Dario Cologna likes Russia and it’s probably starting to get on Russian nerves. Prior to Friday, of his nine World Cup and Olympic individual starts in the country he was victorious in three, denying the national team favorites a chance at victory in front of a home crowd. However, all the victories were in Sochi, with two from the Olympic skiathlon and the 15km classic, and other from a 2013 World Cup skiathlon.
“I like racing in Russia. I have good memories from Sochi last winter. It’s a nice country to come to and compete. The courses are well prepared and the people are great,” Cologna commented to FIS reporters.
The trend continued Friday with another win for Cologna in the Rybinsk World Cup 15 k freestyle interval start, where he skied to a 16.3 second win over Russian Evgeniv Belov with a time of 36.53.4. In third was fellow Russian Sergey Ustiugov, who finished 28.8 seconds back. Alexander Legkov also of Russia placed fourth, 35.8 seconds behind Cologna.
While Friday’s race denied them the top spot, the course in Rybinsk has been very kind to its countrymen in the past. Russian athletes have won four of the seven distance races held at home in Rybinsk in the World Cup. Ilia Chernousov, Artem Zhmurko, Maxim Vylegzhanin and Legkov each have one win here.
Friday’s three loop, 5km course featured several significant climbs with little opportunity to recover. The highest point on the course was a 22% grade at the 8.9 k timing mark. Couple the hills with the cold weather and freshly fallen snow and the course became that much more difficult.
Once all the top seeded skiers started, it was apparent the race was going to come down to four athletes – Cologna and Russian teammates Ustiugov, Belov, and Legkov. The latter of the four started near the front of the pack and set a blistering pace that the remaining three barely bested over the first kilometers.
As a higher seeded athlete, Cologna had the advantage of being the last skier to start. In front of him were Ustiugov and Belov. While Ustiugov was the fastest skier through all the early course time checks, Cologna clocked even better times as he chased the Russian.
At the 6.9 k split, Ustiugov began to feel the the consequences of his fast start. With the largest climb yet to come, Ustiugov slowed. Cologna eventually caught him, and the two worked to chip away at the distance between them and Belov.
Belov started his race more conservatively but increased his speed through the later parts of the course. His finish time of 37:09.7 was the fastest as he crossed the line, but there were still two skiers left on course. Given the splits, it seemed as if Cologna was all but guaranteed a podium. The only question was which spot would it be.
“I caught Sergey and I knew that if I just stayed close to him we would have a fast finish. I know he is a great sprinter,” Cologna said in a post-race interview with FIS.
The question was answered as the Swiss skier crossed the line. Cologna beat Belov’s time by 16.3 seconds, crossing the line in 36.53.4 to take his first 15 km skate World Cup win ever despite being Olympic champion in the event in Vancouver 2010.
Although Belov was denied the win, he was excited to earn his third individual World Cup podium.
“I am happy with my result today. It was great to win in Russia. I feel very strong after the Tour de Ski and I like racing in the minus temperatures. I know there courses very well so this is a great result,” he said to FIS.
With his third place podium – his first World Cup distance podium – Ustiugov said he was happy but still focused on the rest of the weekend’s races.
“This is a great finish for me. It was very difficult and when Dario caught me I knew that if I could push very hard there was a chance for a podium. This is my first podium in a distance competition on the World Cup. I have only been in the sprint before. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s sprint competition,” he said to FIS.
Focus now switches to Saturday’s race, a 1.3 k freestyle sprint.