VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – Tour de Ski winners are all alike; every Tour de Ski loser is a loser in his own way.
Petter Northug (NOR), Marcus Hellner (SWE), Devon Kershaw (CAN), Lukas Bauer (CZE)—each had his own problem that torpedoed his hopes for a Tour victory, whether it was bad skis, a broken pole, a weak discipline, or an uncooperative body.
Dario Cologna, on the other hand, had nothing go wrong. The Swiss star mastered every last detail over the course of the Tour’s nine stages, and when the snow settled in Val di Fiemme, he was the one standing alone atop the podium on Alpe Cermis on Sunday, at the finish of the Tour’s final stage.
The result capped a two weeks for Cologna, and for the Swiss team, that was close to perfection.
“They have great skis, they have great support, they have a great skier,” said Trond Nystad, the head coach of the Norwegian men’s team. “And if you have everything come together at one time, then you have a great result. That’s what they had.”
In the first eight stages of the Tour, Cologna finished outside the podium just once, when he was fifth place in a classic sprint in Germany.
Cologna was 16th in Sunday’s Stage 9, a freestyle hill climb up Alpe Cermis, a local alpine ski area, But that result was meaningless, since the only thing he had to do today was stay in front of second place.
“He is strong every day, since the very beginning,” Guri Hetland, the Swiss head coach, told FasterSkier.
The makeup of the final podium—Cologna, Hellner in second, and Northug third—was one many could have predicted at the start of the Tour, and at the beginning of Sunday’s race. But not the order.
The athletes started Stage 9 pursuit-style, based on their positions in the overall standings. Cologna headed out first, with a 1:22 lead over Northug, and 2:06 on Hellner and Kershaw.
The course for the nine-kilometer stage sent the men on a short loop around the stadium here, and along five kilometers of flat terrain next to a river. Then, it veered up Alpe Cermis, ascending all the way to the finish, up more than 1,000 vertical feet by way of off-camber switchbacks and ramps so steep they seemed to threaten to send the athletes toppling over backwards.
Even though Northug faced a seemingly insurmountable deficit of more than a minute to Cologna, he told the Norwegian press he would be on the attack all day, since “no one cares about second or third.”
He closed a few seconds to Cologna in the flat part of the race, but as soon as Northug hit the climb, things went south for him.
The Northug that spectators saw on the Alpe Cermis looked nothing like the Norwegian at his smooth, efficient best. Instead, he looked like someone who had bitten off way more than he could chew. By the time Northug eventually made it to the finish, “I did not know where I was,” he told NRK.
“He gave everything to try to catch Dario, and in the end, that cost a little [too] much,” said Nystad. “But you know, for him, it doesn’t matter. Second or third didn’t really matter. He wanted to win.”
Punch-drunk, teetering back and forth from one ski to the other, Northug ground his way up the Alpe.
Behind, Kershaw and Hellner skied the flats together, then began up the hill. Hellner almost immediately dropped Kershaw, leaving the Canadian to endure an experience similar to Northug’s, which he called “nothing short of hell.”
“You’re essentially just walking up a hill,” Kershaw said. “It’s a horrible sensation.”
Hellner, meanwhile, was having a fantastic day, and it only took until the middle of the ascent for him to catch Northug—a scenario almost inconceivable at the beginning of the day, given Northug’s lead of nearly 45 seconds.
A huge group of Norwegians that had gathered at the finish line watched in stunned silence as the nightmare scenario played out on a video board. The supporters, including Northug’s fan club, stood with faces in hands as Hellner blew past, while a small Swedish contingent roared.
With Hellner’s move, the final podium was set, as Northug held on for third over Kershaw, and Cologna was never threatened, winning by a full minute.
Hellner said that the second place in the overall was “like a win,” given how much he had struggled in the early part of the Tour. He finished one stage earlier this week in 48th place, and was 29th in another, yet was able to capitalize on a handful of clutch results, and on his willingness to dig deeper than almost anyone else.
“I was very frustrated, many times. I always am when it’s going bad for me,” he said. “But maybe that’s one of the things—I want it so much. I want to be in the top…so maybe that’s a strength for me.”
But while wanting it badly might help, there’s no substitute for execution—as evidenced by Hellner’s final place in the standings behind Cologna.
The Swiss star and his team have taken care of all the details. After a debacle with his skis at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Cologna found a new serviceman in Gianluca Marcolini, Petra Majdic’s old technician. And Hetland said she and her staff learned from several other things that went awry.
While Cologna has now won three Tours, this one, Hetland said, is probably the best, because with no World Championships or Olympics, the Tour was the highlight of the year.
“Last season, Oslo was the highlight, and he didn’t succeed there,” she said. “We have said from the spring that this season, the Tour de Ski is the most important competition. And when he is able to win it, that’s for sure really important for him.”
Now, Hetland said, the Swiss team has a partial blueprint for next year’s World Ski Championships, which will be held on the trails here in Val di Fiemme.
Hellner, Northug, Kershaw, and the others won’t let those medals go easily. But based on what Cologna has accomplished over the last two weeks, his competitors have some catching up to do.
Asked if he had any regrets, Nystad said he wasn’t sure yet.
“Right now, we have to have some time to analyze everything, and see if there’s something else we could have done differently. But all in all, it is the way it is,” he said. “We got third place—we came here to win. It’s just a race, a normal race—we’re happy to have one guy finish third. But we wanted a little bit more.”
Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.