Six days ago on Sunday, Jan. 10, the famed hill-climb finale up Alpe Cermis in Val de Fiemme, Italy, wrapped up the 10th annual Tour de Ski. This weekend, standard World Cup racing has resumed in Planica, Slovenia, marking the first time a World Cup event has been held in Planica — better known as a biathlon center. The last World Cup races in Slovenia took place in 2011 in Rogla, about 200 kilometers east.
On Saturday, two familiar faces in the sprint scene topped the men’s and women’s 1.2-kilometer freestyle sprint.
Italian record-breaker Federico Pellegrino raced to his fourth-consecutive freestyle sprint victory this season. He is the first racer in history to do so, and according to the International Ski Federation (FIS), is the only male to reach the podium more than once in these four races. The list of firsts goes on when it comes to 25-year-old Pellegrino.
Last season, Pellegrino became the first athlete to win three consecutive skate sprints between December 2014 and January 2015. With Saturday marking his seventh World Cup win, he is now the winningest Italian male cross-country skier of all time, according to FIS. He was previously tied with Pietro Piller Cottrer with six wins.
“Statistics are made to be changed,” Pellegrino told La Gazzetta della Sport, according to a translation. He said he had “great feelings” during the qualifier, which he won by 1.59 seconds over France’s Lucas Chanavat.
He went on to win his quarterfinal (by 0.26 seconds ahead of another Frenchman Richard Jouve), and advanced out of his semifinal after placing second, 0.6 seconds behind yet another French skier Baptiste Gros.
In the final, a trio of Frenchman (Gros, Jouve and Renaud Jay) trailed Pellegrino into the last few hundred meters before the finish, with Gros leading the charge behind him. Pellegrino skied away to the victory in 2:15.12, holding off Gross by 0.88 seconds. Jouve placed third (+1.71) and Jay completed France’s sweep of second through fourth in fourth place (+2.23).
Gros had also placed second to Pellegrino in the Davos World Cup skate sprint in December — Pellegrino’s first win of four in a row.
Russia’s Gleb Retivykh and Germany’s Sebastian Eisenlauer finished behind the French contingent in fifth (+4.18) and sixth (+4.19), respectively.
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Easily the favorite going into the race, some pressure inevitably rode on Pellegrino. He reflected feeling like he “could only lose the race.”
“It felt very good in the qualification,” he told FIS after the final, “But I was worried it could get worse.”
He proceeded to comfortably advance through the heats with strategic execution. He won the third quarterfinal, which turned out to be the fastest and produced two lucky losers: Finland’s Martti Jylhä in third and Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson in fourth.
Pellegrino then carefully navigated a loaded semifinal, with all six competitors qualifying in the top eight. Gros took the lead at about halfway through, with Pellegrino stuck a few spots back. After being boxed out of the inside lane turning into the final climb, Pellegrino fought his way into second on the final climb to ensure he’d automatically advance in the top two. Gros cruised to a fairly commanding semifinal win, which did not go unnoticed by Pellegrino.
“I learned in my semifinal how to ski in the final,” Pellegrino told FIS. “I expected Baptiste to be fast on this course, so my plan was to go in the front and get a gap on the others.”
Confident in his chances in the semi, Gros had his doubts entering the final: “In the semifinal I thought I could win, but in the final it was clear that Federico [would] win,” he later told FIS.
Gros led the final for most of the first half, while Pellegrino sat back around fourth place. This time, however, he didn’t let Gros get out of reach. About halfway through the race, Pellegrino made his move: passing on the inside, accelerating to the front of the pack ahead of Gros and significantly cranking up the pace.
With that, the race proved to be as good as done. Pellegrino created a gap leading into the final downhill, breezed up the final climb with an unmatched tempo, enjoying a sizable gap on the field before throwing his arms up to celebrate across the line.
Notably, there were no Norwegians in the men’s final. This starkly contrasts from most races throughout the World Cup season and the team’s Tour de Ski results, with the Norwegian men claiming seven of the overall top 10.
That said, a number of top contenders did not race on Saturday — largely to rest and recover after completing the Tour de Ski — including Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Finn Hågen Krogh, Petter Northug, and Didrik Tønseth. The strong Russian sprinter, Sergey Ustiugov, also was missing from the scene.
“Today was another great day,” Pellegrino told La Gazzetta. “But it was a very difficult victory because I had to emotionally handle it right against the French, which always start as horses, head down, and it is difficult to rule them all. Fortunately with my skiing, I always managed to extricate myself from their traps, in the semifinals I figured out how to run the final and I did it. I can count on energy that I know I have.”
