The finish-line expressions pretty much said it all Friday at the 2014 Olympic cross-country venue in Krasnaya Polyana, about an hour’s drive from Sochi, Russia. Norwegian Petter Northug threw up his arms in celebration before crossing the line first, Dario Cologna of Switzerland had a blank look of dissatisfaction after and Italy’s David Hofer was ecstatic.
For those three, that was about right for their respective 1-2-3 placing in Sochi’s debut nordic World Cup. It didn’t matter how hilly or slow or long the course was (with two massive climbs, heaps of fresh, wet snow and 1.8 kilometers that took close to four minutes to complete), Northug knew how to conquer it.
What was more, he wanted to prove that he could do so on the future Olympic course.
At times it seemed questionable. In the final, the 27-year-old Norwegian favorite dropped as far back as fourth with a sizable gap between him and the three leaders. But Friday’s freestyle sprint was all about tactics on the rollercoaster-like course, and Northug repeatedly chose to turn on the jets as needed.
Just as he did in the semifinal, Northug charged up the last hill in the final, but once again wasn’t the first to the top. Right behind Hofer in first coming into the stadium, Northug outpaced both the 29-year-old Italian and Cologna, who caught the draft in third but was unable to catch his rival.
After qualifying in 16th, Northug finished first, 0.57 seconds ahead of Cologna in second. Hofer was third, 0.81 seconds back, for his first World Cup podium. A great day for him, an affirmation for Northug, and oh-so-close result for Cologna, who won the qualifier by 1.1 seconds.
“In the prologue … the body was not playing on the same team,” Northug told NRK, according to a translation. “But beyond that it really is just easier, and I know I’m starting to have the gear I want. It was a good confirmation.”
Northug won both his quarterfinal and semifinal en route to the victory, edging Russians in each to do so.
In the quarter, he tried to set the pace early, but Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov overruled that and skied ahead. American Andy Newell also gave Northug a run up the last long climb, but in the end, it was Northug that pushed hardest up and over, beating Ustiugov by 0.2 seconds to the finish. Newell was third in the heat, which wasn’t quite fast enough to advance him to the semis.
In Northug’s semifinal, Russian Nikita Kriukov took a line from his teammate’s game plan, putting Northug to the test early. Canada’s Devon Kershaw and Russia’s Ilia Chernousov also got ahead of Northug on the first hill, but the Norwegian was right back in it for the second ascent. Heading down into the stadium in second, he trailed Chernousov by about five to ten meters, but slingshot past him on and held off both Kriukov and Chernousov, respectively, for the win.
In the final, Ustiugov went on to place fourth, 1.26 behind Northug. Kriukov was fifth (+6.92) and Petukhov placed sixth (+13.53).
Beating those Russians on their home turf meant a lot to Northug, who was issued a written reprimand for unsportsmanlike behavior in the quarterfinals.
“It feels great to win here, especially with three Russians in the final,” Northug told FIS after the race. “It was perhaps the toughest sprint course I’ve tried. … For me it is the only opportunity to test the trails here in Sochi. I have to store them in my head before I programmed the conclusion of training in the summer and fall.”
It was also Northug’s fourth individual World Cup victory of the season. He’s currently third in the overall World Cup standings, six points behind Russian Alexander Legkov in second, who skipped the race. Cologna is first with 898 points, 33 ahead of Legkov.
“It was a good day,” Cologna said at a press conference. “I was fast in the qualification and also in the heats. I feel my shape is going up. Second place today is also a good sign for the next year.”
Cologna set the fastest qualifying time on the unusually long course in 3:47.92. Russia swept the next four spots, with Kriukov qualifying in second, Chernousov in third, Mikhail Kuklin in fourth and Ustiugov in fifth. Newell qualified in sixth and Hofer was seventh.
For Hofer, the day got even better. He went on to place second in his quarterfinal to Russian Alexey Petukhov, and advanced in fourth as the lucky loser in the semifinal behind Cologna, Ustiugov and Petukhov, respectively.
At a press conference, Hofer called his first individual podium a “great success.”
“It has given me motivation for further training and hopes,” he said. “I like free technique. At the Olympics sprint is in skating and also 50 km. We will see what the result will be.”
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.