LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland—Martin Johnsrud Sundby is just as dominant as Norwegian teammate Therese Johaug in terms of wins: both are unbeaten at the finish line of any World Cup distance race this season.
But where Johaug had broken the women’s race open from the start two hours earlier, Sundby as usual pulled off the victory in his own way here in the 30-kilometer classic mass start, the second stage of the 2016 Tour de Ski.
It wasn’t until more than 15 k into the competition that the pace at the front accelerated for the first time, fracturing the field into a small leading pack.
And then just before 19 k, Sundby upped the pace again, and skied the rest of the race alone to take a 34.6-second victory over teammate Petter Northug, with Didrik Tønseth and Sjur Røthe giving Norway a top-four sweep.
“I felt tired on the start actually, from the sprint,” Sundby said in a post-race press conference. “I used a couple of laps to get into the race and find the pace. It was maybe also a little bit the altitude. It was a difficult and tough race as I expected, but I’m happy that I could find a good pace.”
Early on, one might have had the impression that athletes from other teams could compete for the win, or at least the podium. Canada’s Alex Harvey was the first man across the line at the first bonus sprint at 5.8 k, collecting 15 seconds to pad his Tour de Ski time.
“I knew I needed to get some bonus seconds when I could, so I wanted the first one,” Harvey said. “So at least Martin didn’t win everything, so that was the first positive of the day.”
Harvey hung around in the lead pack, never at the front, but always just behind. Along with Russia’s Evgeniy Belov and Sergey Ustiugov, Italy’s Francesco De Fabiani, and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, he stuck with the Norwegian wave after the pace went up for the first time.
For Harvey it was a tried and true strategy, which has brought him to the podium or close to it in many a long World Cup race before.
“Justin [Wadsworth, Canadian Head Coach] made it clear yesterday that he didn’t want to see anybody, any of us, in the lead,” Harvey said. “I mean, that’s for the Norwegians to lead. They’re so dominant right now, it’s for them to do whatever they want in the front. Yeah, I played that well.”
The group survived as first rain, then snow, blanketed the field, tripping up a number and teams and athletes whose skis either stopped kicking or gripped too much. Several athletes fell face-first on uphills; others slipped and slid around the tracks.
“It was difficult snow conditions out there,” Tønseth said.
Harvey agreed, but said that the Canadians did a fine job with the skis.
“I had good kick,” he said. “They were competitive- not the fastest, but they were good enough to stay up there… the Russians had really fast skis, and then the Norwegians of course.”
But try as he might to stay in contention, by the end it was Tønseth, Røthe, and Northug who had the most in their legs compared to the other chasers – that despite the fact that all three of the podium skiers had finished in the top ten in the sprint, meaning that they skied a qualifier, a quarterfinal, and a semifinal.
Tønseth has rarely even started sprint races, and only skied one World Cup quarterfinal ever, in 2014.
“I have never sprinted so much before in my whole entire life so I needed four laps to get in shape,” he said of the 30 k effort in today’s press conference.
Despite their fatigue, the group dropped Belov, Poltoranin, and Harvey from in the very last kilometers. Poltoranin took fifth and Belov sixth; Harvey ended up seventh, 54.4 seconds behind Sundby and about 20 seconds off the podium.
“I blew up,” he said. “It was hard, it was a really tough race… I was pretty tired on the last lap. I was pretty tired after lap four really.”
With 48 bonus seconds already from the sprint, Sundby goes into Sunday’s 10 k skate pursuit with big lead – a minute and 18.4 seconds, to be exact. Northug will be the first chaser, with Tønseth 12.2 seconds behind.
“I think it’s smart to find the right speed tomorrow,” Northug said. “Maybe me and Didrik can work together if he manages to capture me. We’ll see but I think that you never know. It’s a 10 k and you have to find a really fast pace for sure on this track.”
Tønseth made it clear that he was going to try.
“I think 12 seconds to Petter is going to be hard,” he laughed. “I don’t know how smooth it will be at breakfast tomorrow, we’ll see.”
As for Harvey? He’ll start the pursuit in seventh after also picking up 34 bonus seconds over the course of the day. He will begin 2:22.1 behind Sundby and just 0.9 seconds ahead of Poltoranin.
“I’m tired now, but for sure it’s short for everybody, so short recovery for everybody,” he said. “The plan is to move up the rankings. Go hard- it’s only 10 k.”
Need for Speed
Harvey was left out of the heats in Friday’s skate sprint, which frustrated him and put him at a disadvantage in the overall Tour de Ski standings compared to many of his main competitors.
But after a day of reflection, he wasn’t as upset.
“I looked, and I have not qualified in a world cup sprint since World Champs last year,” he said. “The last two World Cups last year, I didn’t qualify, and the first this year, the first four. I’m missing some top speed. It’s hard to know why, but I’m just not super fast right now.”
He was less than two tenths of a second out of qualifying, ending up 33rd on the day. That’s a close margin and Harvey might be moving in the right direction.
“During Christmas I was working on it,” he said. “33rd is better than I was in the other sprints, but it’s still not good enough. I mean, I’ve never- I’ve had really good sprint results in my career, but when I was young I’ve never been a sprinter really. So that is the first thing that I lose, is the speed. I’m confident it will come back.”
Come back, and come back in time for other Tour de Ski stages. Qualifying for a sprint is a different animal than winning a finishing sprint in a long mass start or pursuit, and Harvey thinks he has that under control.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think it is just that today I blew up with 3 k to go.”
Teammate Ivan Babikov finished 33rd, +3:26.6, and Devon Kershaw 41st, +4:24.6. After also getting left out of the heats the day before, sprinter Lenny Valjas have the distance skiing a go, finishing 65th +6:54.6.
Stay tuned for more reporting on the Americans in the men’s 30 k.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.