Davos, Switzerland — The Russians are coming.
On a beautiful blue-sky day in Davos, Switzerland, Russian sprint-specialist Alexey Petukhov picked up his first win of the season in the 1.5 k sprint freestyle World Cup.
Petukhov skied clear of the competition, leaving Swedes Teodor Petersen and Emil Joensson scrambling for second and third, respectively.
While Petter Northug (NOR) crushed the field by nearly a minute in the 30 k on Saturday and was considered by many to be the favorite in Sunday’s sprint, early in the day, it appeared an upset was in the making. After qualifying 20th, Nothug was placed in the first quarter-final, and barely managed to drag himself back into contention. He fired up his trade-mark finish stretch acceleration to nab second place in a close lunge with Denis Volotka (KAZ).
The second quarter-final featured none other than Alexey Petukhov, the Russian who was dominant in Dusseldorf, as well as Canadian Len Valjas, who qualified in 14th, and strong early-season sprinter Teodor Petersen (SWE). On the very first lap the Russian made it clear that he didn’t want to be messed with, and attacked hard.
On the second lap, the congested 180-degree corner claimed its first victims of the day, as Valjas and Anders Gloeersen (NOR) collided, with both going down in a heap at a crucial point in the race. That opened the door for Petersen, who leapt into second place, advancing behind Petukhov, who cruised to a comfortable 1.8 second margin over the Swede.
Emil Joensson made his much-anticipated debut in the third quarter-final of the day, and last years’ Sprint Cup winner appeared tentative in his first action, as the first lap was a slow pace.
But then the tight turn swallowed another skier, as Finn Hagen Krogh (NOR) got tangled up with Italian Loris Frasnelli just as Joensson attacked the uphill. Only Nikolay Morilov of Russia was able to keep it close, finishing second and qualifying through to the semis.
While every heat in Davos was jammed with fast men, the fourth quarter-final featured possibly the fastest six skiers, at least on paper.
Home-town hero Dario Cologna (SUI) was joined by gigantic Swede Jesper Modin, David Hofer (ITA), and Canadian World Champion Alex Harvey.
As would be expected given the calibre of the skiers, the heat was tight throughout. On the second lap, Cologna attacked on the uphill, but Harvey countered with a strong push over the top, gliding past the Swiss favorite on the downhill, while Hofer ate up the meters to leaders quickly. Harvey rounded the corner and headed for home well clear of the action, while Cologna withstood Hofer’s late challenge to secure second, to the delight of the crowd.
Meanwhile, in the final quarter of the day, North Americans faced off. Andy Newell (USA) had a blistering-fast 3rd-place qualifier, while Devon Kershaw (CAN) was at the other end of the spectrum, barely squeaking into the heats in 28th position. Paal Golberg (NOR), who notched a bronze medal in Dusseldorf last weekend, and young Italian Federico Pellegrino rounded out the group.
After a terrifyingly slow start (if you’re a Canadian fan) Kershaw worked his way up the field behind Newell and Golberg, who were trading leads on the first lap.
Golberg stretched out the field as they headed for lap two, and Pellegrino stayed with him, and the two stayed away from the others, finishing 1-2. Newell and Kershaw duked it out to the bitter end of the finishing straight in an epic battle that culminated with the Canadian winning the lunge to finish third ahead of Newell’s fourth.
The distinction ended up being huge — Kershaw was awarded a lucky loser spot for his efforts, while Newell ended his day in 16th.
The Canadian received some much needed-rest, as the first semi-final was packed with Russians Nikolay Morilov, Alexey Petukhov, and surprising Gleb Retyvkh, as well as Petersen and Northug.
In the initial stages, Petukhov again made it clear that he was leaving nothing to chance, getting to the front and controlling the pace before attacking with a big move heading into the second lap. Northug was languishing in sixth place at the back of the pack, but started to move up as the group attacked and then crested the hill. Running down to the finish, Northug charged again, eating up ground with his powerful hop-skate. However, after dispatching Volotka and Petersen, the Norwegian ran out of real estate, finishing third in a very close lunge with Morilov — but with a good enough time to pick up one of the lucky loser spots.
The second semi-final could easily have counted as a final on any given day on the World Cup. With Cologna, Harvey, Kershaw, Joensson, Golberg, and Pellegrino, and just two (potentially four) spots in the final on the line, it was clear that someone was going to go home disappointed.
And in the first corner, the decision was made — Pellegrino and Harvey got tangled up rounding the bend, and while neither went down, it was enough to hold them back.
While one Canadian struggled, the other shone. Kershaw hammered over the crest of the hill and glided to the front of the pack, and then put the hammer down as they headed into the second lap. Joensson responded, holding tight to Kershaw as they attacked the hill, and squeezed by the Team Sprint World Champion on his way to winning the heat. Kershaw finished second, placing him in the final for the first time this season, while Cologna finished 3rd — not good enough to put him through to the final.
As the men lined up for the final, you could sense the disappointment in the stadium — with Cologna’s elimination in the semis, and Northug’s advancement via lucky loser, Norwegian fans sensed something spectacular was in the offing.
And they were right, as Petukhov and Morilov headed straight to the front following the gun, while Kershaw and his trademark slow start trundled out in sixth.
By the end of the first lap, Petukhov was in the lead, and across the long straight the Russian hammered out a big gap, leaving two dozen meters back to his pursuers, Sweden’s Joensson and Petersen. But the bearded Russian faded as he headed to the home stretch, and it briefly appeared that the chasers might have a shot, but he held the lead to collect the gold.
Behind him, Petersen and Joensson were caught in a tight battle for silver, in which Petersen emerged victorious, while Joensson had to settle for third. Kershaw finished fourth — his best placing on the World Cup this season — besting Northug, who tried desperately to close on the finishing straight.
In his first race back on the World Cup after a serious leg injury, Joensson said he was worried about how the injury would affect his performance.
“After my injury I was extremely nervous,” said Joensson in the post-race press conference. “I was very lucky to even be a little close today — I was extremely unsure of how I would respond.”
Joensson said that for the last three months he had mostly trained with his girlfriend Anna Haag, a fellow World Cup skier on the Swedish team.
“I have been beating her in training no problem,” he joked.
For Petersen’s part, the young Swede was happy with his day, but surprised by the ferocity of Petukhov’s attack.
“I didn’t expect the hard push he made,” Petersen said after the race. “I did what I could, but not strong enough.”
Petersen also said he felt the course was tough, especially considering it was at altitude, and that he tried to ski as controlled as he could.
“It was a great victory here,” said Petukhov after his decisive win. “I was glad that Petter was also in the final and that we could have a competition against each other.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.