Saturday’s 15 k classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy, began as many expected: with aggressive skiing from Sergey Ustiugov and his Russian teammates.
Ustiugov, last year’s Tour de Ski champion, started the day ranked second, 53 seconds behind Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, himself a three-time Tour de Ski champion. Ustiugov was obviously trying to make up some of that time in a bid to challenge Cologna for the title: he skied hard from the start and won the bonus sprints at 3.6 and 8.6 kilometers, and teammates like Alexander Bolshunov, Alexey Chervotkin, and Andrey Larkov were often surrounding him at the front of the race.
Those bonus sprint seconds alone took 12 seconds out of Cologna’s overall lead. But the strategy appeared to backfire.
After the second bonus sprint, Ustiugov slowed to catch his breath. The man who had crossed the timing carpet just behind him, Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan, just kept going. Behind him, Cologna and Canada’s Alex Harvey quickly latched on. It was a breakaway.
For several kilometers, their gap to the chasers hovered around two, three, or four seconds. Russia’s Larkov caught on. So did Norway’s Didrik Tønseth, but then he fell of the back of the pack again.
Poltoranin kept pushing the pace, and Harvey and Cologna took turns leading, too. The group was clearly trying to put some time on the men around them in the Tour standings.
“I knew some guys were struggling so I was really trying to lead the pace today,” Harvey, who also led for a kilometer or so around the 6 k mark, said in a Cross Country Canada (CCC) press release. “I was feeling good and I took my responsibility because I really wanted to make it hard and keep the speed high in the front for some of those guys struggling.”
And it worked. As the distance wore down towards the finish line, it was a group of four, with the rest of the field increasingly stringing out behind them. Ustiugov lost more seconds, and more. So did Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who had come into the day ranked third in the Tour.
“In Val di Fiemme, our team has always managed to perform well in the classic mass start,” Larkov said in a Russian ski team Instagram post, according to a translation. “Today, from the very beginning of the race, the speed was almost maximum. After four laps of six, a group of leaders began to thin out. I saw all [my teammates] are behind us. I couldn’t slow down my opponents, so I went and got in behind them.”
Coming into the final downhill, Poltoranin led in one track, and Harvey in another. But Harvey’s skis appeared to be the tiniest bit slower than his competition’s.
“I went for more grip to have perfect kick,” Harvey, who had been able to stride up the final climb while Larkov and Poltoranin had to jump out of the tracks and herringbone, said in a FIS press release. “I knew the other guys had a little bit faster skis.”
That kick had put him in a great position for 14.5 kilometers and allowed him to be in podium position, but in the race’s final meters it turned into a drawback. Larkov pulled around him to follow Poltoranin to the finish, ending up just 0.4 seconds back for the first World Cup podium of his career.
“I watched [how] their skis work,” Larkov said in the Instagram post. “For Harvey and Cologna, the skis were slightly worse. I paid attention to this.”
Harvey double-poled with all his might and hung onto third (+0.9). Cologna realized he didn’t have the finish sprint, and crossed the line a weary fourth (+2.3).
It is Harvey’s first podium of the season – he has been fourth three different times – and also his first classic podium since 2015 World Championships.
“This was a good result, especially in classic,” he said. “To do it on a really hard course here is really good.”
Alexander Bolshunov of Russia finished fifth (+15.0) and Daniel Rickardsson of Sweden sixth (+20.2).
Sundby finished 11th, 28.9 seconds back.
“It’s terribly bad,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, according to a translation. “Not good at all… We have nothing to blame on… but that’s the reality. I’m not in better shape. Being out of it in a 15 k classic is unusual… As of today, this is far too bad.”
Cologna may not have been on the podium today, but he held onto and even extended his Tour de Ski lead. Going into Sunday’s final stage, the climb up the Alpe Cermis, he has an advantage of 1:14.4 over Poltoranin, who vaulted from sixth into second place in the Tour standings with his win.
“Over a minute is already a good lead,” Cologna told Switzerland’s SRF broadcaster of his chances of taking another Tour title.
For Poltoranin, it is a return to form as he has quite a large collection of World Cup wins and podiums, but his last win had come two years ago in a Tour de Ski stage in Oberstdorf. Almost all of his best results have been in classic, and today was his day. Not only did he push the pace in a move that ended up defining the race, but he was able to claim the win, too.
“Second place is a new record for me [in the Tour de Ski],” Poltoranin told FIS’s Jeff Ellis in a stadium interview. “Of course I’m really happy I won.”
Ustiugov had been uncertain of starting Saturday’s race, after sustaining a mild back injury in one of his several crashes in the mass start in Oberstdorf, Germany, on Thursday.
He is now ranked third in the Tour de Ski, 1:21.5 back, and only the slimmest of margins ahead of Harvey, who is fourth 1:22.7 back. Then there is Bolshunov, +1:39.4, and Sundby +1:42.2. While Cologna, who last year had the fifth-fastest time up the big climb, is looking good to claim his fourth overall Tour de Ski title, the podium places are still wide open.
“The goal tomorrow will be to not work too much on the flats, but keep at it,” Harvey said in the CCC press release. “I don’t want to save my energy as much as I can for the climb, and not get caught by the guys behind me. It’s not my best event but the guys around me are all in the same boat.”
In last year’s edition Sundby had the 12th-fastest climb time, Harvey the 14th-fastest, and Ustiugov the 16th-fastest. The previous year, however, Sundby clocked the best climb time. In the past few years, when Poltoranin has finished the Tour he has never had a top-15 time up the Alpe Cermis. And Bolshunov has never competed in the Tour de Ski before.
In the 15 k mass start, the lone U.S. starter, Paddy Caldwell, finished 48th, +3:38.6.
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.