TOBLACH, Italy – The Dolomites were the site of brutal battles between the Austrians and Italians during World War I.
Nearly 100 years later, members of European and North American countries once again waged war among these mountains in the depths of winter—this time, in a cross-country ski race.
Perhaps appropriately, it was a Swiss athlete who rose above the fray here on Thursday, winning a 32-kilometer freestyle pursuit by skiing his own race and letting his enemies slug it out.
Not only did Dario Cologna ski to a dominating win in Stage 7 of the Tour de Ski, but by trouncing his chief rival Petter Northug (NOR), he all but guaranteed himself a victory in the overall race.
“Now, it’s game over—Dario is in shape, and he makes no mistakes,” Northug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race.
Northug was the second starter in Thursday’s race, 14 seconds behind Cologna, based on the Tour standings after the previous day’s skate sprint.
Stage 7 is known as the Tour’s queen stage, one that will make or break an athlete’s race. It’s held on a relentless point-to-point course from the town of Cortina to Toblach that sends athletes up, over, then down a mountain pass, with the toothy peaks of the Dolomites as a backdrop.
Most people anticipated that Northug would quickly close the gap to Cologna, and the two men would work together to hold off the chasers—the first of whom, Alexander Legkov (RUS), started more than a minute behind Northug.
The first part of the race went exactly as everyone expected, as Northug quickly bridged up to Cologna after a couple of kilometers, then settled in.
Or so it appeared. Just a few minutes later, Northug was dropped, and Cologna was gone, before anyone knew what had happened.
In the stadium, where some 500 spectators, journalists, and wax technicians had gathered to watch the race unfold on a video board, the crowd was shocked. Was it some kind of strange tactic? Was Northug sick? Even the Swiss staff was incredulous, according to coach Christian Flury, who was standing out on course and heard the news about Northug over radio.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We didn’t expect he will just drop.”
Flury said Cologna’s plan had been to set a hard pace from the start, “so that Petter had to work.”
The tactic was perfect for Thursday’s race, because the first half of the course climbs up a steady grade—part of it on
an old World War I military railway—with no downhills to rest.
Still, Northug told NRK that catching Cologna quickly was the only thing he could do. The real culprit was fatigue, a pair of skis that was less-than-perfect, and a rival who was too much to handle, he said.
“Dario was strong, for sure,” he said. “When I couldn’t hang on, I had to wait for Legkov.
While Cologna forged on ahead, the Norwegian began hemorrhaging time. When Legkov caught him near the eight-kilometer mark, he’d lost more than a minute.
Legkov had headed out of the start in no-man’s land, over a minute down on Northug, and nearly 40 seconds up on Canadian Devon Kershaw.
Nonetheless, he had gotten to work, showing no signs that he would be waiting for a pack to join him.
Kershaw, on the other hand, appeared relaxed and smooth, and while Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS), did not close on him quickly, he knew that the group of skiers who had started behind him was chipping away at his lead.
“I was just skiing controlled,” Kershaw told FasterSkier. “I knew they were going to catch me, so I let it happen…”
In last year’s point-to-point race, Kershaw started in second after winning the skate sprint, and pushed hard to stay ahead of the chasers. The strategy didn’t work well, as he was eventually swallowed up anyways, having spent significant energy for nothing.
The all-star group coming from behind Kershaw on Thursday consisted of Marcus Hellner (SWE)—who had had a frustrating Tour marred by waxing debacles—two-time Tour champion Lukas Bauer (CZE), Maurice Manificat (FRA)—who was third in the Tour’s opening prologue—and Russian Ilia Chernousov.
Looking for payback, and to get back in contention for the Tour podium, Hellner drove hard from the gun. While Alex Harvey (CAN) and Eldar Roenning (NOR) started within two seconds of the Swedish world champion, they couldn’t manage the pace.
With help from Manificat and Bauer, Hellner closed on Vylegzhanin, came from behind, and went by without missing a beat. The Russian dropped into line and followed, with Kershaw the next target.
Within half a kilometer, the Canadian had been swallowed up by the pack, and the chase was on in earnest.
Prior to the race, Kershaw, Hellner and Manificat had discussed pooling their resources, and sharing the work of closing the gap on the leaders.
“We said before the race: ‘we have something to do,”’ Manificat said in an interview.
Kershaw told Hellner and Manificat that he would be ready to drive the train on the long gradual descent, but wouldn’t be much use on the climb.
But when Bauer and the Russians declined to take their turn at the front, the Canadian had no choice but to pull.
“I didn’t really want to, because I didn’t feel confident, but I had to,” he said.
The trio switched leads regularly as they tracked down Legkov up ahead.
Their hunt resulted in a number of incidental casualties. Bauer disappeared after breaking a pole in a feed zone—though he received a replacement quickly, he had no chance of getting back on board.
Vylegzhanin was sprung next—he was “having a tough go,” Kershaw said.
And Chernousov couldn’t quite make it over the top, dropping ten meters just before the high point to end any hope of holding the ride.
“We wanted to make it go fast,” said Hellner. Make it fast they did, leaving a swath of destruction down the trail behind.
On the long, gradual ascent, the skiers didn’t gradually drift away. One minute they were with the group; the next, “kaput.”
The formidable trio of Hellner, Kershaw and Manificat appeared to accelerate as they dropped down toward Toblach.
