For Dario Cologna, it’s better late than never.
After enduring a brutal two weeks at the World Ski Championships in Oslo, where he was stymied by bad skis and bad tactics, the Swiss cross-country superstar finally got things back on track on the World Cup in Lahti, Finland on Saturday.
At the finish of the men’s 20 k pursuit, Cologna outsprinted Frenchmen Maurice Manificat and Vincent Vittoz for the win—his first since his victory in the sixth stage of the Tour de Ski, way back on January 6.
“It feels good to be back on the podium,” Cologna told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I have known all along that the form has not been that bad.”
Canadian Ivan Babikov led the North Americans with an eighth-place finish—his second-best of the season so far. The result came at the right time, too, since Babikov is fighting for a berth in the top-50 of the overall World Cup ranking, and an associated start spot at the World Cup Finals in Sweden next weekend. His result on Saturday all but wrapped it up.
Devon Kershaw was Canada’s next best, in 22nd, while Kris Freeman (USA) was 26th, and Graham Nishikawa (CAN) 57th. Alex Harvey (CAN) withdrew during the second half of the race with back spasms.
Cologna, though, surely had some pent-up aggression after a disastrous championships. He had had a spectacular season leading into Oslo, with nine podiums in 16 starts, and an overall victory in the Tour de Ski, but then, everything unraveled. At Worlds, he only cracked the top-10 once, in the sprint.
On Saturday, less than a week after his last race in Oslo, Cologna was going for broke from the start of the pursuit.
Working with Swede Daniel Rickardsson and Czech strongman Lukas Bauer, Cologna opened a gap on the pack during the classic leg.
With World Cup points awaiting athletes at an intermediate sprint at the 6.9-kilometer mark, Bauer was surely motivated to mix things up, since he’s sitting in fourth in the World Cup overall, and said earlier this week that he wants to catch Rickardsson, who’s in third. And it surely didn’t hurt that Petter Northug (NOR) was taking the weekend off due to illness. With the Norwegian and his deadly finishing sprint on the bench, there was no reason to hold anything back.
Rickardsson took the 15 points as the first man across the line at the initial sprint, but Bauer was right behind, and took 10 points of his own. Cologna wasn’t far off, either, capturing the five points on offer to third place.
At that point in the race, only six other athletes were within 15 seconds of the leaders. But nonetheless, things started to come back together once the men switched to skate gear. Cologna took the second sprint at 13.7 kilometers, with Bauer in second, but by then, Italy’s Thomas Moriggl had bridged the gap, beating out Rickardsson for third.
By the time the athletes hit the finish, there were 11 men who had caught the early breakaway, but Cologna still had the edge in the sprint, winning by a half-second over Manificat.
It was a good day for the French team—only the second race this season in which any of their male athletes had placed in the top three. (Jean Marc Gaillard and Manificat took second and third, respectively, in an identical pursuit in Russia, in early February.) For Vittoz, the podium was especially gratifying, coming, as it did, after tough races in Oslo, and an injury that curtailed his racing in the early season.
“The season has been difficult for me,” he said. “I am especially happy that Maurice is on the podium, too…We wanted to show our fans today that we can be on the podium, after not so good results at Holmenkollen [the competition venue in Oslo].”
Bauer held on for fifth, while Rickardsson ran out of gas, ending up second-to-last out of the lead group. The Swede ended up giving up 30 points to Bauer over the course of the day, and now leads the Czech skier by just 27, with five races still to come.
Cologna’s win padded his lead in the overall World Cup standings to a whopping 473 points over Northug, and barring a total collapse, he should be able to hold on. For his part, Northug has a 78-point cushion over Rickardsson.
Babikov, meanwhile, had started the day sitting in 55th in the overall. The race was essentially his last chance to move into the top 50 and get a start spot for World Cup Finals next week, and he capitalized, capturing 32 points and moving up to 44th.
In an e-mail, he wrote that he felt sluggish in the classic leg, but “was able to pull back to the pack on skating.”
Babikov had had decent races in Oslo, but nothing spectacular, and endured a frustrating day in the 50 k freestyle last Sunday, when cramps took him out of the lead pack in the closing kilometers.
“I knew that I felt good in last couple weeks, but sometime the [racing] is just not going the way you want it to go,” he said. “Today was better.”
His teammate Kershaw was 22nd—a thoroughly average result. After the race, he tweeted that he’d felt great in the classic leg, and “horrendous” in the skate. Harvey, with whom Kershaw had paired in Oslo to capture gold in the team sprint, “had his back seize up during the first lap of the skate-ski leg, and pulled out of the race for safety,” according to a press release from the Canadian team.
As for the Americans, Freeman looked strong in the first half of the race, sitting towards the front of the group chasing the three breakaway artists. He didn’t make the lead group in the skate leg, though, and ultimately finished towards the back of the second chase pack, roughly a minute back. Lars Flora, the only other U.S. athlete on the start list, didn’t end up racing.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.