Davos, Switzerland – Petter Northug served notice to the World Cup field Saturday in Davos, Switzerland that the Norwegian superstar has to be taken seriously – no matter where or what the World Cup race is.
The odds were supposed to be against Northug Saturday. The 30 k freestyle distance individual start doesn’t suit his strong mass-start finishing style. The strong distance field taking to the start line was rounding into shape, especially home-town favorite Dario Cologna. Even the venue was supposedly against him, as Northug has never won in Davos – his best distance finish in the Swiss ski-crazy valley was 13th.
But the exciting Norwegian showed why he is the World Cup Overall leader, taking the top step of the podium by a whopping 51.4 seconds over Frenchman Maurice Magnificat. Finishing third 59.5 seconds back was distance specialist Lukas Bauer (CZE) who picked up his first podium of the young season.
As Northug was starting last, the 8,000 strong crowd of mostly Swiss and French fans had plenty of time to wait and cheer their skiers around the four 7.5 k loops.
The best of the early-starters was Canadian Ivan Babikov, who rocketed out of the gate to hold the lead at a number of early time checks. Babikov was locked in a battle with fellow early-starter Matti Heikkinen (FIN). Also in the mix were Norwegian Petter Eliassen, who is best known for falling in the last kilometer of the 50 k at World Championships in Oslo last February, and Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR), an incredibly inconsistent distance specialist.
With Babikov and Johnsrud Sundby setting fast times, it looked like the early starters might take the day – at least until the end of the Red Group hit the first time check.
Maurice Magnificat (FRA), who has yet to record a medal on the World Cup this year seemed to break out of his early-season slump, taking the third-fastest time on the first two laps. Marcus Hellner (SWE) also appeared to be back in form, holding a strong second at 15 k before fading slightly on the last two laps to finish fourth, 1 minute 11.8 seconds behind Northug.
At 30 k, Petter Eliassen established the fastest of the early marks on the day, taking a seat in the reindeer-hide chair. With close splits on the last few time checks, it looked like Babikov might be in position to pull the top spot out from under the Norwegian, but the Canadian fell short at the finish – as he came through the mixed zone, he was visibly upset.
Eliassen withstood most of the red group challengers, as did Babikov, but as the top-ranked men started to come across the line, it was clear that a new leader would emerge. Johnsrud Sundby took the lead briefly, but relinquished it shortly thereafter to Bauer, who was supplanted quickly by Manificat.
At that point, it was merely a formality – splits were showing Northug with an insurmountable lead, and he was still attacking. In the last five kilometers, the Norwegian was hop-skating hills like it was a sprint rather than a 30 k.
By the time he crossed the finish line, Northug had built up 51.4 seconds of buffer – more than his female counterpart Marit Bjoergen put into the women’s field, and had banished all criticism of his all-around skiing ability.
Of particular note was Northug’s domination of the downhill sections of the course, where he was extremely fast.
“I had good skis and I gave my best to push in the downhills as I am not so strong than Maurice [Manificat] in the uphill,” said Northug after the race.
As for the Czech distance specialist Bauer, he showed that he is rounding in to the shape that has seen him win the Tour de Ski twice in the past.
“I was actually not sure if it is enough for the podium but at the end I made it,” he said.
“I am happy with it. The longer races fit me well and I like Davos.”
Bauer was also impressed with Northug’s skiing, especially in the distance individual start event.
“Northug is not unbeatable,” said Bauer, “it’s just really, really hard.”
In what is probably not a surprise, all three podium-placing athletes were happy with the return to 30 k individual start racing – but none were as brash about it as Northug.
“I don’t like mass starts,” he joked in the post-race press conference. “I like to go alone.”