TOBLACH, Italy – Were the Russians drinking vodka in their wax cabin after Nikolay Morilov won Stage 6 of the 2012 Tour de Ski on Wednesday?
“A little, yes,” said Mikhail Lukertsenko, one of the team’s staff. “It’s a victory.”
Morilov, a 25-year-old Olympic medalist, foiled the Tour heavyweights and big names on the homestretch here, using a combination of perfect tactics, timing, and power.
Petter Northug (NOR) was second, missing out on the victory by a split second after what he called an “embarrassing” final sprint, while Dario Cologna (SUI) was third, maintaining the tight overall Tour standings and setting up a potentially epic showdown on Thursday.
Northug and Cologna are now separated by just 13 seconds heading into Stage 7, the Tour’s queen stage: a 35-kilometer point-to-point race that sends athletes up, then down some 2,000 vertical feet.
That queen stage has been a focal point for athletes, fans, and media since the Tour moved to Italy on Monday, but the skiers first had to get through Wednesday’s race.
The skate sprint course—essentially two promenade laps around the stadium here, with a couple of hills thrown in—placed a premium on tactics, especially in the men’s race. Nearly all the heats featured tight pack skiing, with any gaps that opened on the climbs quickly closed down by chasers on the ensuing descents.
“Everybody’s attacking over the hill, but with four or five in the group, you have the advantage,” said Northug.
It seemed like nearly all the winners of the heats came from behind, and Cologna’s racing was the perfect example—he said he tried to save energy today by skiing at the back, and yet still managed to advance all the way to the finals by surging on the homestretch in his quarterfinal and semifinal heats.
“It was my goal to be fast in the last hundred meters,” he said.
The Russians aren’t known for their tactical savvy—they often try to win sprint finals from the front, a tactic unsuited to the course in Toblach.
But on Wednesday, Morilov and his teammate, Alexey Petukhov, did something unusual: they waited. While both Russians went to the lead of the final heat nearly from the gun, their pace was deliberate, according to Canadian Alex Harvey, who finished sixth.
“I was surprised in the final, because usually the Russians, especially Petukhov and Morilov…they just take off,” he said. “That’s how they race usually, so I was like, ‘why are they doing that?’ They started fast in the first ten seconds, but then they just sat.”
Morilov and Petukhov actually let Northug lead the last half of the race, over the top of the last climb and into the final corner. It wasn’t until the men entered the homestretch that Morilov surged, moved up alongside Northug, matching him stride-for-stride, and finally edged him by two feet with a lunge at the finish.
While Morilov’s patience may have surprised Harvey, the Russian is actually considered the coolest of the team’s sprinters, according to Juri Frolin, Morilov’s personal wax technician.
“Morilov might be the wisest sprinter on our team,” Frolin told FasterSkier through a translator. “He always analyzes the race, thinking where he should be, and how he should be.”
With Morilov’s win, the Russian men are now two for two in sprints on the Tour, with Nikita Kriukov taking Saturday’s classic race in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Many of the Russian sprinters dropped out after Wednesday’s race—the last sprint on the Tour—but the team hasn’t disappointed, with Petukhov and Morilov completing a clean sweep of the podium in Oberstdorf.
While the athletes are clearly fit, they’ve also been aided by a respected 12-man wax crew turning out fast skis.
That staff was bolstered by the addition of five Estonians this spring in Urmas Vyalbe, Margo Pulles, Eero Bergman, Sergey Lopukhin, and Lukertsenko. The five men went to Russia en masse as part of an exodus of the Estonian squad’s support staff, following the retirement of stars Jaak Mae and Andrus Veerpalu.
Lukertsenko said that the switch has been rewarding, since the Russian squad is deeper.
“Estonian athletes are good as well, but here: victory and another victory, and victory and another victory,” he said. “It pushes the waxers harder.”
–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.