The scene has played out so many times before — Petter Northug (NOR) biding his time in a pack, staying comfortably out of trouble, then throwing down a crushing move, usually on a steep climb and executed with ferocious tempo, to open a gap and set up-for the homestretch.
The script can vary somewhat — the main alternative includes a ridiculous double pole finish to conquer all challengers in the final 100 meters. When Northug is on, while the stage and supporting actors may change, the denouement is usually the same.
The last time Northug lost out in a final sprint to the line? Two yeas ago in La Clusaz, France.
On the first day of the annual Ruka Triple in Kuusamo, Finland, however, Nikita Kriukov (RUS) decided it was time for a rewrite.
On a now familiar classic sprint course, under cold and dark northern skies, Kriukov beat Northug at his own game.
The defending Olympic Champion in this event, the Russian watched as Northug easily advanced out of the both his earlier heats by attacking on the steep and lengthy final hill up to the stadium.
In the quarters, Emil Joensson (SWE) bested the Norwegian, but with the top two advancing, this was of little consequence. Joensson may be one of the few men on the circuit who employs a quicker classic stride than Northug on the steep terrain, and the two met again in the semis.
After tangling with Gleb Retivykh (RUS) on an early downhill corner, Joensson found himself out of the race, and the event was Northug’s to lose. He took the semis with ease, coasting across the line casually looking over his shoulder at the rest of the heat, setting up the final showdown.
Exiting the stadium in last in the final, Northug began making his way to the front on the smaller climb midway through the course. He slipped by teammate Eirik Brandsdal to move into third place behind Kriukov and Dmitry Japarov (RUS).
The two Russians, pushing the pace, had opened up a solid ten meters as they headed across the flat toward the last climb. Northug visibly shifted gears extending into a version of his finish double pole and cut the lead in half by the base of the hill.
He did not pause, and as the terrain necessitated a switch to striding, he sped by. Japarov never had a chance. Halfway up, in an effort to keep pace, he missed several kicks and was instantly out of the running.
Kriukov, however, aware of Northug’s climbing prowess responded. He couldn’t stay right on the Norwegian’s tails, but limited the damage to just a few meters.
The Kuusamo sprint course features a hard 180-degree turn at the back of the stadium, entering the homestretch. This turn tends to compress the field, and Kriukov regained contact through the corner.
Northug still held the edge, but Kriukov’s quill was sharp and he put pen to parchment with authority, looking to scribe an ending both Chekov and Vaelbe would find pleasing.
The pair accelerated to top speed, Kriukov inching up on Northug, but for a moment, appearing too slow and too late to close the gap.
Down to 50 meters, Kriukov found another gear, strongly and smoothly erasing the final meter and powering by. Northug attempted to respond, his body stretching upward and forward at a seemingly impossible angle, his technique losing any semblance of crispness as he tried to eke out just a few more watts.
The effort was in vain and Kriukov had a new final act, relegating Northug to the role of fading aristocracy, at least for one day.
The Russian was elated at the finish, celebrating at a level the seemed disproportionate for the holder of Olympic gold. But Kriukov, despite three times cracking the top-10 in the Sprint Cup, had just two previous World Cup victories, and was not going to miss an opportunity to savor this one.
Back down the course, Japarov was unable to hold off a hard-charging Brandsdal for third. Alexey Poltaranin (KAZ), always a force in early-season races, placed 5th, with Kalle Lasilla (FIN) representing the home team in 6th.
Despite the “loss,” Northug is in strong position in the mini-tour. Primary rivals Dario Cologna (SUI), Alexander Legkov (RUS) and Marcus Hellner (SWE) all failed to qualify for the heats, while sprinters Kriukov and Brandsdal, among others, are withdrawing from the competition to travel to Canada.
At the post-race press-conference, all three men on the podium expressed satisfaction with their respective races.
Kriukov obviously couldn’t have hoped for more, while Brandsdal recognized the two ahead of him were the better skiers on the day.
“The two guys ahead of me were stronger,” Brandsdal said. “I think I got the best out of the day.”
Northug pointed to the bonus seconds earned as the biggest positive, noting that while he felt strong he couldn’t find “the right flow” at the end.
Racing continues on Saturday with a 10km individual start skate race. The mini-tour concludes on Sunday with a 10km classic pursuit.
– All five of Alexey Poltaranin’s World Cup podiums have come in November and December, including two in Kuusamo.
– According to FIS, Kriukov has yet to officially win a World Cup race. All three of his podiums have come in Tour events, which FIS does count as normal World Cup races.
– Russia placed four skiers in the top-12 and Norway had six in the top thirty.
– Sami Jauhojärvi (FIN) a home team favorite, advanced to the semifinals. Strong on the climb, he struggled in the double pole finish and was eliminated. He was third in this race back in 2010, the last time he stood on a World Cup podium.
– Norwegian Oystein Petersen crashed in the quarterfinals and placed 30th. At the airport to fly to Canada in preparation for next weekend’s World Cups, Petersen tweeted, “After a shitty day it is just perfect that the flight to Helsinki departing at 22.35 is delayed by an hour… #myday…”
– Joensson looked in top form, qualifying 1st and winning his quarterfinal. It was hard to see who was at fault in his crash, but it appears Retivkyh may have stepped on the Swede’s ski.