Roland Clara had been second before. On Saturday in Kuusamo, Finland, the Italian looked pretty comfortable in the leader’s chair, bundled in a blanket and flashing a genuine smile. But the men’s 10 k freestyle race on the second day of the Ruka Triple mini-tour was only halfway through.
With individual starts staggering the finishes, Clara could see his seat wasn’t permanent. With every checkpoint — 3.1, 6.4 and 8.1 k — his challengers closed in. Of the remaining men on the course, Norway’s Petter Northug was most threatening.
After a steady start, the defending World Champion recorded the fastest time at 6.4 k. He was 11 seconds faster than any of the 100 or so men that started before him and reached that point.
As Northug crossed the finish and collapsed into an exhausted heap, Clara relinquished his spot. He nearly achieved his first World Cup victory, but it wasn’t his day. After Northug finished 16th in Friday’s 1.4-k sprints, the champion reclaimed the No. 1 spot — both on the podium and in the World Cup standings.
“I was tired at the end, but I managed to keep all the way,” Northug told NRK. “The plan was to attack. I tried to go out hard and finish hard. I think it was the key today.”
Clara ended up second, 23.8 seconds off Northug’s winning time of 21:49.1. Starting nearly 40 bibs after Clara, Maurice Manificat (FRA) initially endangered his lead, setting a new best time at 6.4 k. Clara’s late push helped him stay on top, and Manificat finished 6.3 seconds behind him.
Positioned in third after Northug (+30.1), Manificat awaited the result of Dario Cologna (SUI). At the halfway point, Cologna only trailed Northug by 6 seconds.
By 6.4 k, Cologna was 11 seconds behind the eventual winner, but on par for a podium finish. In the end, Cologna was 1.6 seconds slower than Manificat and finished fourth (+31.7). Manificat was happy with the podium and relieved he wasn’t the only one who felt the wrath of the challenging course, which was intensified by strong winds.
“I got a bit tired at the end,” Manificat told FIS Ski. “Luckily, Dario Cologna also got tired and I could keep the third place.”
Clara, who was third last weekend in the 15 k freestyle in Sjusjoen, was also pleased with his early World Cup performances.
“Two races, two podiums,” he told FIS Ski. “It’s incredible for me to be in the podium all the time. Tomorrow I will give my best and try to make the gap closer.”
Clara currently sits in third in the World Cup standings with 106 points after Northug (145 points) and Sweden’s Johan Olsson (132).
A win in Sunday’s 15 k classic pursuit would guarantee Northug, the World Cup and Ruka Triple leader, the overall mini-tour victory and 200 World Cup points.
A year ago, Northug wasn’t even a player in the three-day Ruka Triple. He sat out Kuusamo’s early-season competition because of illness. After Saturday’s race, he is well on his way to claiming another World Cup victory with an 11.8-second lead on Cologna (SUI) and 41.4 on Alexander Legkov (RUS).
“Tomorrow, around 120 athletes will hunt me,” Northug said to FIS Ski. “I will try to keep the same shape for the whole season. After the Tour de Ski, we will see who will fight for the World Cup.”
Other top contenders for the Ruka Triple crown include Clara (+47.8), Manificat (+48.3), and Olsson (+51.9). Marcus Hellner (SWE) is seventh in the stage standings, and Chris Andre Jespersen (NOR) moved to eighth with a fifth-place finish on Saturday.
Rounding out the top 10, Russia’s Evgeniy Belov was ninth in the mini-tour standings and David Hofer (ITA) was 59 seconds behind Northug in 10th. After illness kept Lukas Bauer (CZE) from competing until this weekend, he finished 10th Saturday to move up to 11th overall.
The top North Americans in the stage standings were Canada’s Lenny Valjas (17th, +1:08.2) and Ivan Babikov (20th, +1:16.4). While Valjas isn’t known for his distance races, Babikov is — along with teammate Alex Harvey, who currently ranks 24th after two days of races.
North American men’s 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.