OBERHOF, Germany – Of all the Tour de Ski stages, none matters less than the prologue. Runner-up Dario Cologna didn’t hesitate to say exactly that, and American Andy Newell concurred.
“I don’t really care about today,” he told FasterSkier. “I don’t mind being flat today. You can make up four times tomorrow any time you lose today,” he said in reference to Friday’s pursuit.
Newell wasn’t merely covering for an off day as his sentiments were echoed by athletes from all tiers of the result sheet. So if the American men were going to post unsatisfactory results, the prologue was the day to do it.
With six inches of fresh snow on the ground and a tightly compressed field, the 15km pursuit should quickly gather into a virtual mass start event.
“I just wanted to get myself a decent place tomorrow, and I think I did that,” said Kris Freeman who placed 64th, but was only 32 seconds behind winner Petter Northug (NOR).
Newell placed 29th, not at all a bad result, especially as it gave the sprinter consecutive World Cup distance finishes in the top-30 (Newell was 24th in the 15km classic in Rogla before the break).
After 1.7 kilometers, at the top of the first large climb, Newell was in good position, sitting 18th, within striking distance of his 14th in this event a year ago.
He navigated the descents and was still fighting in the top-20 heading into the final 350 meters. That distance may not sound like much, but with one last climb and a long straight to the finish, there is plenty of time for the good, the bad and the ugly.
Unfortunately for Newell, it was a combination between the bad and the ugly. Mirroring the words of Canadian Alex Harvey, who also struggled through the final meters, Newell said simply, “I was…dead,” replacing the ellipses with a standard and evocative exclamation.
And while he may have been exaggerating somewhat when he followed that up by saying he lost 10 seconds in the last 200 meters, it definitely looked that way.
The smooth flowing V2 that is Newell’s trademark was nowhere to be found, “kaput” as the Germans would say. He staggered toward the line, twisting over each ski, and it was not 100% clear that he would actually make it.
Desbite witnessing this death march of a final sprint, US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover was not worried, pointing out that in a seemingly contradictory move, the course was extended 350 meters over last year due to low snow conditions.
The race had to make an extra loop around the stadium, and Grover felt Newell didn’t completely adjust, and ended 350 meters shy of another top-20.
Coming off some tough training in Ramsau over Christmas where he did three interval sets, Newell is primed for the pursuit—a very similar race to his successful outing in Rogla.
“Andy has the potential to have a great race tomorrow,” Grover said, adding that holding position inside the top-30 would definitely count in that respect.
Freeman, in his preferred technique and distance will be looking to do more than hold steady.
After a rocky start to the season, Freeman may not have been happywith his spot on the result sheet, but his fitness is feeling good.
“The body was there, and that was nice,” Freeman told FasterSkier. “I haven’t gone hard since Rogla so that was the plan.”
He added that he was able to “punch” hard when he needed to and still recover on the downhills.
The veteran Freeman is racing just his second Tour de Ski, and is looking to improve upon his 28th of last year.
The final American in the race, Simi Hamilton, bested Freeman by all of .6 seconds, placing 63rd.
Hamilton is in his first Tour and had an abbreviated fall of racing due to illness and limited American World Cup start rights.
Grover pointed out that Hamilton last competed in a distance event as part of the 4x10km relay at the season-opening weekend in Sjusjoen, Norway.
“We will see him get better as he does more distance races,” Grover said of Hamilton who earned his first World Cup top-10 two weeks ago in the Rogla sprint.
All three take to the line today for another late start—3:15 in Oberhof.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.