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A new year, new snow, and some welcome faces at the start of the 2021 Tour de Ski in Val Müstair, Switzerland. In this 15th edition of the TdS, the first three stages of eight take place in Val Müstair. The tour then proceeds to stages in Toblach and Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Friday’s 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint was a two-lap race on a course featuring banked turns, waves, and a small jump. This cross-country sprint playground was exactly that for Italy’s Federico Pellegrino (30) won the final’s in 3:08.44 as steady snow fell over the iconic alpine valley setting. The final featured Russians Alexander Bolshunov, Gleb Retivykh, and Artem Maltsev, with Frenchmen Richard Jouve and Lucas Chanavat rounding out the group of six.
On the first lap, the Russians played coy and skied behind, while Chanavat commanded the pace. As the second loop began, Pellegrino began his surge creating a small gap to Bolshunov in second and Jouve third. Careening down the winding curves, Pellegrino free skated his way into the rollers, pumping over the top to accelerate into the final curve and maintain command from the front as he entered the final lanes.
Though Bolshunov was closing hard behind him, Pellegrino stayed strong enough to comfortably take the stage. The Russian locked up second (+0.57) with Jouve in third (+2.43). Retivykh placed fourth (+4.33), Maltsev fifth (+4.82), and Chanavat sixth (+28.28).
Friday’s win was Pellegrino’s third World Cup freestyle sprint victory in a row after taking the top podium step in Davos and Dresden. Already leading the overall sprint standings coming into today’s race, Pellegrino added more points to pad his lead.
“[My legs] hurt; it hurts a lot… I think the feeling was better in the qualification than in the final, but I knew that I wanted to be really good here today,” Pellegrino told FIS after the race. “I had a lot of pressure, just made by myself, because after two victories, for sure you feel that you can continue to win.”
Pellegrino made his dedication and intent clear from the beginning. He posted the fastest qualifying time on course by over two seconds, stopping the clock at 3:02.19.
“This is my job,” he said about his participation in the Tour. “To race here is really important.”
The Italian continued by commenting on how the pandemic has affected his country and the traditional New Year’s celebrations that occur. He expressed his wishes to provide an uplift and source of national pride during this challenging time.
“I hope to have given a little bit of sunshine on this new 2021 year.”
Wearing the yellow bib as the overall World Cup leader, Bolshunov is the real threat for the TdS overall. He won last season’s edition, which offered a full complement of racers from Norway. (Norway is not contesting the TdS due to the ongoing pandemic). On his way to winning the 2020 TdS, Bolshunov won a single stage of the TdS, stage 4’s 15 k classic pursuit, before securing the overall on the Val di Fiemme final hill climb.
Let’s take a step back into the earlier rounds.
Showing great form, Simi Hamilton led the American men with a 4th place finish (+2.9) in the qualifier. Kevin Bolger snagged the final spot in the top-30 (+9.23) and both men stepped into the starting gates in the second heat of the quarterfinals.
Unfortunately, a broken pole near the start robbed Bolger of the chance to truly compete. He lost contact with the pack and ended the day in 30th.
Racing with the agility and tactics for which he is known, Hamilton tucked in behind the three Russians that led the first lap of the heat. As they accelerated into the tight downhill S-turns, Hamilton edged his way up in the group, reaching his hand out to touch the skier next to him, signaling his presence with confidence and authority to diffuse a potential tangle.
In his second lap, Hamilton held second position on the tails of Andrey Melnichenkov (RUS), seemingly getting in position for a top-two finish early. Coming into the final turn, Hamilton was forced to stay wide, allowing Gleb Retivykh the more direct line. Hamilton fought with Melnichenkov and Retivykh all the way to the line, but couldn’t quite make up the ground. He finished third in the heat, 0.02 seconds off the time needed to advance to the semi as a lucky loser. Hamilton ended the day 13th.
“Today was nothing amazing result-wise, but I think there were a lot of good signs for me that indicates I’m skiing at a strong level right now,” Hamilton wrote in an email to FasterSkier after the race. “Obviously I wanted to be back in the final, but the near-perfect racing it takes for me to do that didn’t shake out today. I was really psyched with my qualifier, and my body felt quite good during that effort.”
Hamilton continued with insight into his approach to the tour and his outlook after today’s very near miss.
“I’ve been feeling a little tired the last few days, so I’ve been taking it very, very easy, and I wasn’t sure how everything would respond after basically taking three days totally off. Obviously, my main goal for the tour is to perform well in the sprints, but I’d like to feel good on the distance days too so I wasn’t really preparing this week like I would have if I were putting all my eggs in today’s basket. Instead, I took a much more conservative approach to things to make sure I was giving my body the rest it needs for this whole eight race event. In my quarter I felt pretty strong and I thought I skied it tactically well, but I got boxed out on the outside coming into the finish lanes and I lost what turned out to be a very important tenth of a second from that. So, yeah, frustrating but you can’t always just look at the results to decide whether a race went well or not.”
Barely outside rounds, Gus Schumacher ended his day after the qualifier in 31st (+9.55). Distance racer Scott Patterson took 79th (+22.72).
Racing continues tomorrow as stage 2 of the Tour de Ski offers up a 15 k classic mass start for the men.
– Jason Albert and Harald Zimmer contributed
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646