Showing strong form as World Cup period I winds down, Russian Nikita Kriukov held off Kazakh Alexey Poltaranin at the line to take the win on a soft and slow course in Asiago, Italy.
Kriukov, who won the freestyle sprint at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, qualified in seventh in today’s classic event, and looked strong throughout the day on a twisting course in the Italian Alps.
He overcame a late move by Poltartanin, who briefly took the lead entering the homestretch, and earned his fourth World Cup victory, all in classic sprints.
Switzerland’s Gianlucca Cologna, the younger brother of injured superstar Dario, made his first World Cup podium appearance in his twelfth start at the highest level.
The loop, which took the men well over four minutes, featured several long gradual climbs, but not enough elevation to deter most of the men from double poling on skate skis.
Just one, Federico Pellegrino, racing for the host nation, kicked on classic gear, albeit with little success. He was never in the running in his quarterfinal, unable to make up enough ground on the steeper climbs.
The Asiago course, a thin ribbon of snow, winding through small sections of woods and open terrain on an Italian golf course, featured stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains. The athletes, of course, had no time to admire the view.
Despite the lack of steeper hills, there was plenty of terrain, and a number of technical corners, including a big sweeping left hander that claimed American Andy Newell in the quarters.
The extended gradual climbs, soft snow and relatively long sprint distance made for a challenging race.
Skiers took different approaches, with some attempting to break off the front early and hold a gap, while others were more content to follow. There was no consistent pattern, with a mix of heats breaking apart and others closely contested.
Kriukov advanced out of his quarter, finishing second to Norwegian classic specialist Eldar Rønning, and ahead of teammate Alexey Petukhov.
Petukhov led early in the heat, and even opened a gap. But Rønning closed up on the most aggressive climb, and took over the lead.
The few hundred meters leading to the homestretch were critical. Consisting of several quick twists on flat terrain, this section proved a game changer in many heats. Positioning and choice of line could alter the race in moments, unusual for such a mellow grade.
Rønning took advantage, and cemented his potion in front, with Kriukov clear behind.
The third quarter was more closely contested, coming down to a photo finish, with third just out of the running. Eventual runner-up Poltaranin was edged by another Russian, Alexander Panzhinskiy, and a strong Ales Razym of the Czech Republic was the unlucky loser.
Cologna demonstrated exceptional double poling power, and a excellent strategy in winning the fourth quarter. The 23-year-old bided his time through the first half of the course before attacking up and over the top of one of the bigger climbs.
The course swung right as the crest approached, and Cologna powered by on the inside, moving from the back up into second behind Emil Jönsson of Sweden.
The defending Sprint Cup champion, Jønnson has been off to a slow start, struggling last week in Davos, Switzerland. He was back in form today, however, posting the second fastest qualifying time. He led the heat early, pushing hard, but still rounding into race shape, was unable to hold his lead.
After the long sweeping downhill, Cologna moved again on the steepest hill, moving by the Swede, and quickly opening a significant lead. As the pitch increased, Cologna pulled away further, leaving Jönsson at the front of the chasers.
Despite a gap of more than 15 meters, the race was not over. On the flatter sections, Jønsson came back, and when he caught Cologna in the homestretch, the Swiss skier let up, unthreatened by anyone else, and choosing to conserve energy for the later rounds.
Kriukov matched up with Poltaranin, Rønning and top qualifier, Norwegian Ole Vigen Hattestad in the first semifinal.
Hattestad set the pace early, but had little chance of pulling away. The group stayed closely packed through the first climbs and descents, before Rønning moved into the lead up the final big hill. Kriukov was right there, however, and Poltaranin and Hattestad would not be shaken.
Kriukov won pole position heading into the final twists, and held first step into the homestretch. Poltaranin, barely ahead of Rønning, made a nifty move, switching tracks cleanly, to cut off the Norwegian, and ensure a spot in the finals.
Cologna and Jönsson matched up once again in the second semi, with the Swiss reprising his quarterfinal attack. He dropped the hammer in the same place, earning the top position, a spot he would cement on the bigger hill.
After the race Cologna told FIS News that he wanted to ski from the front.
Jönsson led Panzhinskiy and yet another Russian, Anton Gafarov back up as the race wound down. The four men finished in a line, with little drama at the end, the times reflecting a fictionally closer finish.
One lucky loser came from each semi, giving Rønning and Panzhinskiy a spot in the finals.
Despite his always powerful double pole, Jönsson appeared to be missing his top gear, but never even had a chance to prove otherwise in the finals. On the tricky downhill corner, he crashed after appearing to be through safely. As he poled out of the turn, taking a skate stride, he went down hard, taking out a trailing Panzhinskiy, and leaving a four-way fight for the podium.
Cologna had tried his now-signature move yet again, but could not find the space to get into the lead before the big climb. This time it was Kriukov in command, and when Rønning tripped just before the homestretch, only the order of the top-3 was left to be determined.
Kriukov looked to be in control, but Poltaranin executed the twists into the homestretch perfectly, and slipped by into the lead. But the Russian would not be denied, accelerating in the final 50 meters to take the win.
“I liked the course but the snow conditions were not that good for me,” Poltaranin told FIS News. “In the finals I chose to double pole. We worked a lot during the summer on the upper body. Unfortunately I was not as strong as Nikita [Kriukov].”
For his part, Kriukov was ecstatic about his win. He already has both Olympic and World Championship gold medals, but had not yet earned a the top spot in a non-stage World Cup race. Per FIS rules, stage race wins do not technically count as World Cup victories, so by that measure Kriukov’s performance was another milestone for the Russian veteran.
Cologna faded at the end, and had to be satisfied with third, still an impressive benchmark as he joins the elite sprinters.
With World Cup period I ending on Sunday with a team sprint, rankings are set. Kriukov currently leads the Sprint Cup with 159 points, 35 ahead of Poltaranin.
Martti Jylhae of Finland is a close third, three points back of Poltaranin. He was twentieth in today’s race.
– Yunichi Onda (JPN) broke a pole on the first climb of his quarterfinal, ending any hope of a spot in the semis.
– All eight Norwegians in the race qualified for the heats, with three advancing to the semifinals.
– John Kristian Dahl (NOR) awl relegated to last in his quarterfinal for skating.
– Several written reprimands were given out for not skiing on the marked course.
– The top Italian was Dietmar Noeckler in 19th.
– Maciej Starega of Poland advanced to his first World Cup sprint semifinal. Starega placed ninth. The 23-year-old is a sprint specialist at this point in his career.
– Tomas Northug (NOR), younger brother of Petter, finished tenth, looking strong, though he obviously lost the battle of famous younger brothers to Cologna.
– Robin Bryntesson (SWE), who like Kris Freeman (USA) has Type I diabetes, place twenty-fourth.
– Canadian Alex Harvey and Czech Ondrej Horyna were disqualified in qualification, giving Pellegrino a spot in the heats.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.