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From Switzerland, to Germany, to the Italian Dolomites, the 2021/22 Tour de Ski continued today with its fifth of six stages, a 15-kilometer classic in Val di Fiemme. Dwindling from over 100 racers in the opening stages in Lenzerheide, just 62 men took the tracks in Stage 5, perhaps reducing the inevitable congestion of a mass start during the first of six 2.5k loops.
With the end of the Tour fast approaching, today’s race was all about time gaps. With three wins over four stages, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) led the tour by 1:03 over teammate Pål Golberg, and perhaps more importantly, 1:19 over Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov, who entered the Tour on the heels of overall victories in both 2020 and 2021. With an abbreviated schedule that perhaps favors sprinters more than the usual seven-plus stage grind, Klæbo’s lead was not unprecedented, however, the Norwegian’s track record up the final hill climb on the infamous Alpe Cermis pales in comparison to the Russian’s.
Over the last four iterations of the Tour de Ski, Bolshunov has incrementally shaved a position or two off each year. Finishing sixth in 2018 by time of day, he advanced to fifth in 2019, third in 2020, and second in 2021. In contrast, Klæbo was 21st up the hill in 2020 and skied the 27th fastest time of day in 2019. He did not compete in the 2018 or 2021 Tours.
Though the margin was only 15 seconds between the men, Bolshunov had also beaten Klæbo in the previous classic stage, on the second day of racing in Lenzerheide. With a time bonus opportunity today at 8.5k, Bolshunov had the potential to do some damage in the overall standings.
With both athletes through the opening kilometers cleanly, without crashes or broken equipment, the tension began to build through the middle laps.
At the halfway mark, Stage 2 winner and 15k classic specialist Iivo Niskanen (FIN) led the way through the stadium with a train of athletes, mostly Norwegian and Russian, on his tails. Klæbo sat comfortably in 4th (+1.3), with Bolshunov back in 17th (+6.8). Klæbo surged ahead of Niskanen to collect the maximum time bonus of 15 seconds at 8.5k, before allowing the Finn to continue the work at the front. Bolshunov was 9th at the time bonus, earning only 2 seconds.
At 10k, Niskanen and Klæbo began to break away from the lead group, led by Bolshunov, who had skied into third, now five seconds back on Klæbo.
Pulling away with 5k to go is not a tactic we typically see from Klæbo, who historically has been better served by tactical finishes where the pack remains tight until the final kilometer, where he’s able to use his sprint acceleration to excel. Niskanen showed in Stage 2 his capability to run away with a win, but could Klæbo keep pace?
By the next lap, Klæbo showed that not only could he match the Finn, but he could drop him. The two were separated by 9.5 seconds at the 12.5k checkpoint, with the chase group over 23 seconds behind Klæbo. Halfway through the final lap, Klæbo had grown his lead to nearly 17 seconds over a fading Niskanen, with Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin leading the chase group 26 seconds back from the leader.
Climbing powerfully up the final climb, pushing into the downhill, and cruising confidently through the finish lanes for the win, Klæbo took a fourth Stage win in 41:31.2. Niskanen held his ground for second (+20.8), while Chervotkin continued to chase the podium for third (+23.7), edging out his teammate Denis Spitsov by 0.3 seconds at the line.
Losing time in the overall standings, Bolshunov crossed the line 5th (+27.9). Between the time difference of the finish and the net loss of 13 seconds at the time bonus, this set Bolshunov back in the overall Tour standings by 2 minutes, though he remains in second place behind Klæbo.
Commenting on his win and the growth of his advantage, Klæbo called it an “amazing day” in his post-race interview with FIS.
“We had amazing skis, and I think I used the rest day yesterday pretty good, so it was amazing to go out there with great grip and great gliding.”
On his fatigue as the tour wanes, Klæbo continued, “I think we all are tired, but I was just trying to push all I could today, and like I said, amazing skis and the shape was good so it was amazing to actually win from the front for a change.”
The start format of the final hill climb has shifted from a pursuit start based on overall standings in the tour, indicating that the first to the top of the hill would be the winner, to a mass start where overall standings become more foggy. This may mean that Klæbo is steadily being passed through the climb tomorrow, often those more lithe than the muscular sprint champion, while an athlete like Bolshunov climbs with more real estate, and perhaps less demoralization, near the front.
In response to the format, Klæbo explained: “[It’s not my favorite for sure, but I want to push everything I can tomorrow, then we’ll just see how it goes, but looking forward to tomorrow’s race as well.”
It was a challenging day for the American men today, with only Gus Schumacher and Zak Ketterson remaining in the tour. Schumacher skied to 50th (+4:15.5) while Ketterson finished 59th (+5:42.9). Luke Jager and Ben Ogden, both sprint focused, pulled from the Tour after Stage 4.
“This is my first tour, and probably the first time I’ve done this many races in so few days,” Ketterson said after his race. “You kind of go into the race, just seeing what will happen. Today was pretty tough, of course, but I guess it’s just the nature of skiing that you have to just look toward the next stage. We have another race tomorrow and it’s a new chance. So, just have to have short term memory loss, I guess.”
In terms of what he has learned over the last week in his first starts on the World Cup, Ketterson explained that this biggest adjustment has been to the level of racing and the density of world-class athletes.
“The most interesting thing, if I have an off day in the US on the SuperTour, may I’ll be in the top 10, maybe top 20… but here, if you have a bad race, you get exposed. So it’s just seeing that you just have to stay super focused, because if you slip even a little bit here, you just lose so much.”
Full audio from post-race interview with Zak Ketterson, hosted by U.S. Ski & Snowboard cross country communications manager Tom Horrocks.
Taking a last look at the overall standings before the final stage, Iivo Niskanen sits in third by time (+2:49) behind Klæbo and Bolshunov, with Norway’s Erik Valnes and Golberg in fourth (+3:04) and fifth (+3:09), respectively. Klæbo sits atop the points standings with 93, leading Valnes in second with 63, and Bolshunov in third with 42.
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