DAVOS, Switzerland— The big decision before today’s 15 k classic World Cup was one that isn’t often faced at this level of racing, where courses are usually so difficult. It was one more often negotiated in a sprint qualifier, or a city race.
Skate or classic skis?
The top finishers reported waffling back and forth right up until the very last moment, with Swiss star Dario Cologna waiting until after watching Norway’s Petter Northug clocked the fastest (so far) intermediate time before locking into the same choice: skate skis.
On the other hand, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby had tested skate skis the day before and was convinced they were faster. But then the snow changed, and with about a minute to the start, he changed his mind and went with classic skis.
“It was a big dilemma,” Sundby said in a press conference. “I thought that non-wax skis was going to be the fastest ones today, but the conditions changed a bit. It was a bit softer today. But the klister was slower. Until one minute before I started I had decided to do skate skis. But I changed my mind.”
It turned out to be the right move for Sundby, who eventually posted a 6.6-second victory. But that wasn’t clear right away.
There was pressure: he was wearing the yellow bib of the overall World Cup leader, just as for much of last season, and started last, so he had the most information about what was going on in the interval-start race. If he lost to someone on skate skis and realized he had made the wrong decision, it would not be good.
“For sure, after 10 k when I heard I was 15 seconds behind Dario I thought, oh man, I chose the wrong skis today,” Sundby said.
But when he made the choice, he had known that skate skis would be faster in the beginning portion of the race. Only in the last five kilometers, when arm muscles really started to burn, would the question be the most meaningful.
“I reckon the last five [k] would be really tough with double poling, so that was my decision,” he said. “I made it on that. I train for kickwax, I train for using my legs. That was the main part of the decision today… I knew [Dario] would be tired after the Cologna-Stutz. From there I tried to brush him off.”
The Cologna-Stutz is a tough uphill on the Davos course named after Switzerland’s biggest star. And today, Cologna didn’t own it at the end. Sundby did. Cologna finished third, 7.3 seconds behind Sundby.
But Cologna didn’t think it was his ski choice that kept him from the win. He hasn’t been entirely on form so far this year, finishing very far back in FIS racing in Finland before the World Cup season began. In World Cup racing, he only broke into the top ten – actually, even into the top 20 – in the minitour-ending pursuit in Lillehammer last weekend.
For a guy who came back from injury to win gold at the Olympics in February, it wasn’t a very inspiring start. He’s happy to be back on track.
“Of course I am very happy with this podium,” Cologna said. “The first races were not the best. After Lillehammer I can be very happy with the podium.”
Breaking between the two was Norway’s Didrik Tønseth, who edged Cologna by less than a second. Like Sundby, he made up the time in the final lap of the three-lap race.
Like Cologna, it’s by far his best result so far this season, but for the 23-year-old it’s also just his second individual podium at the World Cup level. The other came at early-season races in Lillehammer last year.
“This season I hope to stay strong the whole time,” Tønseth said, referring to the fact that the rest of his season was downhill after that strong start.
“I tried to start slow and go three similar laps,” he explained. “I think I managed, I’m not sure. I felt like I had something to go on in the third lap, [so] I think my plan worked. I like hills, so I didn’t think this was the track for me. But obviously the shape was good, so this was nice.”
For Cologna, having a slow start to the season might have made his decision to use skate skis easier. There wasn’t as much riding on it, in one sense.
“It was cool to go with double poling,” he said. “I thought I would try, and I thought, if I am fast, it is perfect, otherwise bad luck. I think for me it was the right choice. I had good speed til the end. At the end the difference was not as big as in the first two laps, otherwise it would have been possible to win. These other guys were very fast the last lap.”
In another sense, though, there was a lot of pressure. Cologna is cross-country skiing’s ambassador in Switzerland, and after all that hill on the course is named after him. Yet he has never actually won a World Cup race here.
Luckily, he has another chance tomorrow in the skate sprint, and then again next week when the World Cup is again in Davos, after being relocated from La Clusaz, France, where there is no snow.
“This year I was still struggling a little bit, not passing the qualification,” he said of his sprints so far. “That will be the first goal for tomorrow. Once you’re in the heats, anything is possible. I’m motivated and hopefully a good race tomorrow… I’m looking forward to next week another chance to get this win on the home ground.”
Sjur Røthe posted a time nine seconds behind Cologna to give Norway three skiers in the top four, and Daniel Richardsson of Sweden finished fifth. Sami Jauhojärvi of Finland celebrated wildly when he crossed the line in the lead, but in bib 60 out of 88 he didn’t hold onto it and ended up sixth.
Two other men used skate skis: Northug, who ended up in 10th place 54 seconds behind Sundby, and Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden, who finished seventh.
Alex Harvey led Canada in 17th place and Erik Bjornsen was the top American in 48th. Stay tuned for more reporting.