OBERSTDORF, Germany – If anyone was going to embrace Saturday’s downright nasty weather in the third stage of the 2012 Tour de Ski, it was the Russians.
The interminable rain and snow here may have gotten to some of their competitors, but it failed to even dampen the energy of Nikita Kriukov, Alexey Petukhov, and Nikolay Morilov, as the Russian trio swept the podium in the classic sprint.
“Russian peoples like different weather,” Kriukov told FasterSkier after the race. “Ten [degrees], or minus 30—no problem!”
Athletes from all teams struggled to stay warm and dry throughout a long afternoon of sprinting. For most of the day, it was roughly a degree above freezing, and pouring rain.
Petukhov wore an Adidas-branded poncho during warm-ups; others donned full rain suits. Justyna Kowalczyk said she spent most of the day in her car, while others simply rotated through entire bags’ worth of clothing.
“I brought, like, all my clothes,” said Simi Hamilton (USA). “I filled up my whole pack.”
The Russians, though, were unperturbed. Of the 30 qualifiers for the heats, eight wore the country’s red-and-blue suits, with Petukhov notching the fastest time and five Russians packing the top 10.
And they weren’t just strong in the qualification round: four of the them—the three podium finishers and Dmitriy Japarov—made it to the finals. Alex Harvey (CAN), who was victimized by Morilov in his quarterfinal heat, said that there was no doubt that the Russians were sharp.
“Off the start they were way quicker than anybody,” he said. “It looked like they were way stronger than anybody else on the top of the hill. The Russians are in good shape.”
In the finals, Kriukov, Petukhov, Japarov, and Morilov all faced off against Petter Northug (NOR) and Dario Cologna (SUI), the two heavyweights who currently sit first and second in the overall Tour standings.
Northug had looked strong all day after taking second in qualification. But by the finals, he looked a little worn out: he’d lost his hat, and was braving the Oberstdorf weather bare-headed. While the Norwegians are typically fastidious when it comes to details like staying warm and dry between rounds on a cold, wet, day, their team doctor said things hadn’t gone perfectly.
“I don’t think we were good enough today,” said the doctor, Kjell Vegard Mykland.
The Russians had another advantage, too.
Northug had had to dig deep in a tough race and sprint finish in Friday’s Stage 2. But Kriukov, Petukhov, and Morilov—all sprinters—had been able to ski at their own pace.
“Yesterday was very hard, and very difficult track. Fifteen kilometers,” Kriukov said after Saturday’s race. “For Mr. Northug and all the other athletes, very tough. Today, for me and for the other sprinters, I think it was a little bit easier.”
If Northug had the energy to pull his typical antics on the finishing straight, he never had the opportunity to demonstrate it. The three Russians had already started pulling away when Northug appeared to stick a pole between his legs and crashed, ending his hopes of a podium on the day.
Kriukov, Petukhov, and Morilov then battled it out on the homestretch, with Kriukov emerging the winner with enough time to raise his arms and mug for cameras at the finish.
Kriukov chalked up the Russians’ success to training that the sprinters do together. In an interview with the news agency ITAR-Tass, coach Yuriy Kaminsky said that everything came together for the team.
“It all coincided: the wax, very good fitness, and we were able to recover from yesterday’s race,” he said. “What can I say? We won outright.”
With his sixth place in the finals, Northug remains in the overall lead of the Tour, with a four-second cushion over Cologna and 15 seconds on Japarov in third.
After a long afternoon in the rain, Northug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that he wouldn’t be spending too much time celebrating New Year’s Eve.
“I think I need to go to sleep early,” he said.
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.