OBERHOF, Germany — After several years of playing a dour second fiddle to Petter Northug (NOR), Axel Teichmann (GER) struck a different chord on Friday, besting the Norwegian at his own game with a strong attack on the last climb to win the second stage of the 2012 Tour de Ski.
On snowy afternoon at the ski stadium in Oberhof, the race was rife with waxing challenges—temperatures holding at right around freezing, a mixture of wet new snow, which continued to fall sporadically throughout the morning, and a granular base that was mixed up with the fresh stuff in places.
From the beginning of the race, it was clear that nobody had perfect skis, whether they were on hairies or kick wax.
Northug led out of the start based on his performance in Thursday’s prologue, and maintained a 20 meter gap on Dario Cologna (SUI) and Maurice Manificat (FRA).
But any hopes of a sustained break off the front came to an end two-and-a-half kilometers into the 15 k race, when Cologna and Manificat caught Northug and the rest of the field quickly swallowed the trio.
At that point, it would not have been inappropriate to hit the café for a cup of coffee and some schnitzel. The event had become a de facto mass start for the top skiers, and there was no chance of a true breakaway.
The favorites all maintained solid position through the next three laps, the pace fluctuating, stragglers falling away, and later starters catching on.
At the end of the fourth of five laps, a sudden roar was heard from the stadium crowd—three skiers for the host nation had worked themselves right to the front before the final climb up to the stadium.
Axel Teichmann, Jens Filbrich, and Tobias Angerer—the “big three” of German cross-country skiing—along with Lukas Bauer (CZE), Dario Cologna (SUI) and Alexander Legkov (RUS), led the race up into the stadium.
The German team has been under fire from the national press for the last two months. Early results had been poor, and media and fans alike questioned a restructuring of the country’s national squad.
According to the German Press Officer Stefan Schwarzbach, Teichmann, Filbrich and Angerer, all long-time World Cup veterans, had lobbied for the formation of a senior training group, splitting off from the younger members of the team.
The three men did not feel they were on the program they needed as they prepared for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia—the probable “finish line” for the career’s of the leaders of the “golden generation” of German skiing.
Despite a history of strong results, Schwarzbach said that the skiers felt they would be competing for 20th place come 2014 if they did not make some changes.
They turned to Frank Ullrich, a legend in German biathlon as the coach of champions Sven Fischer and Rico Gross, and an Olympic and World Championship gold medalist in his own right. Ullrich, an expert on altitude training, was named supervisor of the new training group.
With this story as a backdrop, Teichmann, Angerer and Filbrich maintained position at the front of the pack.
The race wound down the final descents and headed up the last series of climbs to the stadium. Teichmann moved to the front on the steepest section, creating a small gap on Bauer. Still leading after a final short descent, he charged over the last rise.
After leading early, Northug was content to sit further back in the pack. He did not look relaxed on the large clilmbs as the race progressed, straining to stay up. But there was little doubt he would be there at the end.
As Teichmann came up over the top, one question hung over the raucous stadium: Would Northug once again get the best of Teichmann in the final 100 meters?
The rivalry began at the 2009 World Championships, when Northug personally defeated Teichmann in both the relay and then again at the 2010 Olympics in the 50 k. The German team was very strong over those two years, and it seemed that Northug was always sprinting away from one Deutsch skier or another.
A look at the results shows this drama is somewhat overblown, but just as an urban legend takes root, the myth of Northug as Teichmann-slayer remains strong.
After the race, Teichmann said he had worked hard on his double pole over the last year, and was confident in his ability. But there is none better than Northug in the finish stretch, and closing 10 meters over 200 is not insurmountable.
We will never know if the race would have been a classic showdown between two of skiing’s greats, and who would have taken the upper hand. That’s because coming into the stadium, Dario Cologna (SUI) performed what Bauer termed “a great mistake.”
The defending Tour champion went down, taking out Finn Matti Heikinen, who then crashed into Bauer.
Northug was able to avoid the tangle, side-stepping the pile, but he came almost to a complete stop. Cologna was back on his feet in moments and he and Northug set out after Teichmann.
But the race for first was over. Teichmann looked over his shoulder, seeing plenty of open snow. He crossed the line cradling his arms, and appeared to be rocking a baby to sleep.
Just behind, Cologna couldn’t keep pace and had to settle for third, giving Northug second place.
The crowd went wild, teenage girls screaming as if at a rock concert. The cheers were for a local hero—Teichmann is native to the German state of Thüringia, and lived in Oberhof itself for over a decade.
After the race Teichmann said the victory was “really important” for German skiing, given the recent criticism and new training system.
“Today we showed that we are back,” he said, simply.
He added that he expected to see Northug and to battle the Norwegian, but instead found time to celebrate.
His motions over the line were not a Northug style performance—Teichmann recently found out that he and his wife are expecting a second child, due in June.
Filbrich and Angerer were held up in the crash and ended up in no position to fight for the podium, ultimately finishing 10th and 12th.
Despite the mishap, Teichmann describe the day as “a really good race for the German team. Without the fall of Dario, there may have been two more in the top six.”
Bauer was philosophical about the crash that cost him a chance for a top-three of his own.
“I was thinking about the podium, but you never know until you cross the finish line,” the two-time Tour winner told FasterSkier.
Bauer attacked several times in the last lap, but was unable to break away, frustrated by a skier always on his heels, making climbing “very difficult.”
He ended up seventh, edged out by another elder statesmen of the sport, Italian Giorgio DiCenta.
DiCenta and Bauer posted the second- and third-fastest times on the day, bested only by Eldar Roenning, who was also one place ahead of the pair in the final rankings.
Roenning skied all the way up to fifth from a starting position of 57th, crossing the line just behind Alexander Legkov (RUS), who spent most of the last two laps toward the front of the pack.
Such performances are impressive in their own right, but the day clearly belonged to Teichmann and the German team.
Biathlon may be more popular, but given the throngs of schoolchildren swarming German Head Coach and Olympian Jochan Behle looking for his autograph, cross-country success is truly appreciated here.
From the outside, Teichmann appears reserved, to say the least. He rarely cracks a smile, and even in victory is starkly serious.
But according to Schwarzbach, he is very emotional, just “not on the outside.”
Apparently Teichmann “cried like a baby” after one memorable victory, and is one of the most popular men in cross-country skiing.
“If you walk with him through the wax cabins, you feel respect from every side,” Schwarzbach said, adding that Teichmman is “probably the best team player I have worked with in 12 years.”
The Tour now moves to Obertsdorf, Germany, a four-hour drive away. Teams travel tonight, and racing continues with a classic sprint tomorrow.
Teichmann said he is “not going to Obertsdorf to win the sprint.” He is looking ahead to the skiathlon on Sunday, and would be happy to make the quarterfinals tomorrow.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.