It’s a new year, yet some things remain the same. Jan. 1 marked the opening stage of the 2016 Tour de Ski, a 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. It also marked the third World Cup sprint victory in a row for Italy’s Federico Pellegrino.
The 25-year-old Pellegrino dominated the day. He qualified first with a time of 2:45.92. Across the official results sheet, a pattern of 1’s next to Pellegrino’s name tells the story; the only aberration on his way to the win, a second place in his semifinal by a margin of 0.11 seconds.
Under a nighttime sky illuminated by what looked like modernist street lamps, Pellegrino won the final in 2:43.14. He out sprinted Russian Sergey Ustiugov who placed second (+0.40). Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh skied to third (+1.25).
Not considered a sprint specialist, but certainly considered the favorite for this year’s 10th edition of the Tour de Ski, Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby placed fourth (+10.09). In fifth was Sweden’s Emil Jönsson (+12.270, followed by Swiss veteran and three-time Tour de Ski champion, Dario Cologna in sixth (+59.01).
Cologna is a good place to start this sprint final’s tale. It was a partisan crowd. And when Cologna’s name was announced as he stepped forward in his lane, the crowd became electric — it was a sea of waving red and white Swiss flags.
From the gun, Ustiugov led out with a scrum of V2ing skiers trailing close behind. After a series of short roll-overs, Cologna slotted into second and eventually dropped into third.
Just over a minute into the race, when it was clear Ustiugov was making a powerful move on the flats, Cologna became tangled with himself, and fell. That left only five skiers, with a clear separation of Ustiugov, Krogh and Pellegrino developing with Sundby dangling off the back.
Then, just over two minutes in, it was a three-person race with Pellegrino taking the lead, accelerating around a turn with what appeared to be the slickest skis in the field. He crossed the line with a cursory foot outstretched, as if the results were in question.
The only blip in Pellegrino’s day — second place in his semifinal — proved a valuable learning opportunity. In the post-race press conference, he admitted his tactics would need to change after his semifinal.
“I learned how to play in the final, so I didn’t make the same mistake,” he said. “I knew that if I arrived in the final 100 meters in the front of the race, I should win. It’s what I made, and so I happy for having do it.”
As a sprint aficionado, and now the winningest Italian World Cup sprinter, with six wins total, (Italian Cristian Zorzi won five World Cup sprints), Pellegrino is still undecided about finishing out the Tour.
“Tomorrow, we have a 30 k. I just have to pay attention to not make a big bonk, and save some energies for [the classic sprint in] Oberstdorf, but I want to be good,” he said. “Maybe in the last five kilometers, I will push as hard as I can, but before, I have to be patient, and quiet and wait. Then we are 10 k in skate, I want to have good sensations in this distance. Then in Oberstdorf, we will have a classic race. We have, I think, two very hard uphills, and in classic, this is my bread. I want to be good there, too.”
He’s now shooting for an unprecedented four-consecutive World Cup freestyle sprint victories. With another World Cup win, he’ll become Italy’s winning-most World Cup skier.
“I don’t know if I will finish the Tour de Ski, because then we have [the World Cup weekend in] Planica [Slovenia], and I want to make history and win the fourth sprint skate in a row. I am undecided on my goals,” he said.
Ustiugov avenged his lack of prime results this season with his first podium of the year. Through a translator at the press conference, he showed respect for Pellegrino.
“I tried everything in the final, but Frederico was actually faster than me in the end. Next time, I will try again,” Ustiugov said.
Krogh in third seemed content after the race, nodding to the first- and second-place finishers as simply better on this day.
“The two guys who are one-two today are faster than me, nothing to do about that, so I am very happy with third place,” Krogh said.
As for the Swiss favorite, Cologna, even he surpassed his sprinting expectations — his goal was to make the semis. “Of course I would have liked to get on the podium, but I’m more than satisfied,” Cologna told Swiss TV broadcaster SRF 2. “The semifinal was the goal in order to get a few bonus seconds. Now I could show a good race in the final, prove that I’m in shape. That was a good start to the Tour.”
As a potent threat to Sundby’s overall Tour aspirations, Cologna has set himself up well for Saturday’s 30 k classic mass start, but he has no illusions about overturning the Distance World Cup hierarchy, which Sundby reigns.
“I think it will be a very hard race. The loop has a lot of vertical meters, eight times,” Cologna said. “Sundby will create a lot of pressure early on, and I don’t think it will end with a mass sprint. So you have to save strength whenever possible on the loop, always run a smart race, and hopefully stay in contact with the top until the final.”
The overall Tour standings reveal a tight grouping after the first stage — Pellegrino in first, Ustiugov in second (+6.6), and Krogh in third (+11.6).
But heading into the first distance race, some notable names fared well after a day of freestyle sprints. Sundby is placed fourth, 15.3 seconds out of first, followed by Jönsson, (+20.5), while just over a second back lurks Cologna, with Norway’s Petter Northug Jr., in seventh, 23.1 seconds out. (Note: Saturday’s race is a mass start, but overall time back is cumulative throughout the Tour.)
For the British, a potential storyline piggy backing on Andrew Young’s third-place sprint podium in Toblach, was derailed in the fifth quarterfinal. Young began race day with a qualifier to be proud of: he qualified second overall, two seconds behind the day’s winner, Pellegrino.
Skiing close to the front, and with no sign of fatigue, approximately 38 seconds into the fifth quarterfinal and moments after skiing under an inflated Audi archway, Young fell to ground — he had been skiing inches from the barrier when he tumbled.
After the race, Young and his coach/father, Roy Young, reviewed the heat’s video with the race jury. Afterwards, the jury ruled in Young’s favor that a course obstacle did impede the skier.
In an email, Roy Young said the TV review showed “a rope dangling from Audi arch caught his arm. This spun him under the advert at side of track where he got stuck. Effectively out of the race bye time he was freed & with bruised arm he decided to stop & tell officials what had happened. For stopping I think they have ranked him 30th rather than last in his quarter. (About to check the rules, but it all seems unfair. ) But we go on and get ready for tomorrow – better go and win then. :)”
The Tour de Ski continues Saturday with 15/30 k classic mass starts.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.