Petter Northug might not let others in on it all the time, but Norway’s favorite son is pretty calculated when it comes to racing.
Friday’s prologue, the second stage of four in the World Cup Finals, was no different. Like everyone else, Northug hadn’t had a chance to preview the men’s shortened 2.5-kilometer course on Friday. There had been a lot of discussion about it the day before: organizers added some length to the already challenging Mörderbacken hill, and athletes wanted a safer descent.
The two parties came to an understanding on Friday morning, removing the top part of the newly redesigned hill, which was altered for 2015 World Championships. Camera crews and organizers had to get out on course to make the changes, keeping competitors off it and essentially in question about how it would ski.
The last of 53 starters, Northug let the men ahead of him test it out and quickly realized that going too hard too soon could lead to disaster. Northug had no way of knowing, but Russian Sergey Ustiugov, who started two minutes ahead of him, teetered over at the top of the infamous hill. The climb for the first half of the race was brutal, and if you didn’t have your legs in check, you might as well pray yourself to the bottom.
“The plan was not to go out too hard in the first kilometer because people tend to pay at the end,” Northug told FIS after the race. “I wanted to carry high speed [in the] downhill into the finish.”
Those were pretty wise words for the 27 year old, who often speaks without a filter. But with the last races of the season deciding whether he’ll be the 2012/2013 World Cup champion, Northug was all business.
Sixth at near the height of the course at 1.2 k, Northug was 4.8 seconds down Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, the leader through that checkpoint. Just when it seemed the World Cup leader had erred in starting too conservatively, Northug hit the jets and soared down into the stadium.
He finished with the fastest time of 5:20.7 minutes, bumping teammate Pål Golberg out of first by 2.1 seconds and another Norwegian Anders Gløersen down to third (+2.9).
After Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson in fourth (+3.4), Norway took six of the top seven. Martin Johnsrud Sundby placed fifth (+4.0), Finn Hågen Krogh was sixth (+5.7) and Eirik Brandsdal was seventh (+6.8).
Sweden’s Marcus Hellner finished eighth (+8.3), Northug’s World Cup overall rival Alexander Legkov of Russia placed ninth (+8.8), and Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan took 10th (+9.2).
Switzerland’s Dario Cologna was 9.8 seconds off Northug’s winning time in 11th to remain in third in the overall World Cup standings. Northug increased his lead to 56 points over Legkov and 69 points ahead of Cologna, and is currently 27.3 seconds ahead of Brandsdal in the mini-tour standings.
But he’s not comfortable yet.
“I do not feel that the lead is big enough to relax,” Northug told NRK, according to a translation. “But it’s clear I have faith in victory. If I [didn’t I’d be] sitting at home on the couch.”
Cologna, however, told reporters he was feeling a little deflated.
“Petter is in good shape, and I’m in too poor shape to close the gap,” he told NRK.
Northug didn’t buy it. If he were the underdog, he’d be saying the same thing.
Last year, Cologna won the coveted Crystal Globe by 750 points over Canadian Devon Kershaw. Northug was third, more than 1,000 points behind Cologna.
The season before that, Cologna beat the Norwegian by 330 points, but in 2010, Northug won the overall title ahead of Lukas Bauer (CZE) and Hellner, respectively. Back then, Cologna was fourth.
“I do not believe anything that he [Cologna] says,” Northug told NRK. “It is only tactical game to take the pressure away from himself.”
Looking ahead to Saturday’s 15 k classic mass start, Northug knows it’ll be important to ski both fast and stay upright on Mörderbacken hill.
“I’ll be on guard and stay away from Legkov and Dario,” Northug told NRK. “I hope to keep the lead until Sunday.”
He is 1:14.6 ahead of Cologna and 1:22.9 up on Legkov in the mini-tour standings. World Cup Finals wrap up Sunday with the women’s 10 k and men’s 15 k freestyle pursuits.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.