SEEFELD, Austria — A gray sky shadowed over the Tirol ski trails on Sunday. A similarly cool tension built on the course as slightly more than 100 racers warmed up for the mass start of the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle mass start.
With five minutes to spare, spectators hurried to stake their spot, some carrying steaming-cheese-fondue-filled baguettes from the Le Gruyère cheese tent: Switzerland’s stamp on the Austrian snow.
For those on site, the Le Gruyère brand would not be the only Swiss name to eventually sweep through the crowd.
Marked by the announcer, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna was watched and pointed to by many as he made his way to the four-track start lane.
By the time the Cologna had clipped into his skis, other names had been announced over the mic, including Canada’s Alex Harvey and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby. Of Sundby’s 22 individual World Cup distance victories, two came in 15 k freestyle races.
Then there was France’s Maurice Manifcat — standing in this season’s red distance leader’s bib — as well as Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, who had won six individual World Cup distance races and was seeking another on Sunday in Seefeld.
At the sound of the gun, it appeared the Russian was claiming the chase for his own. Within the first two minutes of the race, Ustiugov in bib 7 had moved to the front of the pack.
Following him was Manificat in second, Norway’s Daniel Stock in third, Finland’s Iivo Niskanen in fourth, and three Norwegians: Hans Christer Holund in fifth, Didrik Tønseth in sixth and Sundby in seventh.
Hanging around ninth position was Harvey. American Erik Bjornsen, who started in bib 30, had put himself in the mix in 16th.
As the group forged further into the first lap, Ustiugov toyed with the field. He led up the two major climbs on the men’s 3.75 k course. Just before the corner back toward the stadium at the end of Lap 1, he put in a surge and appeared to gain a small gap.
“Ustigov started really fast,” Harvey told FasterSkier after. “I was like ‘Oh man, maybe he is going to go away from the pack,’ but then it got kind of it a bit more mellow and I was able to reposition myself and from then it was better.”
As the group made their descent at the end of the lap, Ustiugov was sucked back in by the rest of the field. Heading into the second of four laps, Manificat, Niskanen, Sundby, Cologna, and Harvey were all hot on the Russian’s heels. Around 4 k as they climbed the first hill once again, Holund came on the attack. He passed Ustiugov to the left and took control of the pace.
Holund maintained his lead through the next descent and uphill. Manificat held tightly to second and Cologna third. France’s Jean-Marc Gaillard had moved up to fourth. Harvey had lost ground and dropped back to 10th.
As the racers rounded the turn into their third lap, Holund came through in first. The Norwegian had sunk his teeth — but, it turned out, not deep enough.
Holund’s Norwegian teammate Simen Hegstad Krüger skied just behind him and shadowed his every move on the climbs and descents of Lap 3. With Krüger, came Cologna, Manificat, and Harvey — around 10 k, the Canadian had maneuvered himself back into fourth.
By the time the group pressed out for their fourth and final lap, Holund had been swallowed up. Tønseth now had the lead, followed by Ustiugov and Germany’s Thomas Bing. Then came Holund, Cologna and Harvey.
Just 2 seconds out of first was Bjornsen in 19th with less than 4 k to go.
As the group began to climb, Austria’s Max Hauke tore to the front, glancing behind him on the way up. By the following downhill, however, he was replaced by Holund and Harvey.
In another 2 k, Holund was still in the lead, though unable to shake Harvey from the back of his skis, along with Cologna, Gaillard, Sundby, and Tønseth. Bjornsen had passed 10 skiers and was up to ninth, 2.8 seconds out of first.
The field had barely separated by the final climb and a pack of 10 powered together for the final push. At first it was Tønseth in the lead, but then, halfway up the hill, Cologna made his move.
The Swiss skier increased in speed and tempo. As he did, so did the crowd’s recognition that the win was about to be won.
Harvey and Sundby began a mad dash to keep up with the flurry of Cologna’s black suit. But by the time the Swiss skier cornered back toward the stadium for the last time, he was alone. Cologna crossed the finish line first in a time of 31:37.9 minutes.
