TOBLACH, Italy – It took 11 races, but Alexander Legkov finally got his first win of the 2012 season in Stage 5 of the Tour de Ski on Tuesday.
With the help of a new coach and the right pair of skis, the Russian powered through finicky conditions to edge Eldar Roenning (NOR) and Dario Cologna (SUI) in the 5 k individual-start classic race.
Petter Northug (NOR) floundered through the slick, soft conditions in Toblach, finishing 12th and losing his lead in the overall Tour standings to Cologna, who now enjoys a 16-second cushion heading into Wednesday’s skate sprint.
“I felt like a tourist doing the Birkie,” Northug told NRK, the Norwegian national broadcaster.
More than six inches of fresh powder fell in Toblach last night, and when the moist new snow mixed in with cold, man-made crystals below the surface, the resulting tracks were a mushy mess that ended up being a headache for waxers—even though the weather had cleared up by Tuesday morning.
Almost all of the top skiers ended up racing on zeroes—classic skis without wax that grip the snow with a synthetic material—but at the start of the day, “everything was in the mix, at certain points,” according to U.S. Ski Team waxer Patrick Moore.
“We had hard wax, klister—everything was out there,” he said.
Roenning said that he excels in conditions like Tuesday’s, but he was also prepared with his equipment: he has four pairs of zero skis with him in Toblach, and tested some 20 sets over the past two years in his hometown of Trondheim, Norway.
“That’s the way in these conditions,” he said. “You have to have some good skis, and a good shape.”
The 5 k was the first time that the World Cup men raced the distance on the Tour. But there didn’t seem to be any special strategies: “Five, 10, 15: All is difficult,” Legkov said.
Roenning set the fastest time early, but that was before Legkov came storming home. The Russian gobbled up the last 200 meters of the course with huge double-pole strokes, lunged at the finish, then crashed and spent the next 30 seconds writhing in pain.
His time was 1.7 seconds better than Roenning’s, and though Cologna made a heroic charge down the finishing stretch shortly after, his efforts left him two seconds out of the lead.
While Legkov was strong at the beginning of the last season, his win on Tuesday was not only his first of this winter, but also his first time on the podium. That, he said afterward, was because of a training plan that had him peaking for the Tour de Ski.
Legkov picked up a new coach this season, the former Swiss World Cup racer Reto Burgermeister, through a connection with his physiotherapist. In an interview after the race, Burgermeister said that he has been working with Legkov on technique, and also on dialing back the intensity of some of his training sessions.
“His thinking is simple,” Burgermeister told FasterSkier through a translator. “He will always train really hard, so you have to stop, not to push him.”
Legkov now sits third in the overall Tour standings, 39 seconds behind Cologna.
Thanks to a five-second bonus for his third-place finish on Tuesday, Cologna took a total of 17 seconds from Northug, his main rival, in the 5 k race.
“It was a really good race for me, and I’m happy to take the overall lead back,” Cologna said.
Northug told the Norwegian media that he never got comfortable on his classic skis, and while he didn’t criticize his country’s staff, Roenning said that he could tell that his teammate’s skis were “a little bit slow and…slippery.”
If that was the case, it was an unlikely victory for the Swiss team in the wax department, since Cologna said his own skis were good.
While Cologna has two personal ski technicians, the Norwegians have by far the deepest pockets of any team here, with 14 waxers and a massive trailer to house them all.
“Fortunately, waxing is not always just about manpower,” Cologna said. “We have a lot of know-how on the team, and also you sometimes need a little bit of luck.”
Cologna has full faith in his waxers, he added, who constitute a “small, but good team.”
“You have to trust the service guys,” he said. “You can wax yourself, but I think it’s not a good idea. They know what they are doing, so I trust them 100 percent.”
With the Tour more than halfway over, Cologna currently has the edge. But with four tough stages remaining, as he acknowledged on Tuesday, he’s “won nothing” yet.
“It will be a tough fight,” he said.
—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.