The Flying Kazakh, Alexy Poltaranin overcame Tour-induced fatigue and a men’s field clawing for every second to post a convincing win in the 5-kilometer classic prologue in Toblach, Italy.
Poltaranin posted a time of 12:37.9, exactly eight seconds ahead of Petter Northug (NOR), who entered the day leading the overall Tour standings.
Northug’s chief rival, Dario Cologna (SUI) was third, just .2 seconds out of second. With 15 bonus seconds awarded for first, 10 for second, and 5 for third, those .2 cost Cologna a bit more.
He is now 16.1 behind Northug in the overall, with Alexander Legkov (RUS) in 3rd, +23.4.
On a tricky waxing day on the gradual hills of Toblach, most of the men looked fatigued racing for the 5th time in seven days, and less than 24 hours after completing the 35k pursuit form Cortina to Toblach.
“After yesterday’s race I didn’t sleep well but the feeling was good today,” Poltaranin said after the race.
He is already looking ahead to Saturday’s mass start classic, and hopes to continue climbing the standings.
“Five kilometer or fifteen kilometer are good for me as long as the competition is in classic,” he said.
Poltaranin is in 6th overall, just one second behind Czech Lukas Bauer.
Northug, looking to build a lead headed into the Final Climb, managed to add some seconds, but will need to do more in the mass start if he has a chance at victory.
“It cost a lot today. I had to chase, chase, chase all the way. I was right under my max limit,” Northug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
As the leader headed into the race, Northug started last and thus received splits on course. He accelerated in the later part of the competition, moving up in the final kilometers.
Following the race he said his performance means he won’t have to contest for sprint bonuses early in the mass start, though he will work to be in position to respond to attacks by others.
Northug leads the Tour sprint standings by 23 seconds over teammate Finn Haagen Krough.
Historically Northug has performed well in the Tour mass start in Val di Fiemme, but he will be hard pressed to get enough time to have a realistic shot at winning the entire event.
He calls Alexander Legkov “the big favorite,” and said the Russian “knows that if he does not make mistakes in the morning, he wins the Tour de Ski.”
Legkov is third in the overall, +23 seconds after placing fifth in the prologue.
This may be selling Cologna short. Last year Legkov sat in third entering the Val di Fiemme mass start, but imploded in spectacular fashion in part due to ski issues, dragging to 27th in the race, and eliminating any hope of a podium finish.
He bounced back to win the Final Climb and place 5th in the overall Tour.
Legkov put over a minute on Cologna in the Climb, but with the Swiss skier securing victory on the first part of the hill, he was not pushed to the line.
Some drama has emerged with Cologna telling NRK and other journalists he is sick following the completion of the prologue.
Swiss head coach Guri Hetland says that Cologna is merely playing games with his rival Northug, answering the question of his health as the Norwegian walked by.
Hetland also noted that Cologna is routinely afflicted by a post-race cough, and that there is nothing to be concerned about.
“Dario attempted a bluff. He is not sick at all. He’s fit as a fiddle and will be tomorrow,” Hetland told NRK.