Saturday’s 15 k men’s classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy, had no shortage of excitement – with the top five separated by less than a second – and sets up a potentially dramatic final stage of the Tour de Ski.
In a sprint to the finish line, it was Germany’s Tim Tscharnke winning the Tour’s sixth stage by mere inches. Tscharnke, who began the race 30th in the Tour standings, outlunged Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan (+0.0) to finish in 46:48.8.
Tscharnke was positioned behind the leaders for much of the race and was ninth after 11 k, 6.8 seconds behind Tour leader Petter Northug of Norway. However, as skiers such as Northug and Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby slowed their pace after sprinting to collect bonus points, Tscharnke was able to make his move along with other racers who held back.
“We did not focus on sprints, we just wanted to go for a good position in the finish,” Tscharnke told FIS.
“It’s a little bit of a surprise for me to win today,” the 25-year-old explained. “Thomas [Bing] and me wanted to be in the front of the pack. We helped each other.” Bing would end up finishing sixth (+2.0).
Tscharnke’s Tour got off to a rough start, as he took 73rd in the 4 k Obsertdorf prologue. However, he has since been posting better and better results, and with Saturday’s victory he has his best World Cup result of the season by far. His previous best was in Wednesday’s 10 k classic interval start in Toblach, when he took 24th.
Tscharnke said, according to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, that this victory meant more to him than his last World Cup victory, a 15 k classic mass start in Canmore, Alberta, in Dec. 2012. He explained that he underwent intense training over the holiday break, especially on the roller ski and the treadmill, and that it is a relief to see the hard work pay off.
He is now 15th in the Tour standings, 4:20.8 behind the leader, Northug.
Dario Cologna was contending for the win during the final sprint and took third (+0.4), despite an earlier crash. About 29 minutes into the race, he tangled skis with Russian Evgeniy Belov while descending a fast hill, and both skiers went falling to the ground. Belov, who is fourth in the overall Tour standings (+35.3), would end up taking 17th (+14.1).
“I had to spend some energy to come back after the crash but I managed to finish on the podium. It will be difficult to go for podium in the Tour but you never know what can happen on the climb,” Cologna said to FIS, referring to the long climb that makes up much of Sunday’s 9 k freestyle pursuit.
Cologna is fifth in the Tour standings (+1:46.6) and 1:19.8 behind the third-place skier, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson.
Meanwhile, two Russian skiers, Stanislav Volzhentsev and Alexander Bessmertnykh, both stayed well behind the leaders throughout the race and were able to conserve enough energy to take part in the final sprint to the finish. Volzhentsev just edged out Bessmertnykh in a photo finish to take fourth (+0.7).
With a podium consisting of Tscharnke, Poltoranin, and Cologna, Saturday featured the first podium of the season without a Norwegian present.
Northug finished the race in 21st (+17.2), which was just barely enough to hold the overall Tour lead over teammate Sundby, who finished in eighth (+4.1) and was the highest-placing Norwegian. Sundby also crashed on one of the course’s steeper downhills, falling alongside Niklas Dyrhaug five minutes into the race.
Northug explained to FIS that Saturday’s race was all about collecting bonus points.
“I knew many skiers were saving energy for the finish. The last bonus sprint cost me a lot of power,” Northug said.
The current Tour standings set up a tight race for the overall Tour title, which will be decided in Sunday’s final stage in Val di Fiemme. Northug is just 3.1 seconds ahead of Sundby, while Halfvarsson, who was 27th on Saturday (+30.0), is 26.8 seconds behind Northug in third and within striking distance.
“It will be a hard fight for the podium tomorrow,” Northug said. “It has been a tough Tour de Ski. If you have a really bad day you can easily lose many minutes.”
At this point on the Tour, the men’s North American contingent consists entirely of Canadians. Alex Harvey finished his Tour by taking 34th (+2:12.5), and dropped from sixth to 16th in the overall standings. Teammates Ivan Babikov and Devon Kershaw finished 40th (3:28.6) and 41st (3:39.5), respectively.
Tour de Ski overall standings