Total dominance in a race has been the purview of the Norwegian women over the past several years, with the team running away with the Nations Cup title, and packing the top-10, particularly in distance skate races. But in a performance reminiscent of classic races in the early 2000’s the men’s squad captured the top four places in the penultimate stage of the 2014 Tour de Ski, demonstrating they can hold their own with their female counterparts.
Overall five Norwegians cracked the top-7 in the 10 k individual classic event.
Tour leader Martin Johnsrud Sundby maintained his hold on the overall lead, but it was teammate Petter Northug who took the win, 9.7 seconds ahead of Sundby.
The win was Northug’s first of a tough season. The Norwegian star has started slowly, racing into top form as he looks to bounce back from illness that set back his training in the fall.
Over the first months of the season, Northug has steadily crept up the result sheet, and showed a flash of his old self in Friday’s pursuit, breaking out his trademark sprint finish to win the race for second over the chase pack.
But until today, Sundby has dominated the headlines, winning the season opening Kuusamo mini-tour and consistently placing in the top-10 through the early part of the season.
Northug started uncharacteristically fast, passing the 1.3k mark in second, a mere .3 seconds ahead of Sundby. Five kilometers later he had opened up a gap he would not relinquish, overtaking first starter and early leader Stanislav Volzhentsev of Russia for a 10 second lead.
Volzhentsev could not maintain his quick start, slipping down to 12th at the finish.
Sundby and eventual third place finisher Chris Jespersen flipped spots over the last four kilometers. Between 6.3 and 8.3 k, Sundby picked up 5.1 seconds on Jespersen, a lead he extended slightly before the finish.
Jespersen crossed an even 16 seconds behind Northug with Sjur Røthe another 13 seconds back in fourth.
A frequent member of the Norwegian relay team, Røthe has been relatively quiet this year, cracking the top-10 for the first time earlier this week in the 15 k mass start in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Canadian Alex Harvey continued his strong Tour, placing fifth in what will be his final race of the event. Harvey has announced he will not start the Final Climb on Sunday.
Sundby told FIS News after the race that he felt tired following the 35 k pursuit on Friday.
“I have to recover well today and get ready for the Final Climb. It will be a pure pain,” Sundby said.
Waxing was challenging with warm temperatures leaving a choice between n0-wax “hairies” and klister. According to Harvey there was a mix of both in the race, even on the Norwegian team.
No Norwegian has ever won the Tour de Ski, but with the women currently holding the top two spots and the men the first three, with Sundby, Northug and Jespersen, the odds are good that will change this year.
Sundby will start 48.5 seconds ahead of Northug, who has struggled on the Final Climb in recent years. But he told Norwegian Broadcaster NRK that he has been feeling better as the Tour has progressed, a change from the recent past.
He looks to match his 2011 performance — he posted the fifth best time up the Alpe Cermis that year.
“I am happy with my fitness. I am getting stronger with each competition,” Northug told FIS news. Regardless, he says he does not think he can catch Sundby, though he told NRK that he is lighter than in past years, a fact he sees as a significant benefit on the brutal climb.
Jespersen will start 1:26.8 behind Sundby, and with Harvey, who sits in fourth overall, withdrawing, the surprising Johannes Duerr of Austria will lead the chase pack at two minutes back.
He will head out with Swede Calle Halfvarsson and Russian Ilia Chernousov just behind. Defending Tour Chanpion Alexander Legkov starts in eighth, +2:21.3
Overall, Norway enters the last day of the Tour with six of the top-12 spots.
– Northug has jokingly called himself “fat” in the past when explaining his poor performances in the Final Climb.
– The 26-year-old Duerr had never cracked the top-30 in a World CUp race prior to last season. He placed 24th in the 2013 Tour, and has been on a steady ascent ever since.
– The seemingly ageless Sergei Dolidoich of Belarus, a solid 40-years-old, was 13th and is 37th overall
– Sundby has only started a single non-stage World Cup sprint, the Davos freestyle event in December. He placed 48th. In the 13 sprints he had started prior to this Tour, Sundby qualified for the heats five times, never advancing out of the quarterfinals. He placed third in both 2014 Tour de Ski sprints.
– The youngest skier in the race, Gustav Eriksson (SWE) at 22-years-old, placed 50th.
– China took three of the last four spots, with only Robin Duvillard of France breaking up the trio in third-to-last.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.