“I am very confident of the work I’ve done,” he added. “At home, I can store hours of work that allow me to maintain this state of form. The success allows me to put more hay in the barn…”
Pellegrino currently leads the Sprint World Cup by 196 points over Norway’s Sondre Turvoll Fossli, who placed eighth on Saturday after being eliminated in the semifinal (behind Gros, Pellegrino and fellow Norwegian Eirik Brandsdal, respectively). Gros ranks third overall, 224 points out of first.
Stina Nilsson Earns Second Sprint Victory
In the women’s 1.2 k sprint, Sweden’s 22-year-old Stina Nilsson claimed her second World Cup victory in two months. She previously won the December freestyle sprint in Davos, Switzerland.
With this win, Nilsson, the U23 leader, took the Sprint World Cup lead as well, ahead of Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla. While Falla’s doctor apparently warned her against starting Saturday, (“she was not in top form,” according to NRK), she raced the qualifier anyway and placed an uncharacteristic 45th, more than 14 seconds behind qualifying winner Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, her teammate.
Nilsson started her day with the 10th-fastest qualifying time, 5.82 seconds behind Jacobsen. She proceeded to win her quarterfinal — the first one of the day — by 0.1 seconds over teammate Hanna Falk and 0.92 seconds ahead of American Sophie Caldwell in third.
From there, Nilsson met one of Norway’s biggest threats in any race: Ingvild Flugstad Østberg. Both Nilsson and Østberg had raced the entire Tour de Ski (eight races in 10 days from Jan. 1-10), with Nilsson placing 24th and Østberg second overall. Yet less than a week later, here they were. Nilsson later told NRK she skied for a total of 35 minutes this week before Saturday’s race.
Slovenian Vesna Fabjan led their semifinal of the gate, while local spectators cheered her on. Nilsson shadowed her until taking the lead about halfway through and creating a fairly big gap before into the finish. Nilsson won the semifinal by half a second over Østberg, who held off Fabjan by 0.33 seconds to advance to the final.
For Nilsson, the final was her 11th straight in as many World Cup sprint starts — both skate and classic — since December 2014.
On Saturday, she squared off in the final round against Germany’s Sandra Ringwald, Italy’s Gaia Vuerich, and three Norwegians: Østberg, Jacobsen and Heidi Weng. Third in the Tour de Ski, Weng was back in action less than a week later asa well.
In Vuerich’s third final of her career, the Italian initially led out of the start, while Ringwald and Nilsson skied in second. Into the next downhill, Nilsson took the lead, with Vuerich hanging onto second.
At about halfway through, Østberg accelerated on a climb to get in front of Nilsson. By the top of this hill, Østberg maintained her position with a fairly brisk pace, Nilsson held onto second, Jacobsen had moved into third, and Weng skied in fourth.
But could Østberg, who had been in contention for the Tour de Ski overall title until the final grueling mountain climb, hold that high tempo six days later? The last uphill on the sprint course had proved crucial throughout the day. It led up into the stadium and into the finishing straight.
As that climb approached, Nilsson rode the draft and her slick skis up alongside Østberg to challenge her to the top. She used the momentum to overtake Østberg, who began to fade at the crest of the hill, and Nilsson led over the top and toward the finish.
Behind her, the three Norwegians fanned out in a wave, one in each lane to try to chase her down. Jacobsen moved into second ahead and Weng charged late for third, just ahead of Østberg.
Nilsson captured the win in 2:33.03, 0.34 seconds ahead of Jacobsen in second and 0.55 seconds ahead of Weng in third. Østberg missed the podium by five-hundredths of a second in fourth (+0.60), Ringwald finished fifth (+2.78), and Vuerich waved to crowd as she cruised in for sixth (+26.26), happy to make the final.
“I am really happy for the second win this season. I had a great day,” Nilsson told FIS. “My plan was to ski as much as possible in the front. I am excited to be in the lead of the Sprint World Cup.”
Falla did not qualify for heats after she had been “battling illness,” according to FIS.
A sprint specialist, Falla left the Tour de Ski after winning the first stage: a freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. On Saturday, she dropped to third in the Sprint World Cup standings 94 points behind Nilsson in first. Østberg ranks second, 58 points behind the leader.
According to NRK, Falla planned to travel back to Norway and skip Sunday’s freestyle team sprint.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting