His opponents insist he is not unbeatable, that Petter Northug (NOR) can be taken down. Marcus Hellner (SWE) proved that in the World Championship sprint. But when Northug is in top form and the event is a head-to-head distance competition, it is hard to imagine anyone else on the top of the podium.
Northug did it again, sprinting away from an overmatched Giorgio DiCenta (ITA) at the end of the 20km pursuit in Falun, Sweden.
Daniel Rickardsson, representing the home nation, finished a few seconds back in third, after leading the initial break that dropped the field, while Alex Harvey led the North Americans in 13th.
As the third stage of the World Cup Final mini-tour, the race featured four intermediate bonus sprints, and a bonus at the finish as well. The early intermediate sprint got the race going after a slow start.
Heading into the bottom of the first climb, Northug dashed to the front and quickly increased the speed with a hard double pole. The impact was immediate, and as the race headed up to the sprint, the field strung out, and Eldar Roenning (NOR) surged ahead to claim the first bonus, Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin just behind, and Northug looking unconcerned in third.
Appearances can be decieving however, and NOrthug later told reporters that he did not feel good early in the race.
“I did not have enough power to fight for bonus seconds during the first two classic laps,” Northug said. “I tried to save energy for the free technique part.”
For both Vylegzhanin and Roenning this would mark the high point of their respective days. Both men fell off the pace dramatically in the skate and finished 23rd and 24th respectively.
As is usually the case in these types of races, the pack closed back together after the intermediate sprint, skiing as a group for several kilometers before another Russian, also destined to fall down the result sheet, took over.
Alexander Legkov, still looking to regain his early-season form, skied off the front and held a 15-meter lead through the stadium at 5k. He was not attacking aggressively, and his move appeared more accident than intention. And like teammate Vylegzhanin the glory was short lived. The pack reeled him in quickly on the climbs, and while he would hang tough for another 2.5k, even grabbing some bonus seconds, he would not factor in the race after that, finishing 17th.
Heading up the big climb to the 7.5k sprint, it was big Daniel Rickardsson setting the pace. He along,with Northug, Dario Cologna (SUI) and Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) had opened a small gap headed out of the stadium.
Rickardsson led out for the bonus, with Legkov following, and Northug content to grab 5 seconds in third.
The skiing was far improved over a brutal classic prologue, where six inches of new snow resulted in a chopped up mess. The tracks held up relatively well, and most skiers were kicking up the big climbs – with the occasional slip thrown in.
Not everyone nailed the wax, however, as Italian Roland Clara demonstrated. He was forced into a herringbone on the steeper climbs, and was seen double poling anything his arms could manage.
Entering the ski change at 10k, the pack had once again reformed and was roughly 17 strong. The tail end was more strung out with several meters between skiers.
Former sprint specialist – and at this point it is appropriate to say “former,” Emil Joensson (SWE) took over the lead out of the exchange and headed off on the skate. Joensson may not yet be able to match his sprinting prowess in the distance races, but he is certainly no Ola Vigen Hattestad (the Norwegian sprint star who has never cracked the top-30 in a World Cup distance race), shedding the “specialist” label once and for all.
Joensson, however, is still a much better classic skier than skater over a course of any length. He quickly relinquished the lead to teammate Rickardsson, who wasted no time in skiing off the front yet again.
The pack continued to string out behind, but Northug finally decided to ski up, bridging to Rickardsson. DiCenta led the chase pack, closely followed by Joensson, as they approached the morderbakken.
DiCenta made his own move, and was also able to jump the gap, forming the group of three that would not look back. They took the bonus seconds –Rickardsson, Northug, and DiCenta respectively, holding a lead of over 15 seconds on the field.
The Italian was clearly feeling strong, and he continued to push the pace, attacking on the smaller climb before the stadium. He could not break away, but on the drop down past the stands, Northug could be seen rubbing his quads and shaking out his arms.
Rickardsson and DiCenta took turns leading over the next several kilometers. DiCenta even broke away briefly at the base of the morderbakken, but Nothug came back and took over in time to grab the bonus seconds.
The gap continued to grow on the chasers, reaching almost 30 seconds. With less than three kilometers to go, DiCenta attacked again, and this time only Northug could respond. Rickardsson did not break, he just slipped 15 meters down, losing no more, but clearly unable to muster the energy to close back up.
“Di Centa was very strong and we managed to keep the gap on the chasing group,” Northug said. “Last time on mörderbacken I thought that I have to hold on Di Centa. I knew I would beat him in the finish.”
At this point the race was decided, and it seemed almost unfair entering the stadium.
The 39-year-old DiCenta has made the finals in a sprint race just twice in his career, and had to know he would be no match for Northug. Such was the case, with the Norwegian wasting no time. On the small rise before the stadium hairpin and the finish stretch, Northug accelerated gaining the meters he needed to ensure victory.
DiCenta was anything but disappointed jumping over the line and pumping his fist. He skied right up behind Northug hugging the winner with a huge grin on his face.
Rickardsson came across ten seconds down on Northug, while Cologna led the chase pack across in fourth, having closed the margin to 18 seconds over the last kilometers.
The significant victory and all the bonus seconds have given Northug a huge lead in the World Cup Final overall. With 1:27 up on Joensson, who finished an impressive 7th, Northug is in little danger of getting caught in Sunday’s 15km handicap start.
Rickardsson moved up to third, and is only 10 seconds down on Joensson. After Northug both remaining podium spots are definitely up for grabs. Rickardsson is the favorite for second, but Cologna, DiCenta, and Maurice Manificat (FRA) are all within striking distance.
The Canadian trio of Harvey, Devon Kershaw, and Ivan Babikov turned in solid results, but despite spending time in the lead pack early, never appeared to be in contention.
Harvey edged out Babikov at the line, the duo placing 13th and 14th respectively, 32 seconds off the pace. Kershaw had a tough last 5k and dropped to 26th.
Kris Freeman held a consistent spot right around 20th for most of the race, ultimately finishing in that spot, 1:18 down.
Graham Nishikawa was 37th for Canada and Lars Flora 45th for the US.
Andy Newell struggled from the start, falling off the back almost immediately. He finished last, 1:45 behind fellow sprint-specialist Mathias Strandvall (FIN), the next slowest man.
Harvey is now 10th in the overall with the top-5 not out of reach, while Kershaw’s performance dropped him down to 27th and out of the hunt for a top result.
Freeman is 24th in a group including Sami Jauhojärvi (FIN), Vincent Vittoz (FRA) and sprinter Jesper Modin (SWE).
The World Cup season concludes on Sunday with the 15km handicap start.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.