OBERHOF, Germany – If the Prologue is any indication, the 2012 Tour de Ski will play out as predicted by the media hype—a battle between Petter Northug (NOR) and Dario Cologna (SUI).
Northug edged his rival, and defending Tour champion, Cologna, by .7 seconds in the men’s prologue in Oberhof, Germany. Maurice Manificat (FRA) placed third, four seconds off the pace.
As expected, times were tightly compressed on the fast hard track. The course was a mixture of man-made and natural snow, much of it trucked in, and all of it heavily transformed. Freezing temperatures overnight allowed the grooming crew to take 12 inches of sugar and turn it into a rock hard loop.
With two major climbs, the four-kilometer loop was still plenty challenging, and the top seeded skiers demonstrated why they hold that distinction.
First it was Alex Harvey (CAN) in bib 87 charging to the line, barely missing on a brief hold on the top spot when he crossed .1 seconds behind Illia Chernousov (RUS).
His place on the podium was short lived as the final four ranked skiers each raised the bar a little higher.
Olympic and World Champion Marcus Hellner (SWE), the leader on the crest of the biggest climb at 1.7 kilometers, nosed out Chernousov, collapsing on his back in the snow.
Hellner was still on the ground just under a minute later when Manificat came through to take his turn in first. The two men were on the way out of the finish pen as Cologna, who came on strong over the final two kilometers, knocked a few more seconds off.
As the final starter, Northug knew exactly where he ranked throughout the race, an advantage he leveraged to his seventh Tour stage victory. But there was no characteristic Northug celebration. He took his own turn on the ground, before rising and heading to the post-race press conference, where he told gathered media that “I don’t think anybody will remember who won the prologue in Oberhof when we finish in Val di Fiemme,” his eyes focused exclusively on the overall title.
Only Northug and Cologna appeared at the pre-Tour press conference on Wednesday, the famous media-inspired Hellner/Northug rivalry at least temporarily suspended.
Cologna holds two overall Tour wins, and Northug has finished second three times without ever breaking through. The two men are clearly the best all-around skiers on the circuit with no weak events among the myriad of distances and formats competed at the Tour.
And so it is not without precedent to play the two men off each other, the neither put much stock in today’s results, other than to comment that they felt good.
With snow already falling, the course for Friday’s pursuit will be relatively slow, and with the field featuring 90 skiers within a minute of the lead, and forty skiers just 40 seconds back, Northug dubbed his victory “not so important,” and Cologna predicted a quick compression to a virtual mass sport.
“It is a long Tour,” Cologna said as way of explaining the probable lack of aggressiveness in the pursuit, joking that his strategy for that 15km classic event would be to “go full speed and try to go away.”
The eight-minute race may not have held much meaning for the overall standings, but it did provide an opportunity for athletes to test their fitness, work out any rust from the holiday break and pocket some spare change.
Northug walked away with 5,000 Swiss Francs (CHF) for his efforts on the course, and another 1,600 CHF for taking the Tour lead. Prize money runs only three deep for stages, with the big payoff coming at the top of Val di Fiemme.
The third place finish ranked as Manificat’s top finish in the prologue distance, and the 25-year-old Frenchman is gunning for the Tour podium.
In two previous tries, he placed 17th and 19th, but has been steadily improving and is coming off to an excellent first World Cup period.
Like two-time Tour Champion Lukas Bauer (CZE) Manificat is not a sprinter. He does have a bit of a leg up on Bauer in that he has qualified for the heats three times in the Tour, including a surprising 8th in 2010, but he will likely lose significant time to both Northug and Cologna in the two sprints.
Manificat and Bauer share another similarity – excellent climbing ability, and Northug points two both as potential threats in the overall,” only partially joking when he claims Manificat is “three to four minutes faster” up the final climb.
The additional stage, another prologue distance at 5k, is in Manificat’s favor, lessening the impact of the pure sprints.
With Hellner in fourth today, and Harvey sixth, all the top skiers ended up where one would expect. Though no one was going to win or lose the Tour on the race course, indications of poor fitness would have been apparent.
The board is set, the pieces in place, and now the game can begin in earnest.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.