The collective cross country skiing media might be forgiven for their collective astonishment when Petter Northug (NOR) proclaimed to the NRK on Sunday that “I don’t like mass starts.”
Northug, the master tactician, the sit-and-kick specialist, had uttered heresy. But then, Northug has never been one to quietly utter a few humble words and leave the press to form a story out of stock soundbites.
On Sunday in Lahti, Finland, Petter Northug took his second individual victory of the season, this time in the classic discipline, winning in a time of 34:35.6. The margin back to second place finisher Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ) was a yawning 31.7 seconds, and to countryman Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) 35.1 seconds.
This victory had echoes of his storming World Championship run. Northug led from the first split to the last, passing through the first checkpoint at 3.4 kilometers in 8:22.6, a commanding 11.7 seconds ahead of Calle Halfvarsson (SWE). Halfvarsson would fade to 10th place while Northug would keep widening his margin.
“I was hungry again today and really wanted to fight for a good place,” Northug told NRK.no. “I had a good feeling and great skis.”
Northug’s performances can be hard to predict. He can appear disinterested, or careless, and let himself drift to the back of a pack and out of contention.
Northug was motivated on Sunday in part by his blunder in Saturday’s skate sprint.
“I also had good feelings in Saturday’s sprint, but I made a tactical error,” he said.
His motivation feverish, Northug simply skied away from everyone by the second checkpoint, opening up a comfortable 20.8 second margin ahead of a resurgent Lukas Bauer (CZE).
Classic, if anything, has always been Northug’s weakness, especially the short, steep hills featured in venues like Kuusamo and Lahti.
“I have never had great technique in classic before,” Northug told NTB. “I have worked a lot with my classic technique, especially in steep uphills which there are many of here. It’s good to know that I have been paid for good work. It was a career best.”
With the emergence of a new classic proficiency and success in individual start competitions, Northug’s opinions on competitions has reversed.
“I don’t like mass starts,” he told NRK.no with a cheeky smile. “All you do is wait for the last 200 meters. This (individual starts) is true cross country skiing, where you race alone.”
The victory added another 100 points to Northug’s World Cup Overall ledger. He now sits in third place in the overall standings with 1050 points, 16 points behind Russian Alexander Legkov. But Northug doesn’t have his sights set on the Russian; he’s gunning for the absent World Cup leader Dario Cologna (SUI), whom only has 123 more points.
“I had sort of given up when he (Cologna) took so many points in Davos,” said Northug. “Now I think the Swiss goat is starting to shake in his boxers.”
Cologna won’t attend Wednesday’s competition in Drammen, which opens the door for Northug to make headway in his quest for the overall title.
“It’s really even,” Northug told NTB. “I am ready to load my powder and take many points in Norway. I’m looking forward to skiing at home after World Championships, both in Drammen and Holmenkollen. I hope there’s a huge party during the 50 k in Oslo.”
Behind Northug, Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ) improved upon his bronze medal performance in the 50 k at World Championships with a second place finish in Lahti.
Poltoranin passed the first checkpoint down in sixth position, but the marker was more an indication of pacing than fatigue, as he steadily improved and passed the second and third checkpoints in third place, to eventually finish second in a time of 35:07.3.
Initially it appeared Lucas Bauer was on course for his first podium of the season as he passed the second checkpoint with the second best time, but as the race progressed his speed slackened and he ended up in fourth in a time of 35:18.6, 43 seconds off the time of Northug.
Northug’s performance aside, Martin Johnsrud Sundby had arguably the most impressive performance of the day. The Norwegian was a surprise third place after spending 11 days in the sick bed.
“I finally began to move around Tuesday after eleven days of sickness,” Sundby told NRK.no. “I was totally out of it. I came here to get a good workout before Holmenkollen next weekend, so I surprised myself.”
Sundby started his race in earnest, posting the fifth-fastest split after the first checkpoint. By the time Sundby passed the 13.4 k checkpoint, he had produced the second-fastest time and had a few seconds in hand over the classic specialist Poltoranin.
“When I saw that Poltoranin was just a few seconds behind me at the 13.4 kilometer mark, I hoped that we would become tired,” Sundby said. “But he had an insane finish, so I’m very satisfied with third place.”
Sundby’s performance was a reminder of what could have been in Val di Fiemme, where sickness prevented him from taking part in the full program.
“Let’s not talk about that,” Sundby said when prompted. “I have long since forgotten about that. I become depressed when I think about that. I secured a silver medal and I have to be happy with that.”
That disappointment behind him, Sundby, like Northug, is looking forward to Holmenkollen next weekend.
“I go to fight for the podium in the 50 k skate race. My body is working very well. I look forward to the party,” Sundby said.