Twenty-one year old Nikolai Morilov (RUS) won his first World Cup in the Stage 3 of the Tour de Ski in Prague today, holding off fast finishing Norwegians Simon Oestensen and Tor-Arne Hetland in the Sprint A-final. Morilov now leads the Sprint classification in the Tour, while Oestensen's bonus seconds have catapulted him past Lukas Bauer (CZE) into the golden bib of the overall tour leader.
The men's heats were hotly contested, with many sprinters trying to make the most of their specialist event and the top overall contenders knowing that they would gain valuable seconds on their rivals if they make it through to the next round. When the snow and broken poles had settled from the heats four Norwegians, three Russian, two Italians, a Finn, a Czech, and an Estonian readied themselves for the semi-finals.
In the first semi-final Oestensen, Hetland, Northug and Gjerdalen (NOR), di Centa (ITA), and Parfenov (RUS) got to steady their nerves a little longer after di Centa broke at the start. At the second attempt the start was clean, but 50m into the race di Centa stuck his pole between Hetland's skis and fell over – amazingly Hetland kept his feet. Northug lead into the first corner ahead of Parfenov, but the Russian put in a burst before the next corner and hit the front, and behind Hetland moved up to third past Oestensen. Parfenov lead the rest of the way to final metre where he was out-lunged by Northug, while right on their heels Oestensen out-lunged Hetland. On to semi-final number two.
Morilov, Vylegzhanin (RUS), Kozisek (CZE), Simonlatser (EST), Pasini (ITA) and Jauhojarvi (FIN) all gave no quarter down the starting straight, fighting to be first into the corner. Morillov made it there first ahead of Pasini, while right behind Kozisek and Simonlatser caught skis and spun each other around. Vylegzhanin and Jauhojarvi made it around safely, and then Vylegzhanin worked hard to pass Pasini and move up into second. The Russians held on down the finish straight, and though Jauhojarvi kept going all the way to the line the time was slower and so once again four skiers progressed from the first semi-final.
In the B-final Simonlatser was out to prove that he should have been in the A-final, and went straight to the front. Kozisek clashed skis with Pasini this time, but stayed up in second place while the Italian hit the snow. Jauhojarvi made a nice overtaking manoeuvre past di Centa into third place, but then di Centa took him straight back before the next corner. In the finish Simonlatser held on ahead of Kozisek, with the next three all lunging together and Gjerdalen coming up on top for third place and hence 9th overall.
The A-final – three Norwegians and three Russians. Morilov wins the start ahead of Oestensen, with Parfenov third and Hetland fourth. The places stay the same for a full lap, with Morilov looking strong at the front. Hetland overtook Parfenov into third place. They hit the finish straight and everybody gave it all they had. Morilov punches the air two, three times as he crosses the line – he is a happy and very adrenaline full man. Oestensen just gets second ahead of Hetland, Northug is 5th and Vylegzhanin 6th.
Now for the implications for the overall standings. With the exception of Morillov, all the A-finalists were in the main bunch of the Pursuit yesterday, so now they fill six of the top eight spots. Bauer who failed to make the finals is in second place behind Oestensen, 12 second pack, and Hetland, Vylegzhanin and Northug are within five seconds of Bauer. The field is spread out more than before, with Soedergren (SWE) one minute behind in 15th place. But then it is tight again, with the next 14 skiers within ten seconds and including Sommerfeldt (GER), Kershaw (CAN), Chebotko (KAZ), Checchi (ITA), Jonnier (FRA), Teichmann (GER), Dementiev (RUS), Piller Cottrer (ITA), Nousianien (FIN), and last year's winner Angerer (GER). This pack will be doing their best to steamroll through the Pursuit on New Year's Day like they did on Stage 2. However Oestensen, Bauer, Hetland and others will have other plans. The stage is set for another exciting race in two day's time.