Even if he didn’t say it, Petter Northug presented the challenge from the onset. The first starter in the men’s 15 k classic pursuit would give his followers a fighting chance before playing the game of cat and mouse in Kuusamo, Finland.
The Norwegian frontrunner in the three-day Ruka Triple mini-tour wasn’t known for charging out of the gate in those types of races anyway.
As expected, he led the race with the help of one competitor: Dario Cologna (SUI), who started 12 seconds behind him in second. Cologna, the defending Tour de Ski champion, caught up by 2.5 k.
From that point on, the seven-time World Champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist dictated the race. Northug and Cologna switched the lead numerous times, carefully plodding along and keeping their distance from the third man back, which for a while was Alexander Legkov (RUS).
With less than 2 kilometers to go, Northug signified the game was on, as he suddenly pushed the pace on an uphill then slowed down directly in front of Cologna. He was testing his legs and his challenger.
On the final stretch into the stadium, Northug opened it up without much warning — but most knew it was coming. Cologna couldn’t match his double-pole sprint and finished second, 1.8 seconds behind Northug’s winning time of 38:41.5.
“In the end, I no longer had the best kick,” Cologna told Swiss Radio and Television. “I was too tired to attack him.”
After working with Cologna to stay ahead of a hungry and closing pack, Northug said he was surprised with how he felt.
“It is probably the first hard workout in the classic, and I am surprised that my legs were so good,” Northug told NRK. “I was a little skeptical before starting … but it was good that it did so early in the season.”
The win gave him the overall Ruka-Triple crown for the weekend, after Northug was 16th in Friday’s sprint and won Saturday’s 10 k freestyle. It was his first victory at the Kuusamo mini-tour after he was sick and missed the competition last year.
With mini-tour victory counting a World Cup win, Northug used the 200 points awarded to stay in first in the World Cup standing with 355 points. Cologna was second with 278.
The third man to finish in the pursuit, Eldar Roenning (NOR) skied the second-fastest time on Sunday (37:51.5) and climbed his way from starting 18th. The fastest competitor in the race was Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ) in 37:42.8. He placed fourth.
About halfway through the 15 k, Roenning and Poltoranin worked within an eight-man chase group to close the gap on Northug, Cologna and Legkov. While the top two were about 40 seconds ahead, Legkov was a more tangible target about 11 seconds in front of the pack.
Sweden’s Johan Olsson initially charged forward and passed Legkov with about 5 k remaining. Marcus Hellner (SWE) and Roenning strained to catch them, and Poltoranin made his way into the mix. With 3 k to go, the group of five skied together, all vying for third.
Hellner advanced and Legkov dropped off, and in the final stadium shakedown, Roenning emerged as the third-place victor (+20.6).
Poltoranin was fourth (+22.2), Olsson placed fifth (+24.0) and Hellner was sixth (+26.1). Legkov followed in seventh (+35.5), Maurice Manificat of France was eighth (+40.1), Lukas Bauer (CZE) was ninth (+43.3) and Petr Sedov (RUS) was 10th (+47.6).
Earlier in the race, Manificat moved up to fourth, about 37 seconds behind Northug and Cologna. By 7.5 k, he was back with the large chase group.
Canadian Alex Harvey skied the seventh-fastest time in the pursuit (38:21.2) to end up 11th overall (+59.9). His teammate, Devon Kershaw, was the eighth fastest (38:22.5) and placed 20th after starting in 37th.
Northug’s time ranked 21st among 99 skiers. Cologna was the 14th fastest on the clock.
(North American recap to follow).
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.