At the beginning of today’s 35 k freestyle pursuit from Cortina to Toblach, Italy, three men were separated by less than ten seconds atop the Tour de Ski standings: Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia, Dario Cologna of Switzerland, and Petter Northug of Norway.
The three quickly joined together, but within a matter of a few kilometers, their group had almost doubled in size. With the pursuit format the winner of the race would take over leadership of the Tour, and all of a sudden, as the men left Cortina, the possibilities seemed to have grown.
Starting from 27 and 28 seconds back, Alex Harvey of Canada and Alexander Legkov of Russia had worked their way into the mix. The five men skied fast but easily towards the top of the 350-meter climb that separates the two Italian towns, with Cologna doing the bulk of the work.
In terms of rankings, it was a situation almost identical to last year’s Tour pursuit on this same course: Cologna had started with a 13-second lead on Northug, with a large gap back to Legkov, Devon Kershaw of Canada, and Vylegzhanin. Harvey now skied in the place of Kershaw, but the faces were all the same.
And in this pursuit last season, Cologna had cultivated that initial small lead into a 1:20 advantage by the end, turning the Tour de Ski into a tour de force and never giving up his lead for the rest of the race.
Today, it was clear it wouldn’t be so easy. Northug, for one, is in much better form for this year’s Tour – and has the advantage now of having done it once before, so he knows what he’s up against.
“It was hard, but it was much harder here last year,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I didn’t flow very well for the first five kilometers, but after that it got better and things went quite well.”
Constantly leading was clearly not a situation Cologna was happy with: by the seven kilometer mark, for instance, he was pulling over to the side of the trail and waving his arms, motioning for one of the other men to take over. Vylegzhanin did, for a while; but soon it was back to Cologna at the front. Northug would lead occasionally, but never for more than a few hundred meters.
Of course, that’s not how Northug saw things.
“I tried to help all the way,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “When I took the lead it was easier to pick up the rest of the group, and it didn’t cost me anything.”
With Marcus Hellner of Sweden and Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic having made up a third of their 1:35 gap in the first few kilometers, Cologna evidently felt that he couldn’t sit back and allow the lead group to linger too long playing games. Again and again, he found himself at the front, driving the pace.
Northug reported that the men tried to work together to avoid being caught, but it was difficult to communicate about how big the gap was.
“There were a lot of languages,” he said. “The Russians were getting some seconds back in Russian, but I didn’t get much information even though I tried to ask them. Then Dario got some seconds back information, and I learned that it was a minute.”
As the group neared the top of the 15-kilometer climb, the repeated accelerations as Northug took the lead and then gave it up proved too much for one member of the group: Harvey. Several times, he let the pack go and then caught back up when they decelerated. But eventually, he was broken and literally shut things down, double poling in the classic tracks on the side of the trail.
While it looked like Harvey had hit a wall, he was simply playing smart: knowing that he had no chance of catching the first four, and that skiing alone was a waste of energy, he took a rest until Hellner, Bauer, and Ilia Chernousov caught him, and then embedded into their chase group. At that point the gap was about 1:35, and it stayed that way until the finish, when Chernousov beat Harvey in a sprint for fifth.
But at the front, the leaders were embarking on a well-earned downhill. Passing between the ragged peaks of Geierwand, Durrenstein, and Birkenkofel – the trail even went through a long tunnel beneath the mountains at one point – the skiers were nonetheless unable to fully enjoy views of Tre Scarpari, or “three scars”, just to the east.
Instead, they were focused on tactics and gamesmanship. The downhill was fast and nobody could get a gap, but the lead kept shifting between Cologna, Legkov, and Northug. Vylegzhanin was never dropped, but was visibly fatigued and rarely took his turns at the front. Although it would have been a great time to try to spring him loose, fourth place in the draft of three skiers on a downhill is a pretty safe place to be in a ski race, and the Russian, wearing the bib of the Tour leader, was pulled along.
“We worked together well in the lead and got a good break on the second group,” Cologna told NRK. “I hope that it is one of us four who is the winner in the end.”
As the kilometers ticked past, Cologna and Legkov doubtless began to worry not about the man currently wearing that leader’s bib, but who would have it at the end of the day. One figure loomed over the group, and that was Northug. Nobody in the pack was a slouch when it comes to finishing sprints, but Northug has bested all of them repeatedly.
And yet Cologna and the Russians were unable, or unwilling, to take the risk of a big push in the pace to shake the Norwegian. As they entered the stadium – not to finish, but to head out on a several-kilometer loop before the end – Northug was sitting in fourth, just coasting along. He looked all around, assessing the layout of the finish, and ominously kneaded his quadriceps with his fists, getting his legs ready for a big effort.
“I was just saving gunpowder for the end,” Northug later smirked to NRK.
That should have been a signal to the others that they had better scram, now, if they wanted to avoid getting schooled by the Norwegian in the last hundred meters. But instead the pack slowed down. Northug moved to the front and commanded the pace, almost daring someone to go ahead and pass him, but nobody did.
And so, on the last small hill before the finish, he took off, the Russians in pursuit and Cologna stuck behind them; things didn’t look up for the Swiss defending champion as they rounded the last several corners. Northug was untouchable, taking a 0.7-second win over Legkov, while Cologna was able to surge past the tired Vylegzhanin to claim third just 0.2 seconds back.
“I should have beaten Legkov by more with a pickup like that,” Northug said, noting that he didn’t feel quite 100 percent. “There should have been a little more to go on.”
One the bonus seconds were tallied – 15 for the win, ten for second place, and five for third – Northug had a slightly greater advantage at the top of the rankings: 5.7 seconds over Legkov, 10.9 over Cologna, and 16.6 over Vylegzhanin. Chernousov, Harvey, Hellner, and Bauer are roughly 1:40 behind Northug.
Tomorrow’s stage, a 5 k classic prologue in Toblach, doesn’t faze Northug, who is sure it is an opportunity to extend his lead going into Saturday’s 15 k classic mass start.
Finn Hagen Krogh of Norway and Curdin Perl of Switzerland were the first skiers from a large chase pack to cross the line, finishing ninth and tenth, +1:46.
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.