Like the man himself, Dario Cologna (SUI) wins with a certain quietness—no devastating sprint entering the stadium or on the homestretch, ala Petter Northug (NOR), and definitely no theatrics across the line.
Instead Cologna relies on his clearly superior fitness to help wear down the field, pushing the pace at the perfect times, and usually attacking early and convincingly somewhere out on the course.
Despite a sluggish start, Cologna executed a strategically fine performance to capture the men’s 20km skiathlon in Lahti, Finland.
Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) led the chasers across the line, besting Alex Harvey and teammate Sjur Roethe over the last kilometer.
After the race, Cologna said he was not strong in the classic portion, but after switching to skate he started “feeling better and better.”
The overall World Cup leader and Tour de Ski Champion made little effort to contest the intermediate bonus sprints, picking up several points at the back of the top-10 when he happened to be in position.
The pack remained large at the halfway mark—20 skiers, a five second gap and another 15 or so. Cologna was not interested in allowing everyone to hang around however, and pushed the pace at 20k, quickly stringing out the field.
The lead group was down to 11 with smaller chase groups spread out behind. Cologna said he didn’t intend to break away at that point—he merely wanted to pare down the competition, saving a more convincing attack for later in the race.
With just over six kilometers to go, Norwegian Petter Eliassen and Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) moved to the front. Eliassen did the lion’s share of the work pushing the pace. His efforts, however bold, may have been ill-advised.
He still led as the race left the stadium for the final 2.5k loop, but at the start of the climb, Cologna rocketed to the front, attacking “more seriously” this time.
His competitors certainly found nothing amusing about the move, and there was little effort to respond. In a matter of seconds Cologna was 20 meters ahead, looking smooth and controlled as he powered his way up the final hills.
Harvey was the only man to counter Cologna’s charge, but stuck at the back of the 11-man group by the time he had moved to the front, the gap was too large.
In preparing for an untroubled trip down the homestretch, Cologna completely shattered the remnants of the pack.
Eliassen spent from his time at the front slipped quickly back while Sundby, Roethe and Harvey opened their own lead in the race for the final podium spots.
With Sundby setting the pace, and Roethe right behind, the Norwegians had the advantage of numbers.
The Canadian team had arrived in Lahti in the wee hours Friday morning after driving from Seiser Alm, Italy.
They had been training at the Italian mountain resort for 12 days, logging significant volume at an elevation of 1900 meters (6200’).
Harvey said that the training at altitude meant he was missing his top gear.
“Had it been a ten guy group in the finish, I’m not sure if I could have had my usual sprint,” Harvey told FasterSkier. “I was lacking some speed, so it was good for me that the guys around me weren’t the best sprinters.”
Neither Sundby nor Roethe even contests World Cup sprints on a regular basis, but finishing speed would not be the deciding factor.
None of the three had much pop in the final 100 meters, and there was no drama as the line approached. Harvey had slipped ahead of Roethe before the stadium, and the three entered the final hairpin in a line that would remain to the finish.
“This was the most important race for me this year,” said Sundby who has battled illness this year. “I pretended as if it was the World Championships today to be mentally prepared. I wanted to win but I am satisfied with second place.”
Given the training and travel, Harvey said he was “very happy” with his podium result.
He did not go out of his way to fight for bonus seconds, though he did pick up a decent amount on the strength of a second in one of the classic sprints.
At that point in the race he was feeling good, and along with teammate Devon Kershaw was a consistent presence at the front of the pack.
But then came the skating.
“The pace was changing quite a bit,” Harvey said. “There were guys going to the front and going hard for a bit and slowing down and changing a lot.”
While Harvey felt like he could recover between these surges fine, he was missing the speed to hold position.
“I was always at the back of the pack, but luckily enough the pace was hard and the pack was shrinking and shrinking,” Harvey said, noting that any hopes for big bonus seconds was gone.
“I just couldn’t burst,” he said, adding “I was naturally toward the back of the pack all day in skating.”
Entering the race, his plan had been to focus on the final result, and with an inability to accelerate at the intermediate sprints, he did his best to keep in contact and be ready to fight at the end.
Harvey had reduced expectations for this weekend of racing anyway. The Seiser Alm camp focused on generating a “small peak” for the 50k in Oslo and the subsequent World Cup Finals, not to bring top results in Finland.
But despite recognizing that he might not be in his best form, he wasn’t making any concessions on the start line.
“Every time I start a race I know in the back of my mind I can win that race or at least be on the podium,” Harvey said. “I’m never giving up before the start.”
Overall Tight After Cologna
With a 600 point lead in the overall, Cologna has all but locked up the Crystal Globe yet again.
But like today, the fight for position in the overall standings is hotly contested behind the Swiss powerhouse.
Kershaw, on the strength of a 14th place finish and victories in three of four bonus sprints, is rapidly closing on Northug in second.
Harvey moved up to 6th today, passing Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin. He trails another Russian, Alexander Legkov, by 124 points.
The Canadian is gunning for a top-6 on the year, a result that would earn him a crystal medal and a spot on the extended podium in Sweden when the season wraps up.
“Those Russian guys are strong, they are going to be strong in Oslo, they are going to be strong in the World Cup Finals,” Harvey said. “If I can stay in sixth I will be thrilled.”
With distance maven Legkov and Vylegzhanin skipping Sunday’s sprint, and likely the sprint in Drammen, Norway, Harvey will have an opportunity to create a bit of a cushion.
Sundby is now looking ahead to the famed Holmenkollen 50k.
“There will be a big party next weekend. 50 km is always tough but I am prepared for hell,” the Norwegian said.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.