Rybinsk is like Russia’s version of Holmenkollen—perhaps not with quite as many spectators, but its fans were no less enthusiastic about the World Cup this weekend, and turned out in admirable numbers despite the cold to cheer on the national team. On Saturday, Russian skiers fell short of topping the podium in front of the home crowd, but that changed in a big way in the 30 k skiathlon on Sunday. Not only did Russia claim the top two spots, they took four of the top five and nine of the top 12.
Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) delivered victory in Rybinsk, besting teammate Ilia Chernousov by six seconds on the twelve-lap course, and in a photo finish for third, Tobias Angerer (GER) broke up the Russian pack by outsprinting Eugeniy Dementiev (RUS). Petr Sendov (RUS) was 0.6 seconds behind in fifth, adding to Russia’s dominating showing.
“This victory was very important for me because I couldn’t get to the podium in Rybinsk before,” said Vylegzhanin in a press conference following the race.
“Something was always wrong either with skis or my shape. This time everything worked perfectly.”
From the moment the gun went off, Russia pushed the pace. On the second lap, the top ten men were all in blue. In an interview with Skisport.ru after the post-race press conference, Vylegzhanin said that his team definitely used their numbers (15-strong out of 56 competitors) to their advantage, consciously using team tactics to try to break open the race in the classic portion.
Vylegzhanin’s strategy was to wear his competitors down in the classic leg, as he considers it his stronger discipline. There were four intermediate bonuses available on Sunday, at the 6.5, 11.5, 21.4 and 26.5 k marks. At the sprint preem at the 11.6 k mark, Vylegzhanin was in third behind Konstantin Glavatskikh (RUS) and Dmitriy Japarov (RUS), but the pack wasn’t worn out yet, holding at around 30 skiers strong.
In the exchange zone at the halfway point, Vylegzhanin had the lead and the front group had diminished to 19. As Kris Freeman (USA) described afterwards, the beginning of the skiathlon played out much faster than usual with the sprint bonuses, which were an added feature this year.
The pace slowed once the skate leg got underway, and Vylegzhanin hovered in the top 10. The relaxed tempo helped his chances in the end, he told Skisport.ru.
In the first skate preem at 21.4 k, Saturday’s winner Devon Kershaw (CAN) made a break to win 15 extra points, and continued to ski near the front for the rest of the race.
Japarov and Italy’s Roland Clara attempted to break away shortly thereafter, but the pack reeled them back in, and as the group came through the stadium for the second to last time, Sedov set the pace, with four other Russians in the front.
Chernousov made a move to take over on the last uphill before the stadium, but Vylegzhanin reacted, and the two put distance on the rest of the field. Chernousov still led as the stadium came into sight, but Vylegzhanin overtook him on the corner before the final straightaway and won by a six-second margin.
Vylegzhanin said later that he had not particularly expected Chernousov to be the one to make the break at the end, but thought that everyone probably envisioned the last hill to be the spot where someone would try to make their move. With this in mind, he was ready to react to Chernousov’s surge.
Vylegzhanin also told the Skisport.ru reporter that, though he was pleased with his first World Cup win of the season, it would have been more meaningful if so many Red Group skiers hadn’t been absent.
Chernousov described his break as an attempt to repeat a nearly-successful identical move in Saturday’s 15 k, where he was just beat at the line by Kershaw.
“I was really exhausted in the last three laps and tried to relax and use the same tactics as yesterday in the last uphill,” said Chernousov.
Though he missed the top spot, the Russian was satisfied with his second podium in Rybinsk this weekend.
Vylegzhanin and Chernousov put a comfortable gap on the rest of the field, but Angerer fought Demetiev for third, the only non-Russian in the top five. Demetiev’s fourth-place finish on Sunday was his first result back on the World Cup since the end of his two-year doping ban.
“I’m happy to be on the podium again,” said Angerer. “Rybinsk becomes a very special place for me, I do not really know what is exactly special… I always feel well here.”
“I tried to push hard and worked in front together with Roland Clara in the free technique part but at the end the Russians were too strong today.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.