Being No. 1 isn’t always best, at least that’s how Petter Northug and his coach felt Sunday in Oberhof, Germany.
The Norwegian constantly vying to be on top secured his wish the day before, winning Saturday’s skate prologue, the first stage of the Tour de Ski. Given the red leader’s bib for Sunday’s 15-kilometer classic pursuit, Northug became the hunted.
Sometimes that kind of pressure works wonders. Other times, it can swallow you whole. Despite getting overtaken by the 3 k mark by a charge led by Russia’s Alexander Legkov, Northug hung on to the front group and pulled off third at the finish. It wasn’t what Northug or his national-team coach, Trond Nystad, had envisioned, but it wasn’t the worst thing, either.
“Today is the one race, nothing more,” Nystad told NRK. “It’s about making great effort, it is a long Tour. It is not always an advantage to win.”
Russian winner Maxim Vylegzhanin (who finished in 39:47) and Legkov (+0.1) in second saw it differently as they celebrated atop the podium. The two had successfully bested Northug from nearly start to the finish, passing him within the first few kilometers and leading through the end.
Vylegzhanin and Legkov worked with teammate Ilia Chernousov, who started fifth and eventually placed sixth (+20.5), holding off competitors like Canadian Alex Harvey and Dario Cologna of Switzerland.
“It was good to ski in front with Legkov and Chernousov, but it was not planned and we did not apply any tactics,” Vylegzhanin said at a press conference. “In the last lap Alexander Legkov was pushing hard and I followed him. In the finishing stretch I had a bit more power. It feels great to be in the lead of the Tour.”
While Vylegzhanin and Legkov picked up the pace on the final lap, Chernousov fell behind, and Harvey, who had been skiing around third or fourth, tried to go with them. With 150 meters to go, the Russians double poled ferociously to the finish. Meanwhile, Northug and Cologna battled behind Harvey, passing him in the final stretch to finish third (+6.5) and fourth (+6.7), respectively, while Harvey settled for fifth (+7.7).
After starting nearly 27 seconds back from Northug, the 30-year-old Vlegzhanin edged Legkov by a fraction of a second for his first World Cup stage win. He placed 22nd in the same pursuit last year, where Legkov was fourth behind German winner Axel Teichmann, who did not start Sunday.
While the Russians generally took turns leading, it was Legkov who appeared to be orchestrating the charge. Often, the 29-year-old jolted ahead, glancing back and at least once standing up completely to let his teammates catch up. Harvey said he was content skiing behind them and ahead of Cologna and Northug, who seemed to be struggling with their skis.
“When we caught Northug, I expected the pace to die a little bit, but then the Russians started going crazy,” Harvey said on the phone. “So then I was like, ‘Man maybe we’re gonna keep our gap.’ Usually the guys are bunched up together in the middle of the second lap, but today they decided that they were gonna keep charging.”
With a total of five laps, all seven guys hung on, including Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, who climbed up from 29th. Heikkinen finished seventh despite tripping on a lane change around 10 k and nearly taking out Harvey. According to Harvey, Heikkinen was issued a written warning and apologized to him at the finish.
“I was kind of weirded out because I was riding in my track and he kind of came on me. It was close,” Harvey said. “Then he came back with us then he kind of blew up a bit later. If I fell, that might’ve been me so I was lucky to stay on my skis.”
Harvey also kept his distance from the Russian ahead of him in the soft and sugary snow. He prepared for a crash by allowing them space at the top of the hills then made up time on the downhill corners.
“The Russians, they go so hard on the hills, their legs are pretty shaky,” Harvey said with a laugh. “They’re not the best downhillers. If you can stay away from Legkov on the downhill, it’s probably a good thing.”
For a majority of the race, Northug and Cologna switched positions near the back, hovering between fifth and seventh. Occasionally, one moved toward the front, but given the Russians’ relentless attack, neither made significant ground. Coming into the stadium for the last time, it came down to a sprint between Northug and Cologna, which the Norwegian won. Despite the mutual hard effort, both seemed to let up at the finish, acknowledging that it didn’t matter whether they finished third or fourth.
While Northug wasn’t OK with losing to two Russians, he followed his plan of sticking with them and the lead group through the finish.
“I figured that there would be war and the Russians came quickly at the end,” Northug told NRK. “I didn’t mean much to win today. Had it been on a World Championship gold medal, it had probably been a different war.”
As for Cologna, the three-time Tour champion: “He’s where he wants to be,” Northug said.
Personally, Northug, who has yet to win a Tour de Ski, wasn’t exactly happy. He felt heavy in the wet snow and struggled with his poles sinking.
“I really wished I had been a little bit better shape both Saturday and today,” he told Langrenn. “I hope the good feeling that comes after the sprint in Val Müstair [Switzerland on Tuesday], and hopefully I get my best days late.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.