Dario Cologna played the role of protagonist to a T on Saturday — not because he was trying to, or because he’s Swiss, or because he’s Super Dario, or because he was aspiring for fame in a make-or-break race.
The men’s 15-kilometer classic individual start at the Toblach World Cup in Italy was like any other, except that it was the last distance race before the Olympics — which start in exactly a week in Sochi, Russia — and it was Cologna’s first World Cup of the season.
In November, he tore a ligament in his ankle and had to have surgery, keeping him from training for the better part of the next two months. The 27 year old didn’t start racing again until Jan. 10, when he jumped into a couple Alpen Cup races in Chamonix, France. There, he placed 10th in a skate sprint, fourth in a 15 k classic and third in a 20 k skate race, respectively.
They weren’t bad results for a guy who busted his ankle two months earlier, but they weren’t exactly the norm for the 2010 Olympic champion (in the 15 k freestyle), either. Cologna went on to win the two races he competed in at Swiss nationals Jan. 18-19.
“I wasn’t sure I was in shape for the Olympics before this race, so I’m relieved and surprised,” Cologna told NRK, according to a translation, after sitting in the leader’s chair for a good chunk of Saturday’s 15 k.
He had started 25th, a relatively early position for the defending world champion in the 30 k skiathlon. But considering it was his first race back, it was a respectable spot just outside the seeded list.
Cologna started somewhat conservatively, clocking the ninth-fastest time through the 1.7 k checkpoint behind Sweden’s Lars Nelson. Halfway through, he was the fastest on the board, surpassing Nelson and holding onto the lead though the finish.
Nelson dropped to second and out of the leader’s chair, and Cologna enjoyed the snow-carved hot seat for the next 10 minutes. A couple challengers gave him a run, the first of which was Russia’s Dmitriy Japarov, who rose from 24th at 1.7 k— with the same split as Canadian Alex Harvey — to fourth at the halfway point. The 29th starter, Japarov was 20.9 seconds short of matching Cologna, settling for second through the finish.
Shortly after, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner in bib 33 bumped Japarov to third, coming through 14.7 seconds back from Cologna. Meanwhile, Cologna sat quietly on what was likely a soggy seat, with temperatures warming to near 5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit) after snow turned to rain for the men’s race.
Russia’s Alexander Legkov, who started 47th, took Cologna out of that position. Cruising into the stadium in hot pursuit of Harvey, whom Legkov started 30 seconds behind and caught him before the last of three laps, the Russian skied behind the Canadian in the same track as they both double poled hard to the finish.
Harvey had a good day himself, rising from 24th early to 12th halfway through, and ultimately leading Legkov into the finish to place fifth. With 30 seconds on Harvey, the 30-year-old Legkov turned out to be the antagonist of Cologna’s tale.
Pushing through the finish, Legkov bested Cologna’s time by 2.9 seconds with the winning time of 37:02.7. Cologna stood up, relinquished his seat to Legkov, and placed second. Hellner took third (+17.6), Japarov was fourth (+23.8), Harvey fifth (+27.4), and Petter Northug was the top Norwegian in sixth (+48.3).
“It was a surprise today to win, but I’m in good shape and of course very happy with the result,” Legkov told FIS. “I want to welcome everyone to my home country next week and I think the same results are possible. I have to thank my service team. My skis were the best on a difficult day.”
“I’m almost glad I did not win, for whoever wins the last race before the championship [may] not win the championship,” Cologna told NRK.
Either way, the result was the positive affirmation for Cologna, who plans to race all four individual events at the Olympics. Asked of his expectations, he said they’re always the same: “to be on top.”
“But I know it will be tough,” Cologna added. “There are many who can win races. It’s good to be on the podium now, but it may be different in a week.”
As Cologna left the leader’s chair, Harvey approached him. The Canadian had more or less pulled Legkov around for the last lap, although Legkov led Harvey at times.
“Alex skied a great race,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier. “Hung in there with Legkov for a while then pulled him around the last lap and ended up fifth, four seconds out of fourth. It’s a good last distance race to head into the Olympics on, for sure, especially where you’re pulling the guy who won the race around the last 5 k.”
“I took the first lap pretty conservative and then I picked it up the last two laps and gained a lot of position there,” Harvey explained.
Feeling a little sluggish after an altitude training block in Seiser Alm, Italy, last week and some rest earlier this week, Harvey was happy to be on form before the Olympics.
“I was kind of feeling a bit asleep in the morning, even yesterday in training,” he said. “I feel ready good about the camp, no sickness, did a lot of training. … and looking forward to heading to Sochi.”
The 46th starter, Harvey had the benefit of watching others ski out of the stadium while many, including some of his teammates, struggled with their skis on the wet track. Like the majority of the men’s field, most of the Canadians appeared to use some form of klister. In the preceding women’s 10 k, most everybody raced on zeroes.
“There were some other guys today that had a good race, like [Graeme] Killick and [Jesse] Cockney were both solid for one of their handful of World Cup starts that they’ve had in their career,” Wadsworth said of the Canadian Senior Development Team members, both of which recently qualified for their first Olympics.
Killick placed 40th, 0.6 seconds behind Canadian veteran Devon Kershaw in 39th, and Cockney was 51st. Ivan Babikov finished 62nd, 35.8 seconds behind Cockney and 3:21.7 back from Cologna.
“Devon and Ivan struggled a little bit with skis today, but felt good physically,” Wadsworth explained. “I know the camp we did was really good so I’m pretty hopeful for some good results coming up.”
Rounding out the top 10, Nelson notched his first World Cup top 10 in seventh (+48.6). Finland’s 22-year-old Iivo Niskanen also notched a career best in eighth (+54.9), Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson was ninth (+57.9) and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby 10th (+58.8).
“It was a strong day for the Swedish team,” Hellner told FIS, after his team put three in the top nine. “We for sure had great skis.”
— Gerry Furseth contributed on-site reporting
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.