OBERSTDORF, Germany – Four down, five to go, and an epic battle is developing in the men’s 2012 Tour de Ski.
Over the course of the four events thus far, only 1.1 seconds separate Dario Cologna (SUI) form leader Petter Northug (NOR).
Northug took his second stage victory of the Tour, but Cologna actually closed the gap due a strong showing in the intermediate sprints in the men’s 20km skiathlon in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Despite the large climbs, and the challenges of the bonus sprints, set on top of the largest hill, no one could attempt a break away. As is often the case in men’s World Cup mass starts, it was a race of attrition, skiers gradually falling off the pace and slipping out of contention.
Northug, who is looking to build a lead prior to the final climb, has been unable to shake Cologna at any point. They have kept a careful watch on each other throughout the early stages of the Tour, and both men appear in peak form.
The bonus seconds provided interesting drama in a race that often comes down to the final kilometer.
Skiers with ground to make up, Marcus Hellner, Lukas Bauer, and Alex Harvey, among others, were looking to close the gap at the intermediate sprints, while the leaders made sure they would not be losing ground.
With bonus seconds awarded to the top-10, there were plenty of opportunities to attack, if only briefly.
Bauer set the tone on the first sprint, running outside of the tracks and charging hard.
Northug did not participate in the early sprints on the classic leg as he did not feel very good. He opted to conserve his energy for the skate, and the strategy paid off.
He got his act together, and came back to nearly match Cologna’s total of 49 bonus seconds, ultimately coming up four short.
Northug benefited from strong performances by teammates Kristian Tettli Rennemo and Niklas Dryhaug.
The two men, out of the race for the overall, were tasked with assisting Northug.
“They all had a job and that was to help Petter, and that is what they did and it paid off” Norwegian coach Trond Nystad told FasterSkier.
“Take seconds, give him an easy track if they had a chance. Protect him and help him to move forward in the field,” Nystad continued.
Northug acknowledged their help, pointing to that and his good skis as the difference in the race.
On the last climb, the race for the preem was furious, and with the finish just 500 meters of downhill and flat away, there was no pause on the top as there had been in previous laps.
Known for his ridiculous finishing kick in long races, Northug would not be denied. Riding a tight line on the corner into the stadium, he overtook first Hellner, then Cologna, and finally Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS), to claim victory.
“The last downhill is terrible when your legs feel like a ton,” Northug said of the final run to the finish. “You don’t have a good feeling in the downhill, but it is the same for everyone.”
Cologna also passed the Russian, describing his own finishing speed as “90%” and joking that when he was at 100%, as in the sprint the day before, he bested Northug.
As they crossed the line the two turned to take a long look at each other, mirroring the constant checking throughout the race.
“Of course I know that I have to watch out a little bit for Petter and he also for me,” Cologna said after the race. “So there is a little bit of looking for where he is.”
Swiss coach Guri Hetland said that Cologna enjoys the rivalry with Northug.
“They are really really strong athletes, both of them,” Hetland told FasterSkier.
“They both want to challenge each other and want to beat each other. It’s kind of a healthy competition relationship.”
Hetland added that she thinks Northug motivates Cologna to be better, and added that he “doesn’t like to lose of course, and they are both like that.”
Alexander Legkov (RUS) , who was 13th today, holds the third spot in the overall standings, 52 seconds back.
But neither Northug nor Cologna feel the Tour is a two-man affair. Both point to the 35km Cortina to Toblach race as a critical point.
The pursuit on gradual terrain provides plenty of opportunity for a strong chase group to make up minutes.
Cologna doesn’t see that event as fair to the leaders, but said, “maybe Petter and I can work together and make a fast race,” and keep a solid gap.
Hellner, who struggled in the pursuit in Oberhof, has bounced back well. A strong skate sprinter, and well-suited for the 35k, he should be at the heart of the chase group in that race.
He moved up to 6th in the overall, just behind Canadian Devon Kershaw.
It was quite the opposite for Axel Teichmann (GER), who broke out with a victory in the pursuit. His race today came to a de facto early end when one of his bindings popped off.
Teichmann had to stop and reattach the plate, a hiatus that put him well off the back of the race.
German coach Jochan Behle said he never got his back in the game completely, and even if he had, it is unlikely he would have been able to make up the ground.
Teichmann will continue the Tour, however.
Racers get the first of two rest days tomorrow. The Tour continues in Toblach, Italy with the skate sprint on Tuesday.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.