Norway’s Petter Northug won the 25 k skate pursuit in Toblach, Italy, after surging past the leading trio on the final hill and making the sprint finish look easy. The Norwegian now leads the Tour de Ski, a seven-stage race series, by seven seconds with two competitions to go.
Northug started the race two seconds ahead of his teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby and seven seconds in front of Russia’s Evgeney Belov. Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden started 14 seconds behind Northug. However, the three chasers quickly passed Northug, who hung out in the back of the trio throughout the race.
A master tactician, Northug surged into the last hill and made his move over the top, putting a gap on Halfvarsson over the hill and into the finish chute.
“I managed to push my weight over the last hill and used that to my advantage so I could pick the chute to the finish line,” Northug said to NRK reporters after the race.
The star noted that he was not in a position to contribute in front today.
“I was focusing on hanging onto the group. They were all stronger than me today, but it was fun to hang with the big boys,” Northug explained.
However, the tactics – of hanging with the pack but not leading, and then burning competitors in a sprint finish – is nothing new for Northug, who often justifies his lack of leadership in group skiing by saying that he’s tired.
Not everyone was impressed. While Northug was pointing to his bib and gesturing in celebration of his win, Belov, who finished fourth in the sprint finish and did not collect any bonus seconds, angrily pointed his finger at Northug.
“This was only the fifth stage, it was not the final Tour de Ski, which we were racing for today,” he told Sweden’s Dagbladet newspaper. “In this case, you have to help the group during the race. He just went back and let the rest of us do the job. I don’t think it’s the way you should do this, and that’s why I both reacted in the finish and am angry now.”
Belov and Sundby led the four-man group for much of the race.
With the 15 bonus seconds awarded to the winner, 10 to second place, and 5 to third, Northug is now seven seconds in front of Halfvarsson in second place overall and 12.2 seconds ahead of Sundby, who is defending the 2014 Tour de Ski overall title.
Northug said that he is excited to try to add more bonus seconds in the 15 k classic mass start on Saturday, but doesn’t consider himself a favorite for the overall title, where he believes Sundby the best bet.
“Calle (Halfvarsson) and I suck equally bad at the monster hill,” Northug said. “I would like to have a minute down to Sundby going into the big hill on Sunday.”
Wants to go neck-a-neck with Northug on Sunday
Halfvarsson didn’t argue with Northug’s comment on his chances up Alpe Cermis, but he cherishes the idea of measuring strengths in real time.
“It would be really fun to go into that hill even with Northug on Sunday,” Halfvarsson said to NRK reporters after the race. “Then we could really see who of us is the fastest.”
As for today’s race, Halfvarsson was pleased to finish only two seconds behind Northug and beat both Sundby and Belov.
“I am super content with my race today,” Halfvarsson said to NRK reporters after the race. “I had to work really hard in the beginning to make it up to the front and that cost me a lot. I kept thinking to myself that I wanted to hang in there for one more lap, and then one more lap and then it was the last lap. I didn’t expect to have a chance to hang with these guys today. But it wasn’t me who set the speed. That was Sundby and Belov’s work. I tried to contribute when I could.”
He was also pleased to have added time on Dario Cologna of Switzerland, a previous many-time Tour winner, and Swedish teammate Marcus Hellner. Completely exhausted, Halfvarsson is looking forward to a rest day on Friday before he tries to stay on the Tour de Ski podium in the last weekend of competition.
“It will be nice,” he told Swedish newspaper Expressen. “This was the roughest course I’ve been through.”
Today’s stage was originally a 35 k point-to-point skate pursuit, but due to lack of snow, it was changed to a 25 k consisting of five laps on the same 5 k course that was used for Wednesday’s 10 k classic competition. After five of seven stages, the top four overall have a solid gap on the rest of the field going into the last two stages of the Tour.
Niklas Dyrhaug of Norway won a sprint finish for fifth place, besting Canada’s Alex Harvey, Cologna, and Wednesday’s classic 10 k winner Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan.
““My optimistic goal was to ski back into the top-five. I just got outsprinted at the end, but I improved on my result so I have to be happy with today,” Harvey, who started in bib seven, said in a CCC press release. “The group didn’t push too hard today so I’m feeling less tired than I did at this point last year.”
The fastest overall time of the day belonged to Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain, who started in 21st and moved up to 11th place, narrowly losing a sprint finish with Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin, a favorite from Tour de Skis past.
While an isolated pursuit time doesn’t count as a traditional World Cup win, it’s still historic for Great Britain.
“What a day, what a week, the word legend springs to mind – it was a great race today particularly after the result in Val Mustair and Muzzy’s best ever Classic World Cup race yesterday,” British Cross Country coach Roy Young said in a British Ski and Snowboard press release.
With the chase group two minutes behind the top four racers, the fight for the overall title has now been narrowed to Northug, who has a seven-second lead to Halfvarsson, 12.2 seconds to Sundby and 12.4 to Belov.
The two editions in which Northug was leading after the Toblach pursuit are the only two seasons where the leader after this stage did not win the overall. In their previous Tour de Ski victories, both Cologna and Sundby led after this stage. Cologna won in 2011 and 2012, and Sundby won in 2014.
-Chelsea Little contributed reporting.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.