Switzerland’s Dario Cologna is so quietly consistent it is hard to believe he had not won a World Cup race this season — always in the mix but just off the top of the podium, until today that is.
Taking a page out of rival Petter Northug’s book, Cologna bided his time in the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon on the Olympic course in Sochi, Russia, before attacking furiously over the top of the lengthy final climb and opening an insurmountable lead.
The overall World Cup leader was followed across the line by a quartet of Russians, with Ilya Chernousov besting teammates Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin in a sprint to the line.
The race played out early on as most men’s mass start races usually do — a large pack jockeying for position with no one willing to risk an attack.
The only oddity was seeing Northug leading early. The Norwegian is usually content to let others do the work, but he made his way to the front on several occasions, though he made no move to push the pace except to challenge for the bonus points at four intermediate sprints.
Cologna must be satisfied with his current set of wheels (the skier with the most xDrive sprint points at the end of the season wins a car) or was focused on the win and less so on total World Cup points.
He has placed in the top-five nine times this season and came frustratingly close to a victory in Friday’s freestyle sprint, losing out to Northug in a tight battle.
On the challenging Sochi courses, slowed by new snow, Cologna played his cards to perfection. He was always near the front, but never pushing.
After the equipment change at 15k, the attrition began, with skiers gradually disappearing off the back.
Four times around a 3.75 k loop meant four times up a grueling climb lasting a solid minute and a half. While the pack compressed somewhat on the descent, each time around a few more found themselves unable to maintain contact.
As the race moved into the final lap, it was Roland Clara who made the first move. The Italian is decidedly not a sprinter and had little hope of prevailing in a head-to-head battle down the homestretch.
Clara accelerated, further breaking down the group. He couldn’t get away, however, and Legkov took over on the first pitches of the big hill.
An excellent climber, Legkov outgunned both Northug and Cologna on the Final Climb in the 2013 Tour de Ski, and while Northug quickly fell out of contention when the pace rose, Cologna would not falter.
With just 30 meters left in the hill, Cologna came by Legkov with a fury, replicating an oft-employed strategy of Northug’s — sprint early and avoid a stadium run.
In Sochi, with a significant descent into the stadium, wrapping up a position in the final 400 meters is challenging. Positioning becomes key and the hairpin at the end of backstretch adds another wrinkle.
The safe thing, therefore, is to get away on the climb, exactly what Cologna attempted.
A gap of almost 20 meters appeared almost instantly, and short of a crash, Cologna was in no danger of losing his spot.
The three Russians came into the homestretch together with Chernousov ultimately gaining the advantage.
Yet another Russian, Evgeniy Belov, fresh off success at the U23 Championships, placed 5th.
Clara came across in 8th, just behind Tobias Angerer (GER) and Jean Mark Gaillard (FRA).
Northug limped across in 12th, 23 seconds back. He expended significant effort fighting for bonus points and may have tried to do too much.
A commentator for Norwegian Broadcaster NRK, Torgeir Bjorn, speculated that Northug was experimenting with different tactics in preparation for the Olympics.
Regardless, the day belonged to Cologna
“I like the last uphill. I skied it already in the sprint [on Friday],” Cologna told FIS news after the race. “I knew I was strong there.”
Both Chernousov and Legkov sung the praises of a Russian team that put six skiers in the top eleven.
“Of course we worked as a team, and not just me and Alexander,” Chernousov said at the post-race press conference. “The whole team worked together and really tried to do its best.”
Chernousov appeared ecstatic on the podium while Legkov was less demonstrative. But he said he was satisfied with third, especially after being sick last week.
– Nikolay Khokhryakov (RUS) placed ninth, a career best for the 28-year-old. He had just seven previous World Cup starts.
– Curdin Perl (SUI) was often at the front early in the race and finished 14th.
– Andrew Musgrave (GBR), who has had a strong season thus far, struggled to 56th.
– The top Swedish skiers were not present.
– Legkov patted Northug on the back after one of the intermediate sprints when the Norwegian doubled over with effort. Northug would not tell Norwegian press what the Russian said.
– Paul Constantin Pepene picked up the first points of the season for Romania — or point to be accurate. Pepene was 30th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.