New day, new venue, almost a new decade. The 2019/2020 Tour de Ski continued in Toblach, Italy with a 15-kilometer interval start skate. In the war of attrition that is the tour, the first stages set the tone. Hopefuls for the overall win seek to establish their position near the top without expending too much energy to hold up for the long haul.
We saw this in the first stage, where the men’s field remained densely packed through 14 of the 15-kilometers when Sergey Ustiugov of Russia powered off the front to take the initial win. The tactic was also evident in the sit-and-kick approach of Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, who peacocked his unmatchable sprint gear in the final 100 meters of each round.
We are now in the meat and potatoes of the tour. Three consecutive distance races, interrupted by one travel day. There are no bonus seconds on the line in the next two stages, meaning athletes need to fight for every second solely with their own grit.
Racing midway through the seeded group in bib 44, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov took off on Stage 3, setting the fastest time at each checkpoint to lead wire-to-wire. But his position in the leader chair was insecure until the remainder of the seeded men had their shot.
Wearing the highest numbered bib in the seeded group as the overall tour leader, Klæbo would have information on how he was matching up with Ustiugov at each checkpoint, informing him on whether he needed to work harder or lay off the gas. After winning a 60-second time bonus in the sprint, Klæbo had a cushion of 34 seconds over Ustiugov to work with. Victory in stage three was not imperative, but it would be important to keep the Russian within that margin.
In the first 5 k, it looked like this was how the story would play out. Ustiugov’s teammate Alexander Bolshunov, who trailed Klæbo by 32 seconds, nearly matched the pace setter. Klæbo trailed by six seconds, followed by three of his teammates in the next ten seconds: Hans Christer Holund, Simen Hegstad Krüger, and Pål Golberg. Each of these men is accomplished in distance racing.
However, things quickly began to change. Ustiugov’s splits became untouchable, and the Norwegian stronghold began to crumble. By the 10 k mark, his time was over 15 seconds ahead the next skier, and Klæbo had fallen 40 seconds behind into 15th. Ustiugov had the race locked up.
Perhaps this is his event during the TdS. Ustiugov won the mass start 15 k skate in the first stage, and topped the podium in the event in Toblach last year.
As the remainder of the seeded group made their way through the finish, Ustiugov remained on top by a large margin. His 23-year-old teammate Ivan Yakimushkin, who had not landed in the top 30 in either of the first two stages of the tour, worked his way into second place (+22.6). Yakimushkin was 43rd in the 15 k in Lenzerheide and qualified in 49th in the sprint, leaving him ranked 47th overall.
Prior to the tour, Yakimushkin was a member of the Russian relay team that won the event in Lillehammer earlier this month and posted a top-10 in the distance classic race in Ruka.
Bolshunov, who was also born in 1996, took third 29 seconds back. Currently the top-ranked distance skier on the World Cup, Bolshunov has raced consistently in the tour: third in the first stage, and eighth in the second.
In addition to sweeping the podium, Russia took three additional spots in the top 10, with Artem Maltsev, Andrey Melnichenko, and Denis Spitzov finishing 5th, 6th, and 10th, respectively.
Looking frustrated, Klæbo fell back to 17th (+1:11.4) by the finish, well-outside the margin he had to work with.
He was not the only Norwegian to struggle after the 5 k mark. Goldberg fell from 8th to 60th, and Krüger from 6th down to 22nd. Holund was the only Norwegian to maintain his top-10 position throughout the race, finishing 5th. Sjur Røthe also worked his way into 8th.
Though he still leads the point standings, Klæbo is now 37 seconds in the hole for the overall, sitting in 3rd place. He faces a pursuit-start classic tomorrow and a mass start classic on Friday. Presuming the time bonuses are still available in the mass start, he will have the opportunity to earn back time there and also in the classic sprint on Saturday.
Ustiugov’s performance bumped him into the overall lead with Bolshunov 27 seconds behind in second place. Nothing is out of reach for these three men. Holund and Maltzev round out the top five, trailing by just over 1:20.
As was seen in the final climb up the Alpe Cermis last year, Ustiugov has the upper hand over the Norwegian. Klæbo will need to rebound in time to create a significant gap before the final stage if he hopes to repeat his victory.
For the Americans, David Norris was again the top-ranked distance skier, finishing 51st (+2:22.6). Kevin Bolger finished 60th (+3:04.0), followed by Logan Hanneman in 73rd (+3:46.0).
In a post-race call, Matt Whitcomb provided insight into the men’s race. He also explains his approach counseling athletes about races in which athletes may not be set up to excel.
Post-race interview with Matt Whitcomb.
Heading into three classic races, Whitcomb explained that the techs are feeling confident in ski selection and waxing. Many K’s have been logged to ensure the American skis are ready to compete.
Post-race interview with Matt Whitcomb regarding ski testing.