole course.”
Russia II was third +1:32.
World Cup racing takes a week off before continuing with the pre-World Championship races in Drammen, Norway.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.