VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – Eldar Roenning (NOR) spent much of the eighth stage of the Tour de Ski working for Petter Northug (NOR), but as the final kilometer rolled around, he submitted his resignation, packed up his skis and poles, and headed out on his own.
Roenning attacked on the final climb of the unforgiving Val di Fiemme 4.5 kilometer loop, opening a 10 meter gap entering the stadium, a lead he never relinquished on his way to his second podium of the 2012 Tour de Ski.
Canadian Alex Harvey claimed his second career distance World Cup podium, and first since 2009, edging out Tour leader Dario Cologna (SUI).
The penultimate stage of the Tour measured just over 22 kilometers—five times around a grueling loop that seemed to defy physics—is it possible to go up for so long, and descend so little?
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth didn’t mince words, saying “It might be the hardest classic course ever,” pointing to the two big climbs right at the end, and the added challenge of the bonus seconds available each lap at the top of the biggest climb.
Cologna, who described his race as “perfect,” said there were too many steep climbs and hopes that will be adjusted before next year’s World Championships, while distance specialist and two-time Tour de Ski Champion Lukas Bauer (CZE) said “It fits me good [the course], for my endurance, but it is not skiing, it is running.”
Norwegian coach Trond Nystad added, “This is by far the hardest race in the Tour de Ski.”
The course was modified from last year, with the biggest change being the location of the mid-race preems—one per lap. Instead of sitting down in the stadium on the flat, it now stood at the pinnacle.
The result was a pack that strung out quickly, unusual for a men’s World Cup race, and a steady line of elite racers falling off the back.
“They started to push from the first bang until the end,” Finnish veteran Sami Jauhojärvi told FasterSkier.
The first of the overall Tour contenders to falter was Maurice Manificat (FRA) who entered the day in 6th, seconds from the podium. Under halfway through the race he was cooked. Alexander Legkov, (RUS), Giorgio DiCenta (ITA), and Ilia Chernousov (RUS) followed after, at varying points of the race.
Bauer spent much of the race at the front driving the pace. The veteran saw his chances for the podium crumble in the 35k pursuit when a feed station collision left him with a broken pole.
His goal for the day was “to be very active.” He was certainly that, pushing at the front, though never getting away.
Roenning and teammate Niklaus Dyrhaug also had a strong presence in the front pack, but they skied with a greater purpose.
The men were tasked with helping Northug close the gap on Cologna—working to get him set for the bonus sprints.
From the spectator’s point of view, it can be hard to make sense of the constantly shifting positions, but Dyrhaug said the strategy worked well, as evidenced by the 55 seconds Northug earned.
“He was really satisfied with my work, and I am really satisfied I could help him,” Dyrhaug said. “I tried to help him get in a good position in the start of the hill, and he should do the rest of the work himself.”
Roenning was also involved, but while Dyrhaug said “I offered myself totally,” to Northug’s cause, and that “I have never been so tired in my whole life as the last round up there [at the top of the course],” the eventual victor did not need to expend too much energy in for his teammate.
He assisted Northug in gaining position, but never factored into the front of the sprint.
The stocky Norwegian gained confidence during the warmup when a new pair of skis offered excellent grip in addition to good glide. Two laps in, and he knew he had the body was clicking as well.
After 22 kilometers packed with relentless climbing, it was the last relatively small hill into the stadium that made the difference in the race.
Russians Sergey Turychev and Dmitriy Japaov took the lead out of the downhill on the final large climb, up past the iconic Italian village church.
The attack could have been decisive, but Harvey, who was comfortably in fifth behind Cologna was unconcerned.
“They punched it so hard at the bottom of the second to last hill,” Harvey said. “There was zero chance they would be strong….those guys would die.”
He made sure to stay behind Cologna, so as not to get blocked by the doomed Russians, and when Roenning moved, Harvey proved prophetic.
The Canadian then made his one mistake of the race. When Cologna broke into a herringbone, Harvey did not step out and move around.
“I was a bit stronger than Dario at the end, but I just followed him and that is when Roenning went,’ Harvey told FasterSkier.
While he was plenty happy with second—the World Cup points, the prize money, and the advancement in the overall Tour standings, Harvey believes that if he had stayed on Roenning’s tails he could have used the draft to slingshot by for the win.
But that is neither here nor there as Roenning would not be caught on the homestretch. Harvey held off Cologna, and a hard charging Northug, who was unable to make a dent in the now impenetrable lead of Cologna.
While Nystad said the day was very successful for the Norwegians—in addition to Roenning in first and Northug in fourth, Dyrhaug placed 7th—the winner said “I think Petter had a little bit of a tough day today.”
With his overall Tour chances destroyed in a catastrophic first five kilometers of the Cortina to Toblach pursuit, Northug was looking for some measure of redemption today.
He fought hard, several times staging a running attack for bonus seconds, but never looked like his usual confident and controlled self.
As is his wont, he collapsed at the finish, utterly spent, only this time his effort was not even good for the podium.
Even had he been in top form, Northug would have been better off stopping at the course-side church to pray for a miracle given the way Cologna is skiing.
Swiss Head Coach Guri Hetland told FasterSkier, that Cologna was raring to go this morning.
“He really looked forward to ski, and that is always a good sign, when he is eager to go out there,” Hetland said.
Watching Cologna cross the line with another podium, and ahead of Northug to boot, was “a pretty good feeling” for Hetland, and while she was confident that her star skier would perform well, she is not counting the massive crystal trophies until they are well in hand.
“As we have said from the very beginning the Tour de Ski is until they are up there tomorrow [at the top of the Alpe Cermis]. So there is no time to lie back and relax,” Hetland said. “It is about being focused until the very end.”
Cologna feels his 1:22 lead on Northug in the overall is “a nice advantage.”
He said he enjoyed his day, with the cold snow, hard tracks and boisterous fans.
Eight stages in to the Tour, he said he is tired, and that “before the race you don’t feel so good,” but once the gun goes off “it is going better.”
Roenning fell out of the quest for the overall podium with two bad races in Oberstdorf, and then a disastrous performance in the 35k pursuit.
He bounced back well today, and has run the Tour with extra support from his brother Berhnard, a standout skier for Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.
Taking a break from his business studies in Ireland, The younger Roenning is chauffeuring his brother so he can stick to his own schedule, as well as helping with ski testing.
On the last climb when Eldar attacked, Bernhard was “freaking out.”
It is a good sign for Roenning to take the individual victory in an event that is a preview of the 50k classic at World Championships on this very course.
That event is the focus of next season for the Norwegian, but long before that, he has to complete the Tour.
A much stronger classic skier, Roenning says his goal in the final climb “will be to reach the top still alive.”
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.