When it’s seven race days into something like the Tour de Ski, pushing oneself repeatedly to physical extremes isn’t as simple as “mind over matter.” The basics: resting, recovery and more of the same, rules the day.
The results don’t specifically quantify whether the Tour’s overall leader, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, recovers the best, or is the most well rested, or can suffer the most. But in Saturday’s seventh stage, the men’s 15-kilometer classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Sundby once again proved he might as well be — odds are he’s the winning bet to take this 10th edition of the Tour de Ski.
Sundby won Saturday’s race in 39:55.2. Norwegian teammate, Niklas Dyrhaug placed second, 7.7 seconds back, while Kazakhstan’s classic specialist Alexey Poltoranin, finished third, 12.6 seconds from the win.
Heading into the race, Sundby led the Tour by 1:28.1 minutes over his Norwegian teammate Petter Northug in second, and 1:31.8 ahead of Russian Sergey Ustiugov in third. A third Norwegian, Finn Hågen Krogh, coming off a win in Friday’s Stage 6, entered the seventh stage in fourth (+2:07.5).
By the end of Saturday’s 15 k, the race for second and third overall would reshuffle — with some skiers moving up the ranks, others down.
Sundby set the pace early on — his reputation preventing any upstarts from leading out. On the downhills, a long slinky line of skiers extended back, while in the early going, the uphills provided a place for regrouping.
Around 7 1/2 minutes into the race, Krogh took a strong pull up front. His move seemed for real, with a few-seconds gap forming back to Ustiugov, Northug and Sundby. But Krogh’s efforts were only part of his plan to ensure he was first to the first time bonus at 3.5 k.
After 6.5 k, a group of approximately 25 skiers had firmly established in front, with Sundby again setting the pace for three columns of striders behind.
Just before the second time bonus at 8.5 k, the race began to blow apart. Sundby, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, and Italy’s Francesco de Fabiani, took the top-three bonuses, and Poltoranin followed close behind in fourth. Canada’s Alex Harvey, starting the day in bib 15, passed the time bonus in 14th, sixteen seconds after Sundby.
At 12.5 k, the course looped through the stadium. At this point it was clear: this was Sundby’s race to lose as he led a glued-to-the -back-of-his-skis Dyrhaug through the remaining kilometers. Poltoranin, unable to match the duo’s pace, dangled 100 meters back. Beyond, that, it was a busy and clustered race for the remaining top-10 spots.
Through the final kilometers and down the final stretch, it was a common scene: Sundby surging with an unmatched tempo and double poling for the win. Dyrhaug locked into second, nearly 8 seconds back.
The results in Stage 7 shuffled the Tour’s overall standings. Sundby will head into the final 9 k freestyle climb up Alpe Cermis with a 2:51.5-minute gap on his nearest competitor. That’s still Northug, who finished Saturday’s race in a photo finish and ended up 17th (+51.4).
Poltoranin jumped from fifth to third overall, 2:53 behind Sundby. That pushed Ustiugov into fourth overall, where he trails Poltoranin by 3.2 seconds. Krogh finished fifth (behind de Fabiani in fourth) to slip to fifth overall (+3:01.4).
The slopes of Alpe Cermis should be a highlight as the difference between second to sixth place is only 10 seconds.
In the post-race press conference, Sundby seemed grateful for his resurgence after the Stage 5 Oberstdorf 15 k classic mass start classic (the same format as Stage 7), where he finished 23rd.
“It was the same distance and technique as in Oberstdorf, but totally different result,” he said. “I had amazing skis. The plan before the start to ski with the pack with the skis like I had to go for it. I am really happy for the victory and happy that Niklas is on the podium as well.”
Unlike Sundby back in Oberstdorf, Dyrhaug narrowly missed the podium, placing fourth in a super-tight finishing sprint, 0.7 seconds from first place.
“I was close off the podium in Oberstdorf,” Dyrhaug said in the press conference. “It feels great to finish in second place. One of the goals today was to help other guys from Norway fighting for the overall. I had to be patient and follow the lead and go got the sprint. I tried to do as good job as possible. I started to be little bit tired in the second last lap.”
Top North American, Harvey finished seventh (+31.3) for his third top 10 of the Tour (he was seventh in the 30 k classic mass start in Stage 2 and ninth in the 10 k freestyle pursuit in Stage 3). His rebound up the Tour standings saw him gain three spots heading into the last stage, and he now sits in 12th overall (+5:49.9).
According to Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth, Harvey’s simply tired.
“He is still is not feeling super good, and I think today … he probably would have been on the podium normally, had he felt really normal or good,” Wadsworth said on the phone after Saturday’s race. “It was a really satisfying race for him.
“He really fought hard the whole race and was kind of back in 15th a lot of the race,” Wadsworth continued. “And then he just decided to start pushing it a little bit and the pace was also going hard after the bonus, and things were getting really spread out. He kind of kept on getting right on the edge of the back of the group and then he worked his way to manage to stay back in … Actually one of the gutsier races from him. When you don’t feel good, it’s hard to be in there like that.”
Sunday’s epic stage will see Harvey with new legs, so to speak, following surgery this past spring that will allow him to complete the Tour. (In the past, Harvey has experienced blood-flow problems in his legs, particularly when skating on sustained climbs.)
“He is excited to see how his legs are going do. It’s the first time he’ll have good legs going up that, without his artery issue,” Wadsworth said. “So I think it will be kind of a learning experience again for him to do it and actually have legs underneath him. That will be fun to see.”
Ivan Babikov placed 30th, 1:59.3 after Sundby, and teammate Devon Kershaw finished 31st (+2:05.5). Heading into the final climb, Harvey will start 5:50 back in 12th, Babikov 12:30 after Sundby in 29th, and Kershaw 12:31 back in 33rd.
American Noah Hoffman continued his top-30 streak, placing 23rd on Saturday (+1:37.1). He enters the last stage ranked 26th overall, and will start the final climb 9:48 out of first. The other U.S. male in the Tour, Erik Bjornsen, placed 46th (+3:25.3) for 42nd overall (+15:17).
The Tour concludes Sunday with the final climb in Val di Fiemme.
Stay tuned for a separate report on Hoffman.
Of note: Dario Cologna, who skied at the front of the field for 10 k of the race, finished with an injury. He ended up 40th (+2:51), but dropped out of the Tour, seeking an MRI on his left calf muscle in Davos, Switzerland. Despite his result on Saturday, Cologna still ranked 13th overall heading into the final stage.
According to Swiss team doctor Hanspeter Betschart, interviewed by Swiss TV broadcaster SRF 2, “Dario Cologna already felt his left calf a little bit before the race, then on the climb it really shot into it, an acute muscle injury in the left calf. We have to examine him for more details, we just looked at it briefly now.”
Asked if it was likely the result of a slip during the race, rather than a lingering problem, Betschart said, “Yes, exactly. … There were no signs for something like this. This is an acute event.”
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.