OBERSTDORF, Germany – The fifth stage of the Tour de Ski, the men’s 15-kilometer classic mass start on Wednesday, was decided by mere inches. Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin took the lead in a group of five athletes from the final descent, with several more shortly behind, and outlunged Switzerland’s Dario Cologna — who challenged him in the finishing stretch — by the tip of his ski boot, claiming the victory in 35:35.9.
After consulting the photo-finish image, the race jury ruled Poltoranin had won it by one-tenth of a second, to the audible dismay of many Cologna fans in the stands, who had made the short trip across the border to Germany. Italian Francesco de Fabiani edged Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug by the same margin for the last spot on the podium in third, 0.6 seconds behind Poltoranin.
“I had a great race,” aid Poltoranin, a day after placing third in the Stage 4 classic sprint, according to a FIS press release. “I am happy, I am the first guy this winter to beat Martin [Johnsrud Sundby of Norway] in a distance race.”
He moved into fourth in the overall Tour standings, 1:31.5 minutes behind Sundby, who retained the lead despite finishing 23rd and 56.4 seconds behind Poltoranin on Wednesday. Sundby now has a 47.2-second margin over Norwegian teammate Petter Northug, who remains second in the Tour after placing ninth on Wednesday, 10 seconds after Poltoranin.
Cologna described the race as hard, but fun.
“I am very happy with the second place today,” the runner-up told FIS. “There was a great atmosphere along the course. I hope I can fight for the podium in the next stages.”
In an interview with Swiss TV broadcaster SRF 2, Cologna coughed frequently and explained he has been suffering from a nagging hack (exercise-induced asthma) for several days, which made it hard for him to find rest. He started the race rather modestly, keeping in contact with the front of the field in around 15th position for the first couple kilometers, but never took the lead — until the around 11.3 k.
“Finally it went well,” he told SRF. “At the start I felt pretty tired, but I could keep up [with the top] as I wanted to. The finish, it was very close, but in the end I think one has to be happy with the second place. I am really looking forward to [the rest day], first a long trip to Toblach, but sleeping in tomorrow. My lungs will surely be happy.”
The last three stages of the Tour take place Friday through Sunday in Italy, with the men’s 10 k freestyle individual start on Friday in Toblach, another 15 k classic mass start on Saturday in Val di Fiemme, and the final 9 k freestyle climb up Alpe Cermis on Sunday.
Beyond the photo finish for first, the other major story of the day was Sundby’s struggle, showing signs of not necessarily being superhuman as early as 3 k into the race. The bearded Norwegian suffered through his first bad race of the Tour and arguably the season after excelling in both distance and sprint races to lead the overall World Cup and Tour.
After still being close to the top of the field for the first of seven laps, he began to lose more and more ground in the following ones, falling behind despite the best efforts of some of his teammates (including Tuesday’s sprint winner Emil Iversen, who ended up 24th), to set the pace for him.
Ultimately, Sundby finished nearly a minute out of first in 23rd. His Tour lead, which seemed fairly comfortable a day ago, shrunk by half. But without any more sprints in the Tour, Sundby retained the Sprint Tour lead.
“I had a terrible day. I lost many seconds,” Sundby told FIS. “I have to look forward to the next day, and try to have a better day on the next stage.”
“As an athlete, you never have always good days, today was a bad day for me,” he told reporters. “Unfortunately, it’s a competition like this when you take your race with you, so that’s unfortunate. I have to look forward for the next races. For sure, it’s a new competition already on Friday, so I have to focus on that one and try to have a better day then.”
“I hope for top 10 in Toblach, and I will fight for the third place in the Tour de Ski,” Poltoranin told FIS. He currently trails Russian Sergey Ustiugov, who is third in the Tour standings, by 2.9 seconds. Ustiugov placed 10th on Wednesday, 10.9 seconds after Poltoranin.
After de Fabiani narrowly outlunged Dyrhaug in fourth (+0.7), the second-best Norwegian of the day, Didrik Tønseth placed fifth (+1.3) in a group sprint to the finish.
In the first of two sprints for valuable Tour bonus seconds at 3.3 k, three Norwegians beat de Fabiani to the checkpoint: Tønseth, Finn Hågen Krogh (who finished 25th) and Iversen. But what matter to the 22-year-old Italian and U23 World Cup leader was the final result at the finish.
“It was a great race! I am very satisfied with my performance,” de Fabiani told FIS. “In the past I was twice first on the top of the last uphill, and then I lost some positions and in the finish I was off the podium.
“Conditions were hard because the snow was not compact, so the bridge was not perfect and the course was not so easy to double pole with the arms,” he recapped to reporters. “So it was hard and difficult to ski and really tiring.”
