The Tour de Ski may be only in the second of seven stages, but there has already been enough drama to fill more than a single weekend.
In Saturday’s 4.4 k prologue, it was Switzerland’s Dario Cologna who surprised and stole the show, winning by five seconds. But in today’s 15 k pursuit, it was instead Petter Northug of Norway who threaded his way through the pack and the twisting, steep trails of Oberstdorf, Germany, to win the day.
Starting in third place after yesterday’s pursuit, Northug quickly caught Cologna and second-place Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden. But after 2.5 k the pack also caught them, and the men’s field spent the rest of the race in a huge group.
Cologna would lead, or Halfvarsson, or Northug’s teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby. One face never at the front? Northug.
“It was better for me stay little bit back and save energy for the last lap,” he said in a press conference.
Going up the final climb, he was easily in tenth place, or perhaps farther back. But he snuck to the far left side of the trail and herringboned his way past a number of his competitors, especially after Sundby tripped on his own slippery skis and tangled up a few other men.
“I didn’t have a good position on the last hill, but I learned from Frode Estil how to make it towards the goal,” Northug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, according to a translation. “He won here before me.”
It was Italian unknown Francesco De Fabiani who led over the crest of the hill, but even with just a single downhill leading into the finish, things were far from over.
De Fabiani was passed as if he was standing still by a group of skiers including Alex Harvey of Canada, Halfvarsson – who broke a pole but still came back – Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug, and Northug. The four racers were bumping elbows and trying not to tangle skis as the trail turned into the finishing straight.
Harvey stayed left and appeared to pick the best line, but Northug somehow snuck his way through and went into the lead. He double-poled to the finish with his usual burst of energy – rather than fighting for the lead for the entire 15 k, he had conserved something, as is his habit.
“I thought I’d indulge myself in the last few hundred meters,” Northug told NRK. “I knew I would go alone – I saw what kind of skiers I was going up against as we went over the last bridge. Right now I am where I want to be.”
Harvey was initially neck and neck with Halfvarsson, but pulled away to secure second place for his first podium of the season.
“I had a good sprint – I’m really happy,” Harvey told Sportcom. “Because it was icy, a lot was going on in that last corner. I lost a little bit of speed on the last turn, but I was able to pass a Norwegian and an Italian. At the beginning of the finishing straight I was third, but I managed to pass Halfvarsson.”
That was discouraging for the Swede.
“I noticed that both Petter and Harvey were faster than me on the skis,” Halfvarsson told NRK. “Then I had no answer.”
Harvey accomplished his podium result by skiing carefully over the course of the 15 k race. He was always near the front, but rarely leading – fast enough to know he’d be close when the finish arrived, but not working so hard he’d be tired.
Harvey was not reachable for comment, but he explained his strategy in a Cross Country Canada press release.
“I was pretty tired early so just tried to ski more controlled in the third and fourth lap,” he said. “The conditions were icy and even dirty in places so on the last lap I stayed out of trouble, especially up the final hill, to set myself up for good sprint for the finish.”
Harvey has quite the collection of Tour de Ski results, including a prologue win last season, and is often in the mix for an overall podium. He said that the Tour just falls in a good spot for him to be on form.
“I really like the big events like this. I get excited but I think the time of year that we race this is good for me,” Harvey said in the press release. “It is really hard to be on early in the season. We get a nice three-to-four weekend block of races early in the season where I can get into great shape and then the timing of the Tour is just good for me.”
The result of the sprint finish was a bit of a comeuppance for Halfvarsson, who claimed the day before to be usually faster than Northug at the finish.
“Calle is in a dream world,” Northug told the NRK reporters. “If you look at his performance in championship events over the last few years, he’s more on par with you.”
The pursuit results showed that the Tour de Ski might be a little more diverse than the usual Norwegian-dominated World Cup races so far this season. After Halfvarsson, Dyrhaug outsprinted Alexey Poltoranin and Cologna for fourth place; the top twelve finishers were all within ten seconds of each other.
And some past Tour de Ski favorites who had not fared well in the prologue made big gains in the pursuit, like Poltoranin, who had started 19th. Dietmar Noeckler of Italy skied from 50th place up to tenth, Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin from 16th to 12th, and Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson from 40th to 15th.
For Canada, Ivan Babikov improved from 57th to 30th, making it into the World Cup points, and Devon Kershaw was close behind, moving from 45th up to 36th.
Lenny Valjas dropped from 51st to 83rd.
Tour de Ski overall standings (with bonus seconds)
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.