After a two month hiatus from World Cup racing, Johan Olsson (SWE) demonstrated a complete return to form, pushing the pace from the get-go in the 30km classic mass start in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, before countering a vicious attack from Dario Cologna (SUI), and riding fast skis to victory.
Olsson couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2012 season. At the opening 15km skate in Sjusjoen, Norway, he skied to a convincing 30-second victory over Petter Northug (NOR). He followed up with a 5th place finish in the Kuusamo mini-tour and was on track to better his 2009 season in which he placed 14th in the overall standings while winning his first World Cup race.
Following the final race in Kuusamo, however, Olsson didn’t even toe the start line on the World Cup for another two months, battling a series of upper respiratory illnesses, including bronchitis.
“I had some tough weeks this winter, but my seasons are usually like that,” Olsson said, explaining that he is very sensitive to cold temperatures.
After a strong result in a Scandinavian Cup race in mid-January, Olsson earned a start in Oteppa, Estonia, placing seventh. He continued to ski well at the Swedish National Championships, twice placing second to teammate Marcus Hellner, and after taking no chances in frigid Rybinsk, Russia last weekend, Olsson was back in action today.
The sporadic racing and long-running battle with illness did not dampen the Swede’s aggression on the trail.
He led the race from the gun, and was never out of the top-5. Hellner and Anders Soedergren threw their hat in the ring at various points in the race as well, giving the Swedes a strong presence throughout the six-lap affair.
With five intermediate bonus sprints, the intensity remained high, and with each successive lap the lead pack shrunk by several more skiers.
Despite the challenges for bonus points, the real excitement didn’t begin until 10k remained in the race—not bad for a men’s mass start race where most events can be fast-forward to the final sprint.
At the 20k mark Soedergren held the lead ahead of Alekander Legkov (RUS) with Hellner and Olsson in 3rd and 4th respectively. This was at the bottom of the large climb up to the bonus, and Devon Kershaw (CAN) worked up to take the top spot through the line in his quest for points.
Cologna, the overall World Cup leader spent the first two thirds of the race comfortably ensconced in the middle of the pack. He made no effort for bonus points, missing out entirely the first time, and picking up a single point the next two times through.
The Swiss star, however, was not off his game, he was merely biding his time, eyes set on the race victory.
He quietly worked his way up toward the front, and on the second large climb of the lap, when Olsson accelerated, Cologna was in position to follow.
The pack was caught unawares, and the pair immediately had 10 meters. Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) and local hero Lukas Bauer (CZE) tried to respond, opening a gap of their own on the main group.
“We created a small gap and I thought it would be a good chance to go away,” Cologna said.
With over five kilometers left in the race, the move was risky. Sustained breaks are not as fickle in cross-country as in cycling, but pulling away so early rarely leads to success.
Cologna was committed however, and after Olsson, riding fast skis, led down the next descent, the Tour de Ski Champion took over, driving a fierce pace.
From that point onward, Olsson had to content himself with riding Cologna’s tails. The two were well matched on the climbs, but even with slower skis, Olsson was hard-pressed to match Cologna’s double pole, resorting to kick significantly earlier in an effort to keep up.
Some meters back, Eldar Roenning (NOR) joined up with Bauer and Vylegzhanin, but the three men were unable to close up. Lapping through the stadium they were six seconds behind the leaders and four up on the pack, and less than a kilometer later they had been absorbed.
Cologna and Olsson blew through the final bonus sprint, stretching the lead to nearly twenty seconds. And one climb later, when the pack failed to make up ground, the margin appeared secure, though on several occasions, both Cologna and Olsson could be seen taking long looks back, watching for any threat.
None would come, but Cologna, despite appearing the stronger, would have no chance to sprint for the win, ultimately undone by his skis.
Olsson moved into the lead on the final descent in the stadium, and cruised out to a 20 meter lead.
Cologna attacked valiantly on the small rise before the homestretch, closing slightly, but that effort was erased on the next drop, and Olsson doubled poled home for his third career win.
The Swede gave credit where credit was due, pointing to his skis as the key to victory.
“I have had some good races lately with Otepää and Swedish Championships,” he said. “I think my shape is rising, but today the biggest difference was my skis.”
He added that after the performance, he “might switch to downhill skiing.”
Cologna said after the race that he had been planning an attack at some point, and that he is feeling in top form.
Despite missing the win, he is now almost 400 points ahead of Northug in the overall. With the Norwegian planning on skipping the next several World Cups to prepare for the Vasaloppet, it would take a serious injury or illness to prevent Cologna from defending his overall title.
Northug placed 14th today and did not earn a single bonus second. Kershaw, who placed 12th, accrued the largest number of bonus point. His 50 points are equivalent to an additional fourth place finish.
Sixteen seconds after Olsson celebrated across the line Vylegzhanin led a charge of Russians at the front of the pack, to claim the final podium spot.
He was closely followed by Konstantin Glavatskikh and Stanislav Volzhentsez in fourth and fifth respectively.
– With Ilia Chernousov in eight, the Russians placed four skiers in the top eight.
– With Northug off-form, Niklaus Dyrhaug was the top Norwegian in 6th place. Dyrhaug skied well in the Tour de Ski, and provides a bright spot for the often maligned men’s distance squad.
– Sweden, led by Olsson, placed 1, 9, 11, and 13 with Ricakrdsson, Hellner and Soedergren in the mix.
– Bauer, limited as usual by his sprinting ability, placed 18th on home snow.
– Martin Jaks (CZE) saluted the home crowd, thanking them for their enthusiasm, as he skied home in 29th. Teammate Jiri Magal was 25th.
– 22-year-old Hannes Dotzler (GER) followed up a 16th in the 15k classic in Estonia with a 15th today. Based on his limited World Cup starts, Dotzler appears to be something of a classic specialist.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.