Sergey Ustiugov is getting used to skiing from the front. After winning the opening sprint of the Ski Tour Canada (STC), the 23-year-old Russian has yet to relinquish a spot on the podium through four stages.
Despite the best efforts of the Norweigian duo, Petter Northug Jr. and Emil Iversen, nipping at his heels in Saturday’s 15-kilometer freestyle pursuit in Quebec City, his streak continues.
Starting alone and with a 17-second advantage on second-place Northug, Ustiugov’s race was a solo effort. Behind him it was two pairs of chasers that provided the fuel for the crowd on Saturday. The first of Northug and Iversen, gritted their teeth and tried to track down Ustiugov. The second pair, with local celebrity Alex Harvey and overall World Cup leader Martin Johnsrud Sundby, started the day in fourth and fifth respectively. They both appeared energized, charging over the hills of the Plains of Abraham, intent on knocking some time out of their gap to third place.
Opposite to the previous distance stop in Stage 2 in Montreal, racers enjoyed hard-packed snow conditions. The four-lap course, nestled on a steep bank overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway, tested the toughness of racers by incorporating both the steep climbs of the third stage’s sprint course and several more drawn-out climbs. Combined with the time change, travel to Canada, a tough sprint the day prior, and the end of a long season of racing, many racers appeared weary.
“It was a very hard race today,” Ustiugov told reporters through a translator at a post-race press conference. “I was little bit afraid that Northug and Iversen are coming closer. I am happy I could keep the pace high and that I could go for victory.”
Northug echoed Ustiugov’s statements at the press conference, saying that although he is “starting to get the rhythm that I have back in Norway … Everyone is starting to get tired.” Although the racers will have a break from the action until a classic sprint on Tuesday, the next venue at the Canmore Nordic Centre in Canmore, Alberta is at an altitude of 4,600 feet. Saturday’s pursuit at sea level was all about making the last four races of the Tour a little easier by gaining valuable seconds.
Northug and Iversen planned to work together in their attack on Ustiugov’s lead. However, after two laps, the gap between Northug and Iversen went from two seconds at 8 k to nearly 18 seconds at 10.7 k.
Iversen explained after the race that he could not keep up on the third and fourth lap, and he struggled to get across the finish line.
“… My body wasn’t fresh enough today, so it was rough on lap three and four, and for me to get to the finish line,” he said.
Despite a tough day, he was excited to stay in third overall in the Tour.
“I am satisfied to sit here with the big number three, but it was a hard day today,” he said.
After dropping Iversen on lap 3, Northug stayed consistent and within reach of Ustiugov, but appeared to lack the gear necessary to reel in the Russian. Northug explained that he went into damage-control mode on the final lap.
“I felt good and tried to attack Ustiugov, but in the last lap it was just about not losing seconds on Ustiugov,” Northug said.
Behind him, another race unfolded to determine the fourth and fifth positions.
As Iversen faded, he had to be aware of the two guys closing in on him. Even if he couldn’t see them, the roar of the crowd following Harvey and Sundby was deafening enough that Sundby gave the crowd a shout out in a pos- race interview: “I didn’t hear my coach one time today due to the home crowd. Kudos to the home crowd!” he said.
The reason the crowd followed Sundby was because his counterpart for the majority of the day was local favorite, Harvey. While Sundby started fifth, 17 seconds after Harvey in fourth, the Canadian’s strategy for the day would be to cling onto Sundby, the defending Tour de Ski and overall World Cup champion, when he inevitably made his way forward.
Canadian National Team Coach Justin Wadsworth said that this strategy worked to near perfection.
“For Alex, it was about as good as we could have hoped,” he said after the race. “The perfect strategy worked out. We were pretty sure Sundby was going to catch him, so having Sundby catch him and not Finn Hågen [Krogh in sixth], while also moving up to Iversen.”
As the tour heads west, Harvey remains in fourth, 52.6 seconds away from Iversen in third and the podium with it. Harvey is 2:04.8 out of first.
Sundby told reporters he enjoyed skiing with Harvey.
“It was really cool for me to ski with him today,” the Norwegian said. “I tried to do my best and move us up the result list to take some seconds from the leaders.”
And take some seconds they did. Sundby, Harvey and Norway’ Krogh started the day in fourth (+1:57), fifth (+2:14), and sixth (+2:27), respectively, behind Ustiugov. By 4 k in, Sundby and Harvey paired up, and trailed by 2:02.5, followed by Krogh another 10 seconds later.
At 8 k, still skiing together, they cut their deficit to 1:58.5. It was only four seconds less than at 4 k, but at this point Iversen hit a wall and began to lose time, while Krogh exploded backwards, dropping nearly a minute behind Sundby at 10.7 k.
Up the final climb and down the finishing stretch, Harvey led Sundby to finish in fourth. Sundby, en route to laying down the fastest time of the day, led Harvey throughout the majority of the course. After the race, each commented on the other’s workload.
