After years of advertising the Tour de Ski as an exciting race that would come down to who could suffer the most on a terrifying final climb up a mountain, race organizers finally got their wish on Sunday when the top four men started the seventh and final stage within 16 seconds of each other.
Dario Cologna, three-time Tour champion, was first, followed by Alexander Legkov or Russia, Petter Northug of Norway, and Maxim Vylegzhanin, also of Russia.
Each had a compelling story, and a deep-seated desire to win the Tour. After a couple hundred meters, they had formed a tight pack, each one content to cruise through the initial rolling section and wait until the climb and try their luck at going for the win.
First there was Cologna, who led for much of the first section as he has in several pursuits so far this Tour. The Swiss skier had previously won three Tour de Ski titles, in 2009, 2011, and 2012. For that whole period, the Tour has been the centerpiece of strong season after strong season. All three years that he won the Tour, he also won the overall World Cup. That’s a string of success that he wanted to continue.
Then, there was Legkov. A many-time World Cup podium finisher, he was second in the very first edition of the Tour de Ski back in 2007, but hasn’t been able to match that performance since. He’s also been locked out of an individual medal at both the Olympics and World Championships. To seal his place in the history books, he needed to win one of the biggest competitions.
Northug has no such need – he’s definitely one of the best around, with Olympic and World Championships medals galore. In fact, Northug has sometimes seemed bored with skiing. As such, he has set his sights on new titles in the last few years: in 2012 he wanted to conquer the Vasaloppet, but failed. His inability to win the Tour de Ski has been an enduring frustration, and he hoped this year – as he had last year – to add the stage race to his list of conquests.
Finally, Vylegzhanin. He had also been on the World Cup podium for years, but in the biggest races, he has been tormented by Northug’s sprint finish. In the 50 k at 2009 World Championships and both the 30 k and 50 k at 2011 World Championships, he finished second behind Northug, quicker than everyone else at the end but not quick enough to win.
So the four, who know each other well at this point, set off and began the steep sections of the climb together. After not too long, Legkov made a move – and immediately, nobody was able to follow.
“I couldn’t hold his pace and knew that I needed to focus on getting second place,” Cologna told FIS after the race. “It is important to find your own pace and not go too fast on the first climb.”
It’s not entirely surprising that Legkov could drop his competitors: he had the fastest time on last year’s climb, much faster than Cologna.
“It was as many predicted – when Legkov went, I knew he was going to win,” Northug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
But Cologna was unchallenged last year, and it remained to be seen what he could do when he actually had to compete.
So as Legkov left them behind, it became a fight for the podium – one which Northug quickly lost, also not entirely surprising giving his implosion here last year and his struggles in yesterday’s classic race.
“I had imagined it would be like that,” Northug told NRK. “I didn’t have the same gear as the others. I should have been ten pounds lighter to get up the hill…. I tried to go with them, but eventually chose my own pace. I hoped to catch up to them further up, but it didn’t work out.”
Northug entered the pain cave, visibly in agony as he tried to adapt his jump-skate technique to the punishing grade, which at times hit 29 percent. He slipped farther and farther back from Cologna and Vylegzhanin.
In the quest for second, those two stayed together for about half the climb. But Vylegzhanin couldn’t hold on and Cologna, who had conquered the Alpe Cermis so successfully so many times before, slowly pulled away in the final 1000 meters.
Amazingly, as Legkov crested the steepest part of the climb and hit the plateau at the top, he broke into a smooth, seemingly easy V2 – as if he had not just climbed a mountain. Although his competition had been fairly confident that he would blow them away, Legkov said he was somewhat surprised.
“I have not practiced climbing hills this big,” he told FIS. “But in summer time rollerskiing and on snow I know that I am a strong climber.”
At the finish, Legkov was 19 seconds ahead of Cologna, who had in turn put 22 seconds into Vylegzhanin. For Legkov – the first Russian ever, man or woman, to win the Tour – it was a big moment.
“This is a great day for me,” he told the press in broken English. “It’s the biggest win of my career.”
It was a good day for his Russian teammate, too, who hoped he continue his run of good results for the rest of the season.
“I am happy for the third place,” he told FIS. “I just wanted to get on the podium. I knew Legkov was strong and wanted to win and also that Dario would be tough to beat. Today I managed to be on the podium, so why not at the World Championships?”
As for Northug, he only narrowly avoided being caught by Marcus Hellner of Sweden, who had started over a minute back and ended up turning in the fastest time of the day. Yet again, the Tour de Ski has eluded him.
“It’s not what I was hoping for,” he told NRK.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.