MILAN, Italy – You would have to be a fool to get between Alexey Petukhov and the podium too many times in one weekend, but we will never know what would happen thanks to Nikolay Morilov.
The Russian duo, anchored by Morilov, skied to a convincing win in the men’s team sprint in the downtown Milan Parco Sempione on Sunday, besting Swedes Calle Halfvarsson and Teodor Peterson and Italians David Hofer and Fulvio Scola.
Peterson prevented Petukhov form making a run at the podium in Saturday’s individual sprint, cutting the Russian off in the last 300 meters and causing a crash.
The two did not line up for the same legs in the team sprint finals, and Morilov made sure he was well clear off the front for the homestretch.
The narrow course, identical to the two lap individual event of the previous day, was fast and icy after temperatures dropped overnight, and remained cool throughout the day.
This made for fast and furious racing, with the flat terrain leaving little opportunity for rest.
The semifinals featured one major crash, with four teams going down—for the first time in two days of racing there were skiers with plenty of room to move, if only because the pack had left them behind.
Only Germany II was unable to get back in contact, and subsequent incidents were less significant, involving tight corners and vigorous jostling for position.
Petukhov took the Russians out fast in the finals, the one place safe from any contact. The pace was fast from the start, but tended to drop on the tighter corners and through the second 650-meter lap.
Any respite was short-lived, however. After the tag, the field accelerated hard in order to gain position heading into the first corner.
The transition zone was the crux of the race—a smooth exchange could catapult a team into the lead, while even a small misstep would relegate a skier to the back of the pack.
The wide stretch immediately following the tag provided room to pass, and as any good ski fan knows, hell hath no fury like a sprinter with an opening.
The pattern repeated throughout the race—hard attack from the tag, a dropped pace as the round progressed—at least until the final two legs.
Halfway through the race, Norway skied two abreast, controlling the race. If this were an individual sprint or the conclusion of the distance race, they would have been sitting pretty.
But the transition eliminated any surety.
Morilov came out of the fourth tag with purpose, ducking into third behind Norwegians Eirik Brandsdal and Tomas Northug as the race headed out to the far part of the course.
A loud roar greeted the pack as the skiers swung back into the stadium area, Hometown favorite Federico Pellegrino had slipped into the lead, and set the pace down the homestretch.
The glory was shortlived, however, as Russia began to take control of the race.
The pace continued to increase, and a number of skiers began to show the strain. When Petukhov took over for his final leg, he kept the pressure on, even opening a gap on the gradual grade up to the lap.
Gloeersen managed to get back on, but was in no position to make a move of his own.
Morilov took over for the final lap, with an inconsequential lead time-wise, but with the pack beginning to string out behind, the competition was thinning.
The last kilometer would not be a race of pure speed—the man with the most left in the legs to best endure two and a half more minutes of effort would be the victor.
Morilov remained in command with Peterson behind.
Through the final lap, Scola brought forth another bout of bell ringing and shouting from the home crowd when he cleared into third.
Brandsdal fought valiantly, but Saturday’s winner could not close the gap.
The podium, if not the exact ranking on it, was decided even before the race hit the homestretch.
Morilov easily held his lead, and Scula could not overtake Peterson.
“I pushed hard in front and nobody could attack me on the final straight” Morilov summed up his race succinctly.
Petukhov currently leads the Sprint Cup and has been exceptionally strong in skating, despite some bad luck.
The pair teamed up at the Vancouver Olympics to win bronze, though on Sunday, the two teams that bettered them were not present.
The Italian crowd could not get enough of the charismatic Scola, who wore a clown-like hat in the Italian colors to the podium ceremony after skiing a victory lap with Hofer in front of the appreciative throngs.
“It was a fantastic race,” Hofer said afterward. “I was never on the podium in an Italian city before.”
Norway I settled for a relatively distant fourth, well back of the final run for the finish, while Northug died hard in the last 500 meters, dropping Norway II abck to 8th.
World Cup racing continues next weekend in Oteppaa, Estonia with an all-classic weekend. Saturday features an individual sprint, and Sunday a 15km individual start.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.