Since the tail end of the 2011 Tour de Ski, Russia’s star distance skier, Alexander Legkov, has been missing in action. He fell ill with swine flu and couldn’t finish the Tour, then, with an abysmal performance in the relay at World Championships in Oslo, singlehandedly dashed his country’s hopes for a medal in that event.
While the relay result stung, Legkov’s drought has been balanced by some strong performances by his teammates. There’s Maxim Vylegzhanin, the stalwart who took two silver medals at Worlds, along with Ilia Chernousov, who had a breakout World Cup win in Russia in January, then took bronze in the pursuit in Oslo.
In Friday’s classic prologue at the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden, the story, and the cast of characters, was the same. Legkov was a disappointing 14th, but that was more than outweighed by his three teammates in the top four: Chernousov on top, Vylegzhanin in third, and 20-year-old Evgeniy Belov in fourth. Petter Northug (NOR), in second place, was the only one who slowed the Russians’ assault on the podium.
Three North Americans cracked the top 30, with Devon Kershaw (CAN) in 22nd, Alex Harvey (CAN) in 25th, and Kris Freeman (USA) in 30th. On the short 3.3-kilometer men’s course—Chernousov’s time was just under 11 minutes—there’s not much margin for error, and Harvey said his chances at a stronger result went up in smoke two strides in, when he broke a strap on one of his poles.
He got a new one, but it was too short, and it took some shouting to get it—not what he was looking for at the start of a prologue.
“You want to have the first k pretty smooth and relaxed,” Harvey said. “I was really bad.”
The course took the men up and over the brutal Mordarbacken (Swedish for “murder hill”), which climbs 250 vertical feet in just over one kilometer, before rolling back down into the finish.
The hill is tough enough on its own, but on Friday, its challenge was amplified by four or five inches of soft, new snow that fell before the race. Organizers regroomed the course a couple of hours ahead of the start, but according to Harvey, it didn’t help. There were no tracks going up the hill, making it tough to get grip.
“Nobody had 100 percent kick, because of the track,” Harvey said. “So you have to deal with it…You have to understand, and live with the fact that your skis are not going to be super-grippy.”
Even the strongest men on the World Cup, Northug included, were slowed to a near-walk on the Mordarbacken’s steepest pitches, but times were still tight.
At the one-kilometer mark near the top of the hill, Northug was just nine seconds behind Belov, who was leading. But at that point, the Norwegian was all the way back in 17th.
Pacing, Harvey said, was crucial.
“You have to be going fast on the first k, but relaxed,” he said. “If you were smart enough on the first k, you can have energy left in the tank for the last k.”
Kershaw, Harvey’s teammate, did have plenty left in the tank for the finish—he just didn’t start out hard enough. His phone was switched off after the race, but a message from his Twitter account summed up his feelings.
“Bummer of a day Hal,” Kershaw wrote. “That makes no sense, but neither did my pacing in today’s prologue. 42nd at 1 k, finished 22nd…Disappointed.”
Freeman, on the other hand, was a bit faster heading up the climb—he was in 19th at one kilometer, eight seconds out—but he faded slightly going over the top and back down, ending up 32 seconds from Chernousov. He also didn’t answer a phone call, but Chris Grover, the American head coach, noted that the result was the first time Freeman had cracked the top 30 in a prologue—he was 55th in his only other attempt, at the Tour de Ski.
“”I’m feeling like my shape is better than it was at Worlds or [last weekend],” Freeman said in a press release. “It’s fun to get to the top of a hill and feel like there’s more there, like there’s more to give. I felt like my race was pretty good, and I am hoping for one more top 10 in Falun.”
As for the top men, Northug’s second place was almost as good as a win, even though he finished just three seconds down on Chernousov. That was because he still managed to put 20 seconds—plus a 10-second time bonus—into his “most dangerous rival” for the World Cup Finals’ overall classification, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna.
“I am well pleased with my race,” Northug told NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster.
While the Russians had, by far, the best performance as a team—20-year-old Petr Sedov, in seventh, rounded out the squad’s five finishers—it’s the Norwegians and Swedes that are currently in control of the mini-tour’s overall standings.
Northug currently leads by 16 seconds over Sweden’s Emil Joensson, with Jesper Modin (SWE) in third, 30 seconds down.
Chernousov, thanks to the 15 bonus seconds he took for his win on Friday, is the top-ranked Russian, in fifth, but he’s sandwiched between Norwegians: Eldar Roenning in fourth, and Ola Vigen Hattestad in sixth.
With two distance races remaining, a 20 k pursuit and a 15 k handicap-start freestyle, sprinters like Joensson, Modin, and Hattestad should lose places, while the Russians will likely move up. (Belov is currently 12th, and Vylegzhanin 13th.)
Time bonuses will be awarded along the course of Saturday’s 20 k, a mass-start race, but regardless, it will be tough for any of the chasers to make up any ground on Northug, who has 30 seconds or more on all the credible challengers.
Andy Newell (USA), in 15th, is currently the top-ranked North American, but he’ll have a hard time holding on to that spot.
Harvey, in 19th, has a better shot at moving up, and he said on Friday that the weekend courses suit him. He doesn’t fare well on especially steep climbs in freestyle technique, but Harvey said that the trails in Falun are fairly tame.
“Other than the Mordarbacken, everything else is rolling terrain,” he said. “I think it’s a good course for me.”
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.