Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltaranin used a powerful kick to claim victory in the fourth stage of the 2014 Tour de Ski, sprinting away from a surprising Hannes Dotzler of Germany.
Russian Stanilav Volzhentsev was third in the 15 k classic mass start event, besting another German, Thomas Bing, in a photo finish.
Despite temperatures rising above freezing, tracks remained firm on the Lenzerheide, Switzerland course. Skiers lined up for the four lap race seeded by the current Tour standings, with Canadian Alex Harvey in the pole position.
Despite an early move by Norwegian Didrik Tonseth, resulting in a five second gap, there was little excitement over the first two-thirds of the race. As expected the pack stayed large, stringing out on the climbs and compressing on the descents.
Approaching the first of two intermediate bonus sprints, Martin Johsnrud Sundby (NOR) accelerated up the gradual climb, just a half pace in front of defending Tour champion Alexander Legkov (RUS).
The two skied clear and Legkov surprisingly did not challenge Sundby for the top spot. There was little concern for the remaining bonuses as the field streamed thorughwith no one working to pick up extra seconds.
Sundby, Legkov, and Ilya Chernousov (RUS) opened a small gap after the bonus, but did not attempt to extend.
The first legitimate attack came from the 2011 World Champion in the 15 k classic, Matti Heikinen of Finland.
Heikkinen, who worked his way up from his start position in bib 60, pushed hard over the crest of a large climb just before the 9 k mark. He earned a small gap, and maintained pressure on the next climb, but Legkov led the pack back up in time for the second and final bonus sprint.
Sundby was again the most willing to expend energy, and use a late charge to slip across first, just ahead of teammates Toenseth and Peter Northug, leaving Legkov in 4th.
Heikkinen cruised through in fifth and did not wait long to resume his attack. He met with greater success initially, pulling away from the field, and opening up up a nearly ten second lead. Bing, of Germany, bridged up, and took his own turn at the front. At 11.5 k the pair held a doomed six second lead.
The Finn battled valiantly, continuing to push over the top of of one of the long climbs despite having the field right back on his heels. His chance was shot, however, and skiers looked to setup for the final push with under two kilometers to go.
Poltaranin had remained quiet in the middle of the pack for most of the race, ignoring the bonus seconds, and making no effort to ski at the front. But as the race entered the the closing stages, he cooly worked up to the front.
Volzhentsev led into the final hill with Poltaranin a few meters back in second. The Kazakh climbed back on, and the two upped the pace.
Dotzler put on a burst of his own, working to close up into the descent. The trio led down toward the stadium, with a strung out pack picking seconds back up.
Running fast skis, Poltaranin had the first step into the stadium, his five meter lead good enough for the win. Doetzler held on for second while Volentzhev mad a furious double pole charge past a resurgent Bing to round out the podium.
Poltaranin claimed his first win of the season, pleased with a strategy the left him strength for the final sprint.
Despsite crossing back in 14th, Sundby took over the overall lead, moving 31.7 seconds ahead of Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden.
“The most important goal today was to keep Legkov and Halfvarsson behind me,” Sundby told FIS News after the race.
He added that the Norwegian squad worked together as a team, communicating during the race with usual star Northug being particularly helpful.
After a day off on Thursday, the Tour will resume in Italy with the traditional Cortina to Toblach 35 k freestyle pursuit.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.