Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) held off Russians Maxim Vylegzhanin and Alexander Legkov in the homestretch to claim victory in the Ruka Triple mini-tour.
An excellent closer, Vylegzhanin came on strong, overtaking his teammate before running out of snow and his chance for the win.
On another frigid day in Finland, racers contested a 15km freestyle pursuit, the first time the final day of this three race set was held in the skate technique since 2011.
With new rules in place that cut stage race sprint bonus seconds in half, the field was tightly packed entering the final race. Another skier hit the course on average every two seconds, and 30th place was just 57 seconds off the lead.
Top seed, Eldar Roenning (NOR), a self-admitted poor skater did not start, leaving Dmitriy Japarov (RUS) in the pole position.
The lead pack quickly formed with sprinters and weaker skaters falling off the back in the first of six 2.5k laps. By the 5k mark, the top contenders had formed up, with Legkov, Sundby, and another Norwegian, Chris Andre Jespersen working at the front.
Legkov could be seen testing his competition, and in a prescient moment, attacked early and hard on the steepest climb of the loop early in the third lap. He immediately backed off, but the 2013 Tour de Ski Champion was clearly serving notice that he would be a force for the remainder of the day.
As the group approached the halfway mark, Frenchmen Maurice Manificat and Jean Marc Gaillard joined up, following Swedish stat Marcus Hellner. The trio had come up from the mid-twenties at the start, knocking roughly 50 seconds off their starting deficit.
Just behind, two more men were battling to gain contact with the leaders. American Noah Hoffman, starting 1:02 down in bib 38 made contact just before the lap, as did Petter Northug (NOR).
Wile the two latched on at similar times, they did so with varying levels of energy. Hoffman looked relaxed and strong as he settled into the pack, while Northug, clearly not in top form barely managed to maintain contact right at the back of the leaders.
Northug, who has struggled with illness this fall, started 13th, 30 seconds down, and right in front of Legkov. He could not ride up with the Russian early, and it appeared unlikely that Northug, winner of this event last year, would be able to defend his title.
While jockeying continued, Sundby and Legkov continued to do most of the work at the front, both continuing to look strong. Hoffman climbed as high as third, but a tactical error entering the fast downhill on the third lap, dropped him to the pack of the pack, and out of position for the final loop.
The pace raised and fell as different skiers probed for weakness. Legkov accelerated several times, only to back off again.
Unsurprisingly, when the race hit the steep climb with just over a kilometer to go, he reprised his attack from the second lap, this time showing no mercy. Sundby and Vylegzhanin responded, and within a few hundred meters, held a lead of 7.5 seconds.
The podium had been decided, it was just a question of the order.
The trio continued to pull away through the gradual terrain before Sundby made his move on the sprint hill up to the stadium. Jumping completely off the snow with each powerful V1 stride, he initially appeared to be moving away.
But Legkov would not be sprung and pulled up, nearly fully abreast of the Norwegian, Vylegzhanin locked in just behind.
Sundby did not get lear, but he earned the front spot into the tight hairpin at the back of the stadium, giving him first step into the homestretch.
He needed that small boost, as Vylegzhanin, one of the few men who has bested a top-from Northug in a final distance sprint, came charing up over the short homestretch.
The Russian got by Legkov, and most likely would have passed Sundby had the finish line arrived.
Sundby told FIS after the race that he worked hard in the summer on his finish sprint, training with his brother to improve his speed. The work clearly paid off and Sundby was clearly thrilled with the start to his season.
“This was beautiful,” he said with a broad grin in the finish area, after exclaiming “It is too cold here…”
Sundby won his first World CUp race here in Kuusamo 5 years ago – a 15k classic. He has experienced significant ups and downs in his career, including struggles with asthma and a cardiac arrhythmia in 2011.
He told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that his is not the biggest talent, but he is “sick-stubborn.”
He continued “when I decide to try to achieve something, it’s blood, sweat and tears to get it. It is my strength, that I do not give up.”
Legkov, despite slipping to third, was also happy with his performance. “My shape has been good, and the result today gave me confidence for the next moths,” he told FIS. He is looking to defend his Tour de Ski title and of course, focus on the Olympics in his home country.
Manificat, who was stuck at the back of the lead group when Legkov broke, did his best to bridge up. He never had a chance, but was clear in fourth holding off the young Sergey Ustiugov (RUS).
Hoffman crossed in 9th, posting the fastest time of the day, 7.5 seconds ahead of Manificat.
Northug completely lost contact with the lead group at the break, and came in just ahead of the first chase group to take 13th.
– Lukas Bauer (CZE), winner of the 10k classic on Saturday, battled in the lead pack, despite being significantly weaker in skating. He ended up 11th.
– Hellner had the 3rd fastest time of the day.
– Johannes Duerr (AUT) was 4th on the day, skiing from 54th to 18th.
– Russia placed four in the top-10 and seven in the top-30.
– Norwegian sprinter Paal Golberg, a surprising 4th in the classic, slipped to 23rd in the final standings.
– Another Norwegian sprinter, Ole Vigen Hattestad, who earned his first ever World Cup distance points in the 10k, placing 20th, did not fare as well in the skate. He slipped from a start position of 9th down to 50th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.