Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan proved that once in a while you just need to muscle your way to first place. He opted to use skate skis and double poled his way to the victory during Wednesday’s 10-kilometer classic race, the fourth stage of the Tour de Ski in Toblach, Italy.
The men’s two-lap course featured gradual two-kilometer climb out of the start, followed by a rolling but overall downhill descent to the finish. The relative grade of the course led several of the top men to use skate skis and double pole the entire course as an opportunity to gain a lot of time on the downhills and recover in time to go back up the climb.
Heading into the fourth stage, Tour leader Petter Northug of Norway held a 25.1-second lead over teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson was 27 seconds back in third overall. Russia’s Evgeniy Belov stood in fourth (+38.7), Canada’s Alex Harvey was fifth (+54.2) and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna was 1:03 back in sixth. Poltoranin was 1:04.3 behind Northug in seventh.
Northug has had success in this discipline in the past. His nine victories are the most podiums in classic Tour stages since the Tour de Ski started nine years ago.
Poltoranin has also seen his share of classic victories, winning three of the last five classic stages of the Tour, including individual starts and mass starts.
At 2.1 k on Wednesday, Northug, who decided to stick with classic instead of skate skis, crossed the checkpoint 16.2 seconds behind Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh in first. Several men ahead of Northug were faster on skate skis, including Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson, who topped Bessmertnykh’s 1.7 k time by 4.5 seconds in first at the earlier checkpoint.
Richardsson clocked the fastest time through the finish in 23.12.2, holding his own there until Poltoranin, also on skate skis, bumped him to second by 20.4 seconds with a new time to beat of. 22:51.8.
Meanwhile, Cologna, Belov, Sundby, Northug and Halfvarsson tried to match his time while striding.
When Poltoranin claimed the lead at the finish, it was obvious where he made most of his time up: the descent to the finish. At the last timing split at 7.1 k, Poltoranin ranked seventh-fastest through all 70 finishers, 10.6 behind Belov in first. The Russian had risen from seventh at the first 1.7 k checkpoint to third at 5 k, behind Halfvarsson and Poltoranin, respectively, then first with slightly less than 3 k to go.
With Poltoranin in the leader’s spot, attention shifted to the remaining skiers still out on course. Belov was the only real threat to upset Poltoranin, but when he crossed the line 0.5 behind, the victory seemed all but wrapped up for Poltoranin.
One by one, the remaining contenders crossed the line unable to beat Poltoranin’s time: Cologna was 14.3 seconds off the mark, Sundby was 4.2 seconds short, Halfvarsson came up 9.4 seconds shy, and Northug — the last starter — finally finished 22.8 seconds behind in seventh.
As it shook out, Belov was closest for second in the 10 k, Sundby notched his second-straight podium in third, ahead of Halfvarsson and Cologna in fourth and fifth, respectively. Richardsson ended up sixth, and Northug placed seventh to retain his overall Tour lead by just 1.5 seconds over Sundby heading into Thursday’s 25 k freestyle pursuit in Toblach.
And while Sundby was most concerned on his overall Tour finish, which will be determined at the final climb on Sunday, he said that shouldn’t take anything away from someone like Poltoranin, who was gunning for the stage win and put himself in fifth overall behind Belov and Halfvarsson, respectively.
“I was completely tired after yesterday,” Sundby told FIS. “I have full respect to Alexey [Poltoranin] for his achievement.”
For Poltoranin, the decision to go with skate skis was the right one. He was the only one in the top 10 in the overall standings that didn’t use classic skis. In the end, the gamble paid off with his first World Cup stage win of the season and an improvement by two places in the overall Tour standings with three stages to go.
“To double pole the whole competition was a new experience for me,” he said. “I had great skis, they were very fast. I decided to go on skate skis only 10 minutes before the start.”
As a result of Sundby’s third-place finish and the five bonus points that went with it, he narrowed the margin to Northug to 1.5 seconds, which should make for a tight 25 k pursuit on the same course on Thursday.
When asked about his chances to win the overall Tour title, Northug told NRK reporters that the only way that can happen is if, “The snow in Alps Cermis must melt.”
For Stage 5, Northug will start 2 seconds ahead of Sundby, and Belov will head out 7 seconds back in third. Halfvarsson starts with a 14-second deficit in fourth, followed by Poltoranin (+27.0), Cologna (+55) and Harvey (+1:08), in fifth through seventh, respectively.