Starting 95 bibs back in Saturday’s prologue, the first of seven stages in the Tour de Ski, Petter Northug broke down the task ahead of him. Ski faster than everyone. No problem.
Despite draggy conditions in above-freezing temperatures and a headwind and thick fog to match, the 26-year-old Norwegian did what he needed to do on the 4 k freestyle course, beating Swedish rival Marcus Hellner by 6.1 seconds to win the prologue in 8:28.7 in Oberhof, Germany.
And he didn’t even feel that great, or so he said.
“I did not have the best feeling in the day, so it was good to win and feel that the form is on the way,” Northug told NRK. “The form is going to rise beyond the tour. I still have more to go on than what I showed today.”
At 1.7 k, Northug sat in seventh, four seconds behind Russian Ilia Chernousov, who ended up fifth in the Tour prologue for the second-straight year. It had been Northug’s plan to hold back early, which he told media before the race. Reasoning he wasn’t in top form, Northug said his goal was to focus on technique and conserve for the final stages.
Tour de Ski defending champion, Dario Cologna of Switzerland, told NRK he’d believe it when he saw it.
“He will never be able to take it easy if someone gets ahead of him,” predicted Cologna, who finished fourth, 10.1 seconds behind Northug.
“When Petter says something, newspapers [are] stupid enough to write it,” Cologna said Saturday.
Northug had a whole field ahead of him and successfully outdid all his competitors to claim the red leader’s bib heading into Sunday’s 15 k classic pursuit. He won the same stage last year and went on to finish third in the Tour behind Cologna and Hellner, respectively.
On Saturday, Hellner, who started nearly 15 spots ahead of Northug, was first for some time until the Norwegian crossed the line. Hellner settled for second and considered it a good start.
“I wasn’t sure of my fitness before the Tour, but I am feeling good,” Hellner said at a post-race press conference. “Tomorrow I will try hard, but classic is not my best so I will see how it goes.”
Northug also took Saturday’s result as a positive affirmation, adding that it hardly decided the outcome of the nine-day event.
“I have won just the first stage; nobody will remember it on [the final climb up] Alpe Cermis,” he said. “I am going to take it easy in the first round tomorrow. For sure Dario and others will be strong and will be chasing me. It will be important to find the right spot in the pack.”
After claiming five bonus seconds on Saturday, Northug will start 11.1 seconds ahead of Hellner in the pursuit, and Alexander Legkov of Russia, who was third, will start 17.2 seconds back.
On Saturday, Legkov was 7.2 seconds off Northug’s winning time.
“I felt very good today,” Legkov said at the press conference, adding that the course – not as icy as it was Friday during training – suited him. “I will think about the plan for tomorrow’s pursuit in the evening, but there are many good skiers out there. I have to focus on my skiing tomorrow and find my way out of the pack.”
For Legkov, the podium was his first in a Tour prologue after he finished fifth overall in last year’s event. Canadian Alex Harvey tied his prologue result from last season in sixth and was 11.3 seconds behind Northug and 0.6 behind Chernousov.
“For the same result I feel like it cost me a bit less than last year,” Harvey said of feeling smooth on Saturday. “It could be good moving forward. Nobody wins the Tour today nobody loses the Tour today. It’s just a snapshot of who’s in shape at the moment. It’s just good to know that I’m back where I belong in the top ten and it’s good to have good sensations when I’m going hard.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.