After winning the Tour de Ski, Dario Cologna (SUI) took a much-needed break from racing and skipped last weekend’s city sprints in Milan, Italy. His return to the World Cup on Saturday in Otepää, Estonia, left little doubt that the overall points leader is on top of his game.
He owned the classic sprint from the qualifier to final. Cologna’s qualifying time was more than 4 seconds ahead of the next-fastest skiers, and he handily won the subsequent heats throughout the afternoon.
One of the most notable aspects of the men’s classic race on Saturday was the prevalence of double poling. The weekend features an unusual double header in the classic discipline, yet you wouldn’t have known it from the number of skate skis that took to the 1.4 k course.
With the collective decision that skate skis were the way to go, the strongest double polers controlled the day. Leading the way for the North American men was Alex Harvey (CAN) in fourth, who was edged out of the podium by Eirik Brandsdal (NOR) despite a lunge for the line.
Harvey skied a near-perfect day, winning his quarterfinal and semifinal with a run of smart racing. When it came time for the sprint to the finish for the final time, he just didn’t have the energy in him.
Though he said he was a little “heartbroken” to have missed a medal by such a slim margin, Harvey was happy to be feeling fast in his first race back since the end of the Tour de Ski. The Canuck is not a sprint specialist, and noted after his race that to hang with powerhouse skiers like Cologna for as long as he did was reason to be satisfied with his race.
“I skied in tact with the leaders and just fell out of the medals at the end,” Harvey said in a Cross Country Canada press release.
For the Canadian and American men, making the call on whether to go with skate gear was a mix of predetermined and last-minute decision making. The Canadian National Ski Team (CNST) exhaustively tested double poling against striding Friday before the race, and techs waxed both sets of skis for athletes to choose from on race day.
“The classic skis were ready, and skate too; we just saw what the majority of people went with,” said Canadian national team coach Eric de Nys.
He figured 23 out of the top 30 men went with skate skis for the heats. The Russian team were the notable outliers, and were struggling to kick all the way up the hills. De Nys described his athletes’ decision to follow suit as simply a choice to stay on the same playing field.
Andy Newell led the way for the U.S. in seventh, his best finish of the winter thus far after a series of unlucky quarterfinal crashes. Had he not been held up by Gleb Retivykh (RUS) and Alexander Panzhinskiy (RUS) crashing in front of him in the final straightaway, Newell might have made it to the finals. He didn’t go down, but he lost significant time getting around them.
When he skied clear of the tangle, Newell realized a stray pole plant from one of the Russians had punched a hole clean through his ski, and he had a five-inch chunk of base material dragging through the snow.
“I thought for a minute my ski was broken, but it was just my base dragging,” said Newell afterwards. “I was kind of just in survival mode then for the last few hundred meters.”
Despite the bad luck, Newell said he was happy to have finally performed as well as he felt he could.
“It was nice to have a clean quarterfinal — nothing crazy happened,” he said. “I was able to move around in the pack well and put myself in a position for a strong finish.”
The final 300-meter straightaway came directly after a fast downhill leading into the stadium, which certainly played a factor in the skate-ski trend in the men’s field. Though he switched to skate skis for the heats, Newell was one of the few men lining up for the qualifier on classic gear.
“I decided to save my arms a little bit,” Newell said of his decision to go against the grain.
As he got ready for the qualifier and everyone around him was clipping into skate equipment, Newell said he was a bit nervous.
Ultimately, he qualified with the ninth-fastest time. “I knew I was going to be one of the few to stride the qualifier,” he said. “I decided to do it anyway because I knew I could do it either way.”
For Lenny Valjas (CAN), who made it to the quarterfinals and placed a 21st overall, the double poling was an added element to contend with, both mentally and physically. In the days leading up to Otepää, he expected to stride during the sprint.
“This whole year, I’ve been thinking this race is the one where I’d want to make it to the final,” said Valjas. “Everything was thrown into the trash when we had to double-pole it.”
Valjas put forth his best effort, but could feel that his triceps were fried before the heats even started. By the end of his quarterfinal, they were burning.
“My arms totally died,” he recalled. “It was almost comical for me, I was so tired. It was awesome to feel that kind of pain in the last stretch.”
Simi Hamilton, the next North American, finished just outside the top 30 in 33rd. He said he was frustrated with coming so close, but took it as a learning experience.
“Every time you get to race at this level, you learn a lot about what you need to work on, especially when you’re just outside the cusp there,” he said.
“With Oberstdorf, being barely out, then again today, you look at all the places you could have made up that second and it starts to make sense,” Hamilton continued.
Like Newell, Hamilton went with striding in the qualifier. In hindsight, he said he might have played with double poling on Saturday, something he’s never done on the Otepää course before.
“It’s really hard to change your mindset in the last few minutes there to totally switch it up,” Hamilton explained. “Now I have that experience in my head, hopefully next year I can draw on that.”
Devon Kershaw (CAN) ended his day in the qualifying round thanks to a shattered pole. He had to ski a good way without one before finding a replacement, said de Nys. Kershaw ended up in 40th; de Nys thought he could have qualified in the top five.
“He’s upset, but he’s also professional,” de Nys said. “He realizes it’s a part of racing.”
Mike Sinnott (USA), in his penultimate World Cup race before heading home, finished in 56th — a “moderate” result, he said.
Sinnott also went with striding after testing the alternative during his warm-up.
“It would have been a better decision to double-pole, but I didn’t want to … make a drastic switch, make a silly, hotheaded move, “ he explained.
Kris Freeman (USA) and Noah Hoffman (USA) completed the North American men’s lineup in 59th and 63rd, respectively.
Men’s competition resumes on Sunday in Otepää with a 15 k classic individual start.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.