The win marks Cologna’s 14th individual World Cup victory and third in the 15 k freestyle discipline, which will be featured at this year’s 2018 Olympic Winter Games (as an individual start) in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“With the fast pace from the start I wasn’t quite ready for it, but I moved up when I could and knew that the final big hill would be the place to try and win the race,” Cologna said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “It’s good to know that since the Tour de Ski my shape is still at a high level and I’m happy heading into the Olympics.”
Cologna won the 2018 Tour de Ski. On Sunday, he was also retroactively awarded the 2014/2015 Crystal Globe for leading the Overall World Cup season (after Sundby had to return the trophy).
In the race for second place on Sunday, Harvey took it, 1.4 seconds after Cologna and 1.5 seconds ahead of Sundby in third.
“I talked with Martin [Sundby] and it is the same with him and everybody, I think mostly the distance skiers,” Harvey said. “Everybody did a lot of training coming up into the weekend so we’re not the most fresh. Still I was surprised I was feeling better and better during the race.”
Before this weekend, neither Cologna, Harvey nor Sundby had raced a World Cup since the end of the Tour de Ski on Jan. 7.
“I was in ideal position right behind Dario, I just didn’t have the legs to finish,” Harvey continued. “But it was still really good.”
Rounding out the top 10 was Tønseth in fourth (+5.9), Manificat in fifth (+7.5), Krüger, in sixth (+7.7), France’s Clement Parisse in seventh (+8.0), Ustiugov in eighth (+8.4) Bjornsen in ninth (+9.3) and the Czech Republic’s Martin Jaks in 10th (+9.5).
Bjornsen’s ninth-place finish was just 9.3 seconds out from the win and 6.4 seconds out from third place. It is a personal best for the American and also his first individual World Cup top 10.
“I actually have had a couple hard weeks of training,” Bjornsen said. “So today is a good sign.”
Despite crashing on the second lap, Bjornsen managed to work his way back up. He had been in 15th through the first lap.
“I actually had a fall on the second lap and lost like 10 spots,” Bjornsen said. “I had to put in a little surge after that, but for the most part it felt pretty comfortable. … Then [I] went to make some moves on the last lap and it just came pretty easy. It was a boost in confidence to see Simi up there.”
His U.S. teammate Simi Hamilton also had a strong performance on Sunday, finishing 12th (+12.4) for his best World Cup distance result to date. He has never before scored World Cup points in a distance event.
“I think the best thing I did was just be really patient early on,” Hamilton said. “I think there was a lot of people trying to get to the front early, which kind of caused a lot of scrambling mix up, poles getting stepped on up front. So I just kind of hung back, and tried to find a hole that I could get in when I could and just try to move up slowly every lap.
“My skis were unreal, it seemed like every downhill and corner I was just sucking people in,” Hamilton added. “It was like the perfect course for me.”
The U.S. men had three in the top 30 on Sunday, with American Scott Patterson racing to 27th (+23.4). The finish is Patterson’s fourth individual World Cup performance in the points and his second best World Cup result, after placing ninth in the 30 k skiathlon last year in PyeongChang. On Sunday, he also celebrated his 26th birthday.
“A good day to get a race in,” Patterson said. “I didn’t feel like I had much for acceleration at the finish, but I was happy the gap was right behind me so I didn’t have to outsprint to many people. It was a solid last race before the Olympics, I am pretty happy with it and going into [the upcoming races] with some confidence.”
Also scoring World Cup points on Sunday was Canadian Devon Kershaw in 30th (+26.5). His Canadian World Cup teammate, Graeme Killick finished just 0.9 seconds outside the top 30 in 31st (+27.4).
Canada had four others compete in the 15 k mass start, with Len Valjas in 58th (+1:53.1), Knute Johnsgaard in 82nd (+3:23.1), Bob Thompson in 87th (+4:27.5), and Julien Locke in 92nd (+4:56.9).
Three more Americans also competed on Sunday, with Paddy Caldwell in 49th (+1:26.2), Ben Lustgarten in 55th (+1:42.7) and Tyler Kornfield in 77th (+3:00.0).
“I just could not stay in the pack that I wanted to, like, I would be three seconds out of the draft and then having to fight,” Lustgarten said. “But I caught like four or five guys every climb so I was really happy with that.”
The next stop for many World Cup racers following is PyeongChang for the Winter Olympic Games, with the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 9 and first race on Feb. 10.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.