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In the men’s 1.5 kilometer classic sprint in Val di Fiemme, Italy – Stage 7 of the Tour de Ski – it was an overcast day for skiers with enough snap and stride remaining for a bit of podium glory.
Seven stages into the 2021 Tour de Ski and the exhaustion is palpable. The qualification began like it has many times before in sprinting, with Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, leader of the World Cup sprint globe, topping qualification in 3:14.48. Coming into Saturday’s stage, Pellegrino had won three straight sprints, which included Stage 1 of this year’s Tour, all of which were freestyle. Of his16 World Cup sprint wins, one is in classic technique. Drilling further, of his 32 World Cup podiums, two are in classic, one in 2013, the other in 2016.
We can hear Kershaw now, “the Norwegians reign supreme in the classic sprint.” That much is true. Of the last 14 World Cup classic sprints, 13 were won by Norwegians. The only exception in that run was Alexander Bolshunov’s win in Ruka in 2018. Yet, with the Norge kick and glide posse in Norway, the door was left open for Pellegrino to take a bow at the finish in Val di Fiemme.
Atop the final hill on the 1.5 k sprint course, up to which Pellegrino had looked right in the hunt and the Tour’s yellow-bibbed overall leader, Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov, chest-puffing up front for most of the race, things nearly came to a standstill. The pace lulled. The overthink ensued.
Included in the six-skier final were Pellegrino, Sweden’s Oskar Svensson, Russia’s Artem Maltsev, Gleb Retivykh, Bolshunov, and France’s Valentin Chauvin.
Of the six, the twenty-five-year-old Svensson seized the moment when the pace became sleepy. He stepped to the inside of the left-hand corner and pushed with considerable speed over the hilltop and into the long glide-out downhill trending finish. Pellegrino was caught off guard, as were the Russians. Svennson gained enough momentum and meters to win in 3:19.83 for his first World Cup win.
Although next closest to Svennson’s tails entering the glide out, Pellegrino was swallowed up by Retivykh in second (+0.24), and Bolshunov in third (+0.32). Pellegrino, denied his fourth straight sprint win, was fourth (+0.70). Chauvin placed fifth (+0.76) for his first World Cup top-10, and Maltsev sixth (+3.15)
Svennson won the first quarterfinal over Bolshunov and the first semifinal on his way to clinching the finals. Pellegrino, as noted, not a classic specialist, but was a silver medalist in the 2018 Olympic classic sprint, did not win his quarter-final or semi, on his path to the finals. Bolshunov advanced out of the faster first semi as a lucky loser.
Kevin Bolger for the U.S. was the top American qualifier in 20th (+9.76), with Gus Schumacher 24th (+10.79), and Scott Patterson 51st (+24.21). Simi Hamilton, a venerable U.S. sprinter, pulled out of the Tour earlier in the week.
Bolger, in the second heat, fell off the pace on the last hill to place fifth (+2.66) in a heat won by Russia’s Alexander Terentev. Bolger finished in 23rd.
“Its been a grind- Matt [Whitcomb] and I mapped out a pretty good plan in Toblach really trying to ski those stages hard- and then once we arrived here in Val Di Fiemme- not trying to load the distance race- ski the first few laps hard [in Stage 6] then settle in so I don’t drain the batteries any more than they are,” Bolger emailed. “But keeping up with the snappiness- throughout the last 1-2 years I’ve developed with the help of Matt and my strength coach Tschana a really good Neuromuscular type warm up- which really helps get things firing before big days like today and after the 5 15k load.”
The Tour traditionally is not a sprinter’s game. Some pure sprinters remain for the duration – most often the race schedulers load the sprints towards the beginning of the multi-stage grind, providing an easy opt-out once the low-hanging fruit of sprint points are gobbled up. Bolger has remained this year.
“All in all, up until now this tour has been a grind of 5 15ks in a row and this is no joke- The sprint stages were my focus but I wanted to be able to put together a distance race or two,” Bolger explained. “I was quite excited heading into today’s tour stage but am feeling unsatisfied with how things played out- I felt really good in my Quarterfinal today carrying a lot of momentum up the last climb but a Finnish skier made a pretty stupid move- stabbing my ski and tried to move in on me, which caused me to lose a lot of momentum. At the end of the day, that’s sprinting and the way this goes on the World cup- no room to take any shit. I’m excited to take what I’ve learned from this day and build on it as we move forward, and absorb this monster of a tour once we are done! The best part about it all though is seeing Gus just beast his way through this tour like a pro – big props to him and I’m excited for the whole men’s team to get back together in a few weeks!”
Schumacher, in the third heat, pulsed into the final straight carrying sufficient speed, but lost meters in the double pole section and ended his day fifth (+1.35) in the heat won by Russian speedster Retivykh. Schumacher was 24th overall. Schumacher’s efforts come a day after a career-best eighth place in the Stage 6 mass start 15 k classic.
For the overall, no shock here, Bolshunov is on pace to win back-to-back Tours. He comes into the Stage 8 hill climb with a 3:22 minute lead on the second-place skier France’s Maurice Manificat. Russia’s Ivan Yakimushkin, who placed 13th in the sprint, is third overall (+3:27). Russia controls six of the top-10 spots and seven of the top-12.
Swiss skier Dario Cologna is listed in seventh, despite pulling from today’s sprint after the qualification. The competition rules state that Cologna may start the final stage. He is listed as 30th in the standings despite not contesting the heats.
Schumacher is placed 18th overall and is pacing for a best-ever U.S. men’s overall result at the Tour de Ski.
The 2021 Tour de Ski concludes tomorrow with the Stage 8 mass start Alpe Cermis hill climb.
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.