No amount of fog or soggy classic conditions could dampen Francesco de Fabiani’s spirits on Sunday as the 21-year-old broke through an 18-year barrier for Italy with a World Cup classic-distance win in the men’s 15-kilometer individual start in Lahti, Finland.
After starting second in the seeded group in bib 22, de Fabiani took to the course 30 seconds after Norway’s Eldar Rønning and gradually worked his way into the three-lap race.
De Fabiani finally took the lead at 11.2 k, and from that point on, the young Italian — who had never been on the World Cup podium before — became untouchable. Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin came close, clocking through the checkpoint 3 seconds behind De Fabiani, and Finland’s Sami Jauhojärvi was 4.6 seconds out of the lead in third.
Out of 71 finishers, de Fabiani’s time at 3.4 k ranked 25th. By 6.2 k, he was up to 20th, and by 13.4 k, he remained 7.2 seconds ahead of Jauhojärvi in first.
“I was very motivated to show my best today after a disappointing performance in the 50 k in Falun last week,” de Fabiani told FIS after the race.
Exactly a week ago on March 1, the Italian placed 32nd in the 50 k classic mass start at World Championships in Falun, Sweden. Three of his teammates, Dietmar Nöckler, Giorgio Di Centa and Mattia Pellegrin, finished ahead of him in 12th, 22nd and 23rd, respectively.
But this Sunday was different. De Fabiani set the new time to beat at the finish, besting Norway’s Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget by 6.5 seconds to bump the 22-year-old Norwegian U23 team member out of the leader’s seat.
Even with Jauhojärvi in bib 25 hot on his tails, de Fabiani remained on top at the finish as the Finn came through 4.6 seconds back to take second. The 33-year-old Jauhojärvi crossed the line while waving of his hand back and forth, indicating it was a so-so race, then smirked and pointed two fingers at the TV camera to indicate second.
“I’m quite satisfied with the result, but still little bit disappointed I lost the victory by only 4.6 seconds,” Jauhojärvi told FIS. “Only on the big climb in the the second lap I was in trouble and I lost about six seconds. Then I got a ride with [Switzerland’s] Dario Cologna and I tried to follow him.”
An early leader in bib 36, Poltoranin came through the 3.4 k checkpoint with the fastest time, and behind him, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson came closest to it, 1.4 seconds back. Poltoranin went on to lead through 8.4 k, where Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh was fastest, 0.5 seconds ahead of Rønning. Nyenget was 1.3 seconds back in third at that point, and Poltoranin 1.5 second behind in fourth.
Also at 8.4 k, Nöckler, who started 30 seconds behind his teammate, was ahead of De Fabiani and 2.7 seconds behind the Russian, along with Cologna (+3.9). With 6.6 k to go, De Fabiani was 5.7 seconds out of first, followed by Halfvarsson (+6.8).
About 2 1/2 kilometers later, de Fabiani found he was within three seconds of Nyenget in first, and Rønning and Cologna worked their way up into contention in second and third, less than a second back. Bessmertnykh remained in the mix with Nöckler and Poltarinin, within 2 seconds of the lead.
On the final 5 k lap, de Fabiani made his mark. Cologna and Nöckler came within 2.6 seconds of him at 11.2 k, and Nyenget was another 0.1 seconds back in fourth.
With 1 1/2 k to go, de Fabiani picked up the tempo considerably, and Jauhojärvi came within 7.2 seconds of him at 13.4 k to post the second-fastest split. Poltoranin and Nyenget were 7.7 seconds off the pace tied for third, and Nöckler and Cologna dropped more than 10 seconds behind in fifth and sixth.
Poltoranin closed hard and came up 3 seconds short of de Fabiani, who ended up clinching the win ahead of him in 34:51.2. Jauhojärvi ended up third at his home World Cup, and Nyenget took fourth, 6.5 seconds back and 1.9 seconds off the podium in his second World Cup race (he previously placed 41st in last year’s 50 k classic at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway).
Cologna in fifth (+9.7) boosted his points in the overall World Cup standings to come within one point of Norway’s Petter Northug, who placed seventh on Sunday, 15.3 seconds after de Fabiani. The two remain in third and fourth overall, respectively, despite putting some points into Norwegian World Cup leader Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who finished 10th on Sunday (+21.5).
At the end of the day, Sundby clinched his second overall World Cup title, 322 points ahead of Northug and with just 290 points up for grabs in two more races this season.
In the race for the overall Distance World Cup, Cologna remains 83 points ahead of Sundby with one race to go (the 50 k skate in Holmenkollen next Saturday) and 190 points remaining.
“It is great to win a first World Cup,” De Fabiani told FIS. “I was lucky today. I skied with Lukas Bauer [of the Czech Republic] for two laps and he helped me a lot to win the race today.”
Bauer, who started 45th and finished ninth (+20.3), after Rønning in eighth (+16.9), immediately congratulated the Italian at the finish. De Fabiani stood up out of his seat to greet him in the finishing pen.
Beyond de Fabiani’s first career win and podium, the victory was a first for Italian cross-country skiing, which had not won a classic distance race since Silvio Fauner topped a 10 k in January 1997, according to Neveitalia.
Italy had two in the top six, with Nöckler finishing 13 seconds back from his teammate in sixth.
For Poltoranin, it was his 21st career World Cup podium after a medal-less World Championships.
“I am happy to be back on the podium,” he told FIS. I was not satisfied with my performance at the World Championships. Today was a difficult race. I was in the lead in the halfway of the race, but then I could not keep the speed.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.