He may have failed in his attempt to win the Tour de Ski, couldn’t hang in the Marcialonga, and on Saturday, never factored into the 30k, placing 14th. But if there is one thing that Petter Northug can be counted on for, it is sprinting at the end of a mass start event.
The men’s 4x10k relay was replete with attacks, counters, epic comebacks, and painful fades, but throughout it all it was hard to imagine any other outcome—Northug biding his time in the pack before throwing down an unmatchable sprint entering the stadium and holding in the homestretch for the victory.
“I was confident that Petter could take the win today,” said Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who skied the third leg. “With Petter at the end we have always a very strong guy.”
And that is exactly what happened. If Northug was orange, had four legs and stripes, someone could write a fine children’s book—“Sprinting is what Petters do best!”
Despite the predictable finish, the race did not lack drama, and the key for Northug is positioning entering the last portion of the race.
Coming of a sub-par race in the 30k, Northug could not be counted on to make up a large gap and still have fuel for the final charge, so when Niklaus Dyrhaug faded at the end of the second leg, bringing the Norwegian team to the halfway mark down 11 seconds, there was hope for the other nations.
But Johnsrud Sundby, who has been quiet this season, wasted no time in closing the gap, and eventually handed off to Northug in the top spot.
The race was full of yo-yos, with skiers slipping off the back of the pack, only to catch back on. Heading into the anchor lap, the lead group was down to five temporarily, and when Italy’s Thomas Morrigl made a gutsy move on the first climb, only Tim Tscharnke (GER) could follow.
But the 10-second gap was short-lived. The race closed back up, and the pace dropped as no one was willing to risk another attack.
The slowing was made evident as chasers Finland, USA, and the Czech Republic knocked over 30 seconds off the leaders in 2.5k near the start of the fourth leg.
Maxim Vylegzhanin, running for Russia I, and one of the few men to best Northug at his own game, outsprinting the Norwegian in the 30k in La Clusaz, France last year, could find no such magic today, taking second, several meters ahead of Marcus Hellner (SWE).
“I’m very happy today,” Vylegzhanin said after the race. “I was believed in our team, and I knew we were strong. It was a tough fight in the finishing straight but Petter Northug is in great shape and he was better.”
While it is usually impossible to know what goes on in the minds of Russian coaches and team leaders, one has to wonder if there was any tension regarding the selection of the relay teams.
Alexander Legkov and Ilia Chernousov were both relegated to the second squad, though Vylegzhanin, Konstantin Glavatskikh, and Stanislav Volzhentsev placed 3-5 in the 30k, and obviously performed well today.
Lead off skier, Dmitriy Japarov did not race on Saturday.
Chernousov was right in the mix in that race however, placing eight, less than two seconds behind his teammates, and while Legkov slipped to 19th, he skied with the leaders for most of the race.
Whether the teams were selected solely based on Saturday, or if the fact that Chernousov and Legkov are part of a non-National Team training group, that is not smiled upon by team officials played a role, ultimately is irrelevant.
Regardless of reasons it certainly appears that Chernousov and Legkov skied with something to prove.
After Alexander Bessmertnykh dropped nearly 40 seconds on the opening leg, and Sergey Turyshev gave up nearly that much again, Legkov took over, posting the fastest leg time and closing the gap by 20 seconds.
Chernousov took over 46 seconds back, but was able to completely close in the first 5k of the anchor leg. The effort clearly cost him, however, and he was unable to respond to Northug’s charge, finishing at the back of the lead group in 7th.
The only skier who was even remotely close to Chernousov by time was Norwegian Finn Haagen Krough, racing for Norway II back in 13th place. Krough’s leg time was still 21 seconds slower than Chernousov’s.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.