From the qualifier through to the A-final, recently crowned Tour de Ski champion Dario Cologna (SUI) skied a “perfect” sprint day by all accounts in Otepää, Estonia on Saturday.
The current overall World Cup points leader made a statement from the word get-go, posting the fastest qualifying time by an unbelievable 4.2 seconds in a 1.4 k classic. He then went on to decisively win his quarter, semi and final heats. Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR) and Eirik Brandsdal (NOR), who finished second and third, both said that runner-up was the best they could hope for.
“It was a perfect day for me,” Cologna said in a press conference after the race. “I had a good qualification and I got self-confidence for the heats.”
Self-confidence may have been a factor in his victory, but the sheer force behind every plant of Cologna’s double pole was not to be messed with. If his tempo looked moderate, it was only because each stroke generated so much forward momentum.
“I did not have a chance against Dario,” Hattestad said.
Canada’s Alex Harvey lunged for the finish line in an effort for third, but crossed it just shy of the podium for fourth.
While the women’s race featured a high-profile showdown between the two of the biggest names in cross-country, the men’s became, quite literally, an arms race. The compact, slow snow made for finicky kick conditions, and prompted a large majority of the men’s field to swap their classic skis for slicker skate equipment.
If Cologna’s 4.2-second gap in the qualifier on skate skis didn’t prove that double poling was the way to go on Saturday, the first round of heats certainly did.
In the first quarterfinal, Cologna started off trailing Russia’s Anton Gafarov, but quickly closed the gap in the first few hundred meters. Several Russians decided to stride, and the mistake became apparent on the first uphill. Cologna gapped Gafarov with his double pole as the Russian’s kick faltered. Cologna’s strength may have been superior in any case, but throughout the heats, striders repeatedly lost time — on the uphills, no less — to those powering through with their upper bodies.
For those who knew their arm strength was lacking, however, the choice to go with skate skis was more of a gamble. The third quarterfinal, which included Harvey and teammate Lenny Valjas (CAN), exposed those who had the muscle to efficiently push through an entire sprint course more than once and those who had spent everything they had in the qualifier.
Peeter Kummel (EST) led Valjas up the first climb, with Harvey skiing just off their back. Going into the second hill, Harvey made up time on the front, and skied beside Kummel and Valjas. Down the other side, it looked as though fast skis might propel both Canadians onto the next round, but somewhere in the final straight, Valjas’s arms ran out of gas. Harvey double poled away to advance comfortably along with Kalle Lassila (FIN), while Valjas suffered through the finish on fumes in fourth, ending 21st overall.
“I’ve never felt that way in a race before,” Valjas said of the pain he’d just experienced.
The next quarterfinal featured the second-fastest qualifier, Gleb Retivykh (RUS) and Andy Newell (USA), who had the ninth-best qualifying time. Retivykh burst from the gate fast and led with a strong stride up the first hill with Igor Usachev (RUS) and Sami Jauhojaervi (FIN) in the chase. Newell skied off the back, but managed to gain ground steadily coming up the final hill, as striders lost ground to the double-polers. Retivykh developed an unbeatable gap down the other side, and Newell moved into third behind Johan Edin (SWE).
In the final 300-meter straightaway, Newell’s stronger finishing tempo moved him through to the semis, his first shot past the quarters this season.
“I’ve been feeling good all year, so it’s nice to have a clean quarterfinal,” Newell said.
The fifth quarterfinal was the closest yet — Oeystein Pettersen (NOR) led out of the gate, and all six skiers double poled for the whole heat. Nikita Kriukov (RUS) slowly edged up on Petterson, and it came down to a photo finish between the two, with Kriukov barely nosing by. Anders Gloeersen (NOR) failed to make up the gap in time and was 0.1-seconds off the pace in third.
As expected, racing got more furious in the semifinal round. Cologna continued to demonstrate his control, skiing from the front for most of the heat. Gafarov once again took the lead for a brief time, but Cologna led the takeover pack and put impressive distance between himself and the rest of the field on the second big climb. The real race was the one for second; Brandsdal eventually bested his teammate Hattestad.
Harvey, Pettersen, Kriukov, Newell, Alexander Panzhinskiy (RUS) and Gleb Retivykh (RUS) took to the line for the second semifinal — it was seemingly anyone’s race. Kriukov led the Russian trio out of the stadium, with Harvey just behind Petterson and Newell off the back.
Up the first climb, Harvey clearly wanted to move by, but couldn’t immediately find an opening. Petterson shifted and Harvey moved through the hole, and from then on out steadily gained on the striding Russians — his real advantage came on the final downhill, as his skis were clearly faster. Harvey and Petterson went 1-2 through the final straight, with Kriukov in a close third.
Behind them, Panzhinskiy and Retivykh tangled up and crashed right in front of Newell, who slipped by without falling, but not before getting his ski skewered by an errant pole. Momentum lost and base dragging, Newell crossed the line five seconds off the pace in fourth, but still finished a season-best seventh overall.
The A-final featured a stacked lineup: Cologna, Harvey, Pettersen, Brandsdal, Hattestad and Kriukov. All six men were on skate skis, and double-poled their way up, down and around the course. The group remained virtually as one pack, Cologna always in the front, until the second climb, when the top four put a gap on Kriukov and Petterson.
Cologna, Hattestad, Harvey and Brandsdal remained close down the final hill and into the stadium, drag racing out of the right-hand corner into the straightaway. All four turned on the backburners, and Cologna opened up just enough of a gap to comfortably raise his hands in triumph over the line. Harvey, who had been skiing even with Brandsdal and Hattestad, finished fourth despite a lunge for the finish.
“It was a great day for me,” said Cologna of his execution. “I’ve been in good shape and recovered well from Tour de Ski.”
The runner-up, Hattestad was complimentary of his competitor. “Second place is the maximum what I could achieve today,” he said.
Harvey, though pleased with a top five, was disappointed to have just missed out on the podium.
“That was a close one today,” he said in a press release. “Fourth is awesome, but it is a little heartbreaking too. … Pure sprinters train a lot more for double poling than distance skiers so I was a little nervous today because it is a really hard course.”
Men’s competition resumes Sunday with a 15 k classic.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.