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Stage 4 of the Tour de Ski introduced a change of scenery on Tuesday with the flanks of the Dolomites sinking from sky to valley floor in Tobalch, Italy. The day’s 15 k skate pursuit brings the Tour’s traveling circus to a new locale, however, the narrative remains the same: Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov, last season’s overall World Cup winner, has gripped the TdS lead after winning Stages 2 and 3.
Barring the unforeseen, and citing Bolshunov’s runaway performance in Sunday’s 15k skate pursuit, which he won by a margin of 53.7 seconds over his teammate Artem Maltsev, and with four stages remaining, this TdS appears to be locked up for the twenty-four-year-old Bolshunov. If Bolshunov slam-dunks the remainder of the Tour, he’ll have won back-to-back Tours – the first male skier to do so since Swiss star Dario Cologna won in 2010/2011 and 2011/2012.
Bolshunov began as the last of 63 starters. As such, he had the gift of knowing the fastest splits at every time check allowing him to notch the pace up, throttle down to conserve energy, or simply sustain an unmatchable combo of power and cardio endurance.
At 5k, 10k, and the finish, Bolshunov was true to form as the leader. He won in 32:49.6 minutes to capture his third stage win of this Tour and take a 1:15 minute lead into Stage 5, a 15 k classic pursuit.
“It was a tough race without much help. I had to just listen to splits. I am happy with the result and thanks to the service for good skis.” Bolshunov said post-race through a translator.
As Devon Kershaw noted through a text mid-race, “It’s the Russian championship out there.”
Officially, not exactly, but the results illustrate the dominance. Denis Spitsov second (+8.3), Ivan Yakimushkin third (+13.9), Alexey Chervotkin fourth (+19.2), Artem Maltsev fifth (+21.8), Maurice Manificat of France sixth (+22.9), Evgeniy Belov seventh (+27.6), and Andrey Melnichenko eighth (+29.2).
In other words, seven of the top eight finishers on the day were Russian. Top-heavy and deep. The only Russian outside the top-10 was Alexander Terentev in 15th (+52.5).
One spot ahead of Terentev, at 51.3 seconds back was twenty-year-old Gus Schumacher for the U.S. Starting in Bib 17, the Anchorage, Alaska based skier posted a career-best World Cup result in 14th. Before Tuesday’s race, Schumacher possessed two World Cup top-30s: a 25th in the Davos skate sprint, and the 24th best time of day in the Ruka 15 k skate pursuit. Both races were this season. According to FIS, he has contested 13 World Cup events, including today’s race.
“In many ways, and it is a bold statement, but in many ways, it is up for consideration for the race of the day,” said U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb. “When an athlete new to the World Cup gets his first t0p-15 that is a really special moment and to do it somewhat early in the Tour, when there are still 63 men starting is just super impressive.”
Post-race comments from U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb.
Starting in bib 17, Schumacher notched the 16th fastest split at 5k.
“It was definitely kind of a similar approach as always that I have,” said Schumacher about his first 5 k. “I try to focus on the first five to eight minutes being easier than I think it should be. I think my best races come when I feel like I did that. But, my split was still good. So today, I think I got to that first time where I got a split, and there were only 17 people through, they said I was tied for first and I was still feeling pretty comfortable. … When you hear the good split and you also feel good after six minutes, that was when I think I was like, ‘I can do something with this.’”
On his second go-around, at 10 k, he was positioned further back on the leaderboard at 26th, 56.1 seconds off of Bolshunov’s mark, and 13 seconds off the pace of Swiss skier Dario Cologna, who skied through in 15th (+43.0).
Eventually, Schumacher locked onto a ride with the 39th starter, Spitsov. Although eventually placing second overall, Spitsov was eighth after 10k. According to Schumacher, the Russian caught Schumacher atop the course before a working descent.
“I saw [Spitsov] on a 180 corner, and I knew who it was and I was pretty excited, I was like, ‘this is going to be a good ride’. He caught us, I was in a little group, and he caught us right before the downhill, and I just hopped in behind him.
“It was kind of funny because that downhill felt really easy behind him when I am sure it was about as fast as before just working it, but I was able to not work it that hard. Going into the third lap, [Spitsov] notched it up a lot actually. That little rest was good so I could hang through the third lap.”
Post-race comments from Gus Schumacher.
Spitsov gained roughly 10 seconds on Bolshunov on his third lap. For his part, Schumacher gained too. At 12.1 k he was 18th overall, 17th at 13 k, and ultimately sliding across the line 14th. For the overall Tour, Schumacher is 25th (+4:55).
Placing the race in context for his U23 cohort, which is small on the World Cup, of the seven U23 athletes Schumacher was second fastest. Terentev, the Russian in 15th, is also a U23 and anchored the Russian junior team at the 2018 and 2019 Junior World’s Relay. Both races were won by the Schumacher anchored U.S. team.
Also for the U.S., Scott Patterson was just outside the points in 32nd (+1:38.1), and Kevin Bolger placed 40th (+1:57.1). Simi Hamilton did not start.
Racing continues tomorrow with Stage 5 of the Tour de Ski, a 15 k classic pursuit.
– Gavin Kentch Contributed
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.