Even though he has two Olympic gold medals to his name from Sochi, it has been almost two years since Dario Cologna stood atop the podium in a World Cup. The Swiss star, a three-time Tour de Ski champion, broke that streak in grand fashion in Saturday’s 4.4-kilometer freestyle race in Oberstdorf, Germany, the prologue event to this week’s Tour de Ski.
Cologna won soundly in 9:54.2, besting Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson by five seconds, with Norwegian superstar Petter Northug close behind Halfvarsson (+5.5). Ilia Chernousov of Russia and Marcus Hellner of Sweden were fourth and fifth, respectively.
Despite a strong end to the 2014 season, an injury early last year resulted in reduced racing. On Saturday, there was no sign he had ever been gone, as he posted the second-fastest splits through the first lap of the two-lap course behind Russian Andrey Larkov. In the end, Larkov couldn’t hold the pace and ultimately finishing seventh. Where Larkov floundered Cologna thrived, and by the 4 k mark, Cologna was in first — a spot he maintained to the finish.
Cologna’s sprinting has not been up to previous standards since last year’s ankle surgery for a torn ligament.
He even surprised himself with his prologue performance.
“I did not expect to be on the podium today,” he told FIS after the race. “I knew I was in better shape than before. I had a good training during the Christmas. I did not expect to win but I felt I was in good shape.”
Cologna was cautiously optimistic regarding the implications for more racing.
“Prologue is just the first competition but it is good to see everything is working well,” he said.
In second place, Halfvarsson earned his first World Cup podium of the season. He’s been here before, as two of his three career World Cup individual podiums are in the Tour de Ski prologue.
“Prologue fits me quite good,” Halfvarsson said to FIS. “The race itself was very good. I started slower in the first lap and skied harder in the second lap.”
Halfvarsson was not exaggerating. By the 1.8 k mark he had the 14th fastest split but advanced through the rankings steadily to the finish line to surpass 12 skiers. Halfvarsson has emerged as the surprise leader of the Swedish team this year. Out of 14 FIS starts this season, he has been in the top 10 in 11 of them.
Halfvarsson does not seem to be surprised by his own strong showing, however, favorably comparing himself to Norwegian Petter Northug in an interview with Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.
“I’m faster than Petter at the finish usually,” he said, according to a translation.
While Cologna and Halfvarsson were happy with their results, Northug was expecting better.
“I had hoped for a better second lap,” he said to FIS. “I am happy to be on the podium. My finish was ok but I hope I will be better as the season progresses.”