“He knew I’m a better sprinter than he is, but he also did most of the work today, “ Harvey said of Sundby. “He’s the one wearing the yellow overall leader’s bib and he’s [been] the best for three years, so it’s up to him to do the work. A good day for me is to be able to follow him.”
According to Sundby, a man who verified after the race that he trains up to 1,100 hours a year because he’s “not the biggest [natural] talent,” he did most of the pulling throughout the race.
“I asked him if he wanted to do some work on the last lap, but he said, ‘no man!’ ” Sundby recalled. “I reckon on the last uphill that I have to let him take the finish now because we are in Canada, in Quebec, and he is the prince of Quebec.”
“I reckon on the last uphill that I have to let him take the finish now because we are in Canada, in Quebec, and he is the prince of Quebec.” — Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby on skiing with Quebec native Alex Harvey for most of the 15 k freestyle pursuit on Saturday
Either way, both took advantage of the tough days of Iversen and Krogh. While the top-two podium spots appear almost out of reach 2:04.8 and 2:05.8 back for Harvey and Sundby, both are within striking distance of third-place Iversen, who now sits a distant 1:12.2 back from Ustiugov.
When questioned about his slow start to the tour, Sundby blamed the sprint races and the tough conditions in Montreal.
“I had a really bad start for this tour, two bad sprints,” he said. “I am not the best sprinter so I reckoned to be some seconds behind after the three first races, but I lost too much in the classic mass start.”
To make up for his slow start, he plans on throwing everything he’s got at the final races in Canmore.
“At the moment we are too far behind [to win], but I think anything is possible,” Sundby said. “I will go to Canmore with that state of mind. I will go all-in in every distance; I have to. I’m not afraid of dying in the last couple races. I just have to go.”
Harvey, again following the same thinking as Sundby, said that now the podium on home soil is once again within his grasp, “Right now, I’m not thinking of Northug, I’m more focused on catching Iversen. The podium remains possible.”
As the tour heads West, Harvey and fellow Canadian World Cup Team member Devon Kershaw stand as the only two North American males in the top 30.
Catching up with Kershaw after the race, he expressed disappointment in Saturday effort despite only losing one place to finish in 21st (+4:22.8): “It was a bit frustrating with the wave starting so close to my little group,” he said. “That gave that giant pack a free 18 seconds.”
Finishing two spots behind Kershaw in 23rd and moving up from 31st place was Finnish skier, Matti Heikkinen, who blazed the second-fastest time of the day. Sweden’s Marcus Hellner rounded out the top three for time.
The top American, Erik Bjornsen, started 28th but fell outside the top 30, finishing in 32nd (+5:28.3). After the race he discussed his strategy as similar to a mass start pacing, trying to stick with a group and move up that way.
“It was all right. I’m not super happy with it. I made a surge on the third lap and paid for it,” he explained.
Despite the frustration, Bjornsen said he looks forward to racing in Canmore because his family is easily able to make the trip from their home in Washington’s Methow Valley to come watch.
Following Bjornsen was Canada’s Ivan Babikov in 35th place, not gaining or losing any spots on the day. Babikov aimed to “stay in the group and stay away from trouble,” however he said he crashed on lap two thus spoiling his strategy.
Other North American men in the top 50 included sprint specialist and second-place finisher from the first stage, Simi Hamilton (U.S. Ski Team) in 40th, followed by teammate Noah Hoffman in 44th, and Canada’s Graeme Killick in 49th.
The last stops on the tour all take place in Canmore at the Canmore Nordic Centre, home of the 1988 Olympic nordic events. The final sprint of the season will be the next event, a classic sprint on Tuesday.
After adding the five-second sprint bonus, which Ustiugov also won on Saturday, the overall tour top-five in the Tour are: 1. Ustiugov, 2. Northug (+22.7), 3. Iversen (+1:12.2), 4. Harvey (+2:04.8), and 5. Sundby (+2:05.8).
Looking toward the second half of the Tour, first and second place appear decided between Ustiugov and Northug; however, Sundby is not ruling himself out.
“I need some miracles in Canmore, but I believe in miracles, so anything can happen!” he said.
Other North American finishers include Scott Patterson (USA) in 53rd, Kevin Sandau (CAN) 57th, Len Valjas (CAN) 63rd, Andy Shields (CAN) 65th, Patrick Stewart-Jones (CAN) 66th, Michael Somppi (CAN) 67th, Eric Packer (USA) 68th, Jess Cockney (CAN) 69th, Knute Johnsgaard (CAN) 70th, Russell Kennedy (CAN) 71st, Reese Hanneman (USA) 72nd, Bob Thompson (CAN) 74th, Tad Elliott (USA) 75th, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (USA) 77th, Matt Liebsch (USA) 79th, Brian Gregg (USA) 80th, Andy Newell (USA) 81st, Simon Lapointe (CAN) 82nd.
— Gerry Furseth and François Léger Dionne contributed
New to the FasterSkier team, Jeremy has been involved in many facets of the ski community since he began ditching middle school to go skiing. When not daydreaming of the Birkie, he finds time to explore the fishing and trail-running opportunities of his new home, Seattle, Wash.