Though the men’s 15 k classic mass start in Rogla, Slovenia was contested on a 7-lap manmade loop, the final distance race in Period 1 of the World Cup provided plenty of excitement. Petter Northug (NOR) delivered what is now almost an expected sprint-finish performance, and edged out Dario Cologna (SUI) and Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ) to the line with a powerful double pole.
Though the last-second victory on Saturday was typical of Northug’s style, the close finish this time was not designed for entertainment value—afterwards he said he had not been feeling his best, and had to fight hard to the finish to stay in contention. He skied near the back of the top-30 for much of the first part of the race, gradually moving his way up to the front of the dense train of skiers.
Coming down the final hill into the stadium, Northug stepped out of the tracks just before the finish lanes to hop in front of Cologna and Poltoranin, while Cologna simultaneously stepped into the neighboring lane to challenge Northug all the way to the end. Northug ended up winning by 0.2 seconds, and Poltoranin finished third at +1.2 seconds back.
“I had a good position in the last downhill. I saw Dario was in front so I had to move there also to defend the yellow jersey,” he said. Northug got it done, but judging from his collapse at the finish, the effort cost him.
Cologna was aiming to challenge Northug’s overall World Cup lead, but acknowledged at the post-race press conference that he might “have to wait [until] after [the] Tour de Ski to take the yellow bib away from Petter.”
“It was [a] good race today,” said Cologna. “I’m satisfied after the disappointment in [the] Davos 30 k. I felt very good and could ski in a good pace.”
Cologna noted he was tired coming off of a hard effort in Davos the weekend prior, and has been struggling a bit with his asthma.
“I will now relax after the tough races and prepare for the Tour,” he said.
Once again, the organizing committee fretted over the lack of snow on the trails in the week leading up the World Cup weekend, but a layer of fresh flakes overnight allowed the main hill on the course to be extended by about 400 m. The new snow also made for slower tracks, and the loop necessitated more striding than it had the day before for the course preview.
Poltoranin said the slower conditions, coupled with a strong headwind, didn’t phase him. “In Kazakhstan we have almost every day this kind of weather with soft snow and wind,” he said. “I prefer classical technique and I am happy to be on the podium today.”
Prominently feature in the mass start race were two intermediate sprint premiums for the men (one for women) at the top of the loops main hill. On the third and sixth lap of the seven-lap course, the first 10 skiers to that point were awarded additional World Cup points (in the past it has been only to the top three).
Most of the men who ended up in top 5 didn’t go for the early premium, choosing instead to conserve energy and move up gradually throughout the race. As the winner, Northug was also the only finisher in the top 6 that didn’t acquire any intermediate bonus points. Fifteen points were awarded to the first skier for each premium, all the way down to 1 point for tenth.
For the men’s field in particular, the raised mid-race stakes affected the pacing of the lead pack, which skied in a tight group for the majority of the race.
Canada’s Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey decided before the race to go for the extra points and tackle the premiums head-on, and may have paid for the early surges with a build-up of lactic acid they struggled to recover from.
Kershaw won the first of the two sprints. “I easily had it; I felt so good,” said Kershaw of that part of his race.
But shortly after that, Daniel Rickardsson (SWE) made an attack, and Kershaw decided to go with him.
“He’s one of the best classic skiers in the world; I thought it was the move and tried to bridge back too much too early. From then on I was skiing on fumes, doing what I could to save energy and stay in the group.” Kershaw ended up in 16th, (+16.8).
Harvey said he suffered a similar fate as the result of gunning for the premiums. He was fourth at the first checkpoint and seventh for the second. He ended up finishing 10th (+9.2).
“I went for both, and paid the price a bit in the end,” he said. “We’ve been training at altitude a lot, so we’re adapted, but you still get a lot of lactate [from the surges]…and the pace remained fairly high.”
After Saturday, Northug has 600 World Cup points to Cologna’s 408, and Northug will sit out Sunday’s skate sprint in order to recover and focus on his Tour de Ski preparation.