Petter Northug couldn’t stand to see it happen again. For the past two days, he had finished second to Russians – first Nikita Kriukov in the classic sprint, then Alexander Legkov in the 10-kilometer individual skate. Both times, the Norwegian favorite knew exactly what was on the line and sprinted hard to cross it.
Both times, he lost.
That must’ve been one of the only things on Northug’s mind Sunday in the 15 k classic pursuit, which he started with a 40-second lead.
Within the first kilometer, he had extended it to nearly 50 seconds over Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, who started second. Legkov went out of the gate third, 53 seconds after Northug, and led the quickly formed chase group around 2.5 k.
At that point, nearly 15 men strung together to form an attack, but they didn’t make up much ground until nearly 9 k. With six kilometers (two laps) to go by the 10 k mark, Northug visibly picked up his tempo. Thirty-six seconds wasn’t quite enough time between him and the others, and if he lost it, he could drop from first to near 20th. That would be worse than placing second to a Russian again.
Northug’s lead dwindled to 25 seconds by 11.4 k, and halfway through the last lap, it was down to 12.8 seconds. Poltoranin forged ahead with the last-ditch attack, and Northug responded with his characteristic double pole. He looked around once, and that was enough.
“I felt like I had robbed 50,000 euros in a suitcase and that I had 100,000 police after me,” he told NRK. He could amass nearly that much if he won Sunday.
Charging hardest up the last hill, Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia whisked by Poltoranin as well as Dario Cologna, who had moved up considerably after starting 1:12 back. Vylegzhanin nearly caught Northug at the crest, and in a classic game of cat and mouse, Northug got away on the downhill. After skiing humbly in the pack until the last lap, Vylegzhanin came close again around the final curve into the stadium.
Yet on the last day of the Ruka Triple mini tour, it was Northug who was fastest. He forged ahead in the final sprint, beating Vylegzhanin by 1.4 seconds in 41:38.3. Poltoranin was third (+3.4) and Cologna placed fourth (+7.8).
“This is one of the toughest I’ve experienced,” Northug told TV2.no, according to a translation. “I don’t think I’ve ever fought so hard for a win before.”
Knowing how difficult it would be to ski alone for six laps, he aimed to find his own pace for the first four.
“I knew the group behind me would speed up,” he told FIS reporters. “I was preparing myself for the finish. I had little bit left for the last 150 meters.”
Not much, though. In the finish area, a Norwegian coach had to lift the collapsed Northug off the ground.
“I worked myself mentally on the last lap,” Northug said to NRK . “I was so tired. It was just painful.”
The race tested all the top contenders, including Vylegzhanin, who notched his seventh World Cup podium after hanging behind teammates Dmitriy Japarov and Legkov for much of the race. Japarov and Poltoranin combined to share most of the load up front, and when Japarov fell around 12.5 k, Legkov looked to be Russia’s best chance.
“After three days of competition it was very tough for me today,” Vylegzhanin told FIS. “I did everything that I could. I found a good place in the chasing group. I am very happy about the podium. I hope I will carry on the shape to the Tour de Ski and World Ski Championships.”
After falling behind Vylegzhanin in the final stretch, Poltoranin said he was spent.
“After the sprint on Friday I was very tired,” Poltoranin said of his fifth-place result. Then, he placed 15th in Saturday’s 10 k skate.
“The free technique competition was not good for me,” he added. “However, today I felt very good. I had fast skis also [and] I prefer classical technique.”
Northug took the overall World Cup lead ahead of Poltoranin. Rounding out the top 10 in Sunday’s pursuit and Ruka Triple standings, Russia’s Ilia Chernousov placed fifth (+21.1), Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) was sixth (+22.4), Legkov finished seventh (+24.5), and Japarov was eighth (+24.6). Emil Joensson (SWE) placed ninth and Evgeniy Belov (RUS) took 10th.
Just 30 seconds separated the top nine, and the top 15 finished within 45 seconds of Northug.
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.