Russia’s Alexander Legkov placed sixth (+3.6). Halfway through the race, and still at the 10 k mark, he had been at the top of the field, making the pace with teammate Ustiugov for the large group behind him.
Matti Heikkinen finished seventh (+4.1), for the best result for a Finnish male athlete in this year’s Tour de Ski so far.
Germany’s Andreas Katz secured eighth, 6 seconds back. It was the best-career result for Katz, who initially had not been nominated to Germany’s senior men’s “A-cadre” team, thus having to fund his own season. After good successes in trial races, he was called up to the national team and has since established himself as the best German distance skier on the Tour.
At the beginning of the penultimate lap at 12 k, Katz briefly took the lead just ahead of Cologna in front of Katz’s home crowd. In the end, he could not quite keep up with the top skiers in the final push to the finish.
“An unforgettable moment,” Katz later told German TV broadcaster ARD. “I had a lot of respect for the course, and was very relieved when I got through the downhills without a crash.”
Frustrated Harvey 10th Overall
Despite the best efforts of the race organizers from the German Ski Federation (DSV) and Oberstdorf’s ski club, with a large number of workers out on the track constantly trying to compact and even out sections in hairpin turns and dips that had caused several crashes in the classic sprints, the 2 k loop mostly made of artificial snow that the men had to ski seven times again proved to be a difficult racing ground.
Canadian Alex Harvey, the best-positioned North American in the Tour de Ski, placed 21st in the mass start, 54.6 seconds back, struggling with his skis in soft snow conditions and light rain. He lost two positions in the overall Tour standings, and is now 3:24.4 minutes back in 10th place.
“We had no chance today. No chance. We didn’t have a chance at all,” he said in an in-person post-race interview with FasterSkier. “We thought the skis were good, but compared to the other guys they weren’t good. Compared to the competition, it was not competitive at all.”
“[Kick was the] same as everybody else, but the glide was so bad,” he explained. “I felt actually pretty good in the warmup, but then after one lap, I was already trying to chase back so I killed myself. Feeling that, I was losing so much time on the flats, double poling.”
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth described the race as “hard … right from the start,” in a Cross Country Canada press release. “Alex was just not 100 percent today, and didn’t have the fight from the beginning.”
Harvey’s teammates Devon Kershaw placed 29th (+1:12.4) for another consecutive top-30 in a distance race, and Ivan Babikov was 34th (+1:31.5).
“It was a really, really difficult race today with wet, dirty, slow conditions,” Kershaw told FasterSkier. “Not a very good race for me.”
Babikov now ranks 33rd in the Tour, 8:01 out of the lead, and Kershaw is 35th (+8:13.4).
“I still have two more individual races to try to get a good result, then I’ll just drag my sorry carcass up the hill [Alpe Cermis] and call it a Tour,” he added.
Kershaw did not comment on his skis.
American Noah Hoffman, ranked 25th going into Wednesday’s race as the top U.S. male in the Tour so far, finished 41st (+1:48.5). He slipped slightly to 27th in the Tour, 6:39.9 minutes back.
“It was a tough day,” Hoffman told FasterSkier. “Really, really hard course, just super punchy. Four steep climbs per lap, and yeah, I was struggling. I was hurting.”
He started conservatively and had hoped to move up during the last three laps, but was unable to do so, Hoffman explained.
“I just didn’t have it today,” he said. “The three stages coming up are my best opportunities.”
The second U.S. male still in the Tour, Erik Bjornsen placed 56th (+3:17.3) for 43rd in the Tour standings (+9:26.7).
U.S. sprinter Andy Newell dropped out of the race on the second lap, around 3 or 4 k, he said. He had started the race ranked 66th and had not planned to complete the Tour.
“I could tell right away, as soon as we started pushing hard I just didn’t have much there,” Newell told FasterSkier. “My body, my legs were pretty tired, and I mean, I’m sure everyone’s tired out there so it sounds pretty bad, but at the same time, it’s a long season so I’ve got to try to rest up when I can.
In the other distance races I didn’t feel great, but they were longer distance races where I could ski more at threshold,” he added. “Out here today, it was pretty evident that it just wasn’t there, so sometimes you’ve got to cut your losses.”
Newell said he’s looking forward to the next regular-season World Cup after the Tour, a weekend in Planica, Slovenia, which features a freestyle sprint and a team sprint.
“I’ll get some good rest in between now and Planica; we have a little over a week, so hoping to feel good for the next sprint,” he said. “That’s all I can do is rest up and hope things turn around, and I feel better for the next World Cup weekend.”
Also focused on the next World Cup stages, several other athletes withdrew from the Tour, including Great Britain’s sprint specialist Andrew Young and Canada’s Len Valjas, who reached the classic-sprint semifinals for 10th on Tuesday, and German Sebastian Eisenlauer, who had reached the final.
— JoJo Baldus, Jason Albert and Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.