Manificat had pushed hard on the climb, and didn’t have as much to give, so the other two did the bulk of the work, Kershaw said.
Up ahead, Legkov and Northug continued on, knowing that a larger, and potentially stronger, group lurked somewhere higher up the valley.
The struggling Northug was even seen to take a brief turn at the front, before quickly stepping aside and letting the Russian take back over.
At 18.5 kilometers, the chasers finally had Northug and Legkov in their sights.
They had been expecting the Russian, since he had started by himself, and “to ski alone, it is hard,” Manificat said with a note of sympathy.
But they hadn’t expected to see Northug, too—Hellner said he’d been scanning the trail for the blue of the Russian race suit.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Hellner told FasterSkier. “I saw the red suit ahead, and thought maybe it was maybe some other Norwegian working guy. But it was Petter.”
While second place was suddenly in reach, Kershaw was not about to allow the aggressors to lower their guard after making the catch.
“I knew there was a danger that we just chill out, and then everyone else comes back and gets us,” he said.
Kershaw said he relayed this to Hellner, and to Manificat in French, telling them that “we have to keep going; we have to keep pushing.”
The Swede and the Frenchman must have concurred, as the pace remained high.
“The three of us were working as a team,” Kershaw said. “Not Legkov and Northug.”
There would be no miracles, however: Cologna, skiing a race for the ages, would not succumb. The gap was well over a minute when the Swiss star blew through the stadium in Toblach, before heading back out for a final three-kilometer promenade loop.
With a series of climbs ahead and the 18 kilometers of descending at an end, the group was about to lose its advantage over Cologna: the high speeds that favored a pack over a solitary skier.
Hellner attacked on the final climbs, but couldn’t escape, and the chasers entered the stadium at last, five strong.
Northug had spent the last half hour solidly ensconced at the back of the pack, resting as much as possible.
He may have been defeated by Cologna, but it is an unwise soul who bets against Petter Northug in a sprint at the conclusion of a distance race.
He took a tight line around the last corner—too tight in fact, as he actually straddled course markers, a move that gained him a warning from the race jury—and a clear line to the finish.
Legkov crossed next, closely followed by Kershaw, Hellner and Manificat.
Each and every one collapsed to the ground, utterly spent. Coaches rushed out to help with the removal of equipment, and the rest of the field began streaming in before they had regained their feet.
Kershaw and Hellner shared a hug, and after the race, all three expressed gratitude and admiration for the others.
“Without Marcus and Devon, I didn’t do this race,” Manificat said.
Both Hellner and Manifcat said they could have done no more to close the gap on Cologna.
“It is enough today,” Manificat said, adding there was “no chance” to have gone faster.
Kershaw did not mince words describing his race.
“It was probably the best skate race I ever had,” he said. “The legs and body felt amazing.”
The soft-spoken Hellner was “very pleased” with his performance, and the time they made up.
Swedish Coach Joakim Abrahamsson allowed his excitement to show.
“He made a fantastic race today. It was just fun to see him,” Abrahamsson said, adding that the veteran had no problem bouncing back from his disappointments in Wednesday’s sprint.
“That is the way it has to be…A new challenge every day. That is what the Tour is about,” he said.
Kershaw dubbed his competitor “the toughest athlete in the field…He goes to the basement [like no other].
While the teamwork shown by Kershaw and company may have been impressive, so was Cologna’s performance in holding them off. He kept the chasers roughly a minute and a half behind him for almost the whole race, conceding only a handful of seconds in the closing kilometers.
He now leads the Tour by nearly a minute and a half over Northug—a margin that even the Norwegian said will be insurmountable.
In a press conference after the race, Cologna said he was startled to see Northug having trouble “so early.” But seeing the Norwegian fall off the pace gave him “extra power,” he said.
“I was surprised,” Cologna said. “The plan was to ski together with him.”
The difference for Cologna on Thursday may have been his ability to recover, given the six races he’d skied in the previous seven days. Recovery is one of Cologna’s strengths, said Swiss team doctor Patrick Noack.
“That’s his advantage,” Noack said in an interview.
According to Noack, Cologna had one more source of strength to fall back on on Thursday: special herbs from his native valley of Münstertal.
Cologna’s father Remo had brought the herbs to the race as a good luck charm, Noack said. But, as Remo Cologna told him, “apparently, we don’t need them,” Noack said.
Technically, the Tour isn’t over yet, with two more stages on Saturday and Sunday in Val di Fiemme, Italy: a 20 k mass start classic race, and the final hill climb on the Alpe Cermis, which sends the men up more than 1,000 vertical feet over the course of nine kilometers.
The Norwegians will do everything they can to get Northug to the summit first, according to his teammate Niklas Dyrhaug, including working with him to scoop up time bonuses in Saturday’s race.
“We have to get home to the hotel and fix a good plan for Val di Fiemme,” Dyrhaug told FasterSkier after the race. “We will fight together, all the Norwegians, and hopefully get Petter on top in Alpe Cermis.”
But while the Norwegians draw up their battle plans, Cologna’s gap is so large—and his win was so convincing—that the Swiss will permit themselves a small celebration on Thursday evening, said Flury, the coach.
“[We’ll] open a bottle of wine in Val di Fiemme, for sure,” he said. “We have to pack, and then drive. But I think we will have a Chianti or something for dinner.”
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.