Lukas Bauer (CZE) stamped his mark on the Tour de Ski in Nove Mesto today, winning his third stage of the Tour and extending his overall lead to more than two minutes over his nearest rival. The 30 year old Czech was unstoppable as he ripped through the field from the back marker, overtaking many of the overall contenders who struggled to make the top 10 and lost considerable time.
It was an interesting start to the day, as several of the top sprinters attempted to gain the bonus seconds up for grabs at the 2.6km marker. Jon Kristian Dahl (NOR) was one of these, stopping the clock at 6:24.3, well clear from the nearest time. Sprint leader Nikolay Morillov (RUS) gave it his best shot, but was 16 seconds slower than Dahl as he pulled to the side of the track and walked for a while to regain his breath. Mats Larsson (SWE) moved into second place, 13 seconds behind Dahl, however had no intention of stopping there and continued on intent on carrying his speed all the way to the finish. Parfenov (RUS), 4th in the sprint standings, was the next to give everything for the bonus seconds and was more successful than his Russian team-mate, posting the second fastest time 1.6 seconds ahead of Larsson. From then on everyone seemed to have given up on the bonus seconds, including the Eurosport TV coverage which did its best to show everything else but the 2.6km split times. Finally, along came Lukas Bauer, the final starter for the day. Bauer took second place 7.5 seconds behind Dahl, earning himself 10 bonus seconds for his troubles. Dahl received a 15 second bonus, and Parfenov 5 seconds – enough to move him to third in the sprint classification.
Meanwhile there was another race going on. Mae (EST) and Poltranin (KAZ) were posting good early times, but a little further down the start list a couple of Norwegians Roenning and Svartedal were out to make up for their slow start to the tour so far. And a handful or Russians also seemed to be up for a big day – Pankratov , Vylegzhanin, and Dementiev. Small groups of 3-4 skiers from different laps were working together, or at least skiing together. Roenning dragged Northug on his tail, and Larsson rode behind Bauer and Koukal. With the TV determined to display no split times for skiers contending for the overall race lead it was up to the commentators and stadium announcers to keep the viewers informed. The top three at the 5.5km mark were Bauer, Dementiev and Larsson. Pankratov moved into the top three somewhere in the middle of the race. Dementiev still had the fastest time at the 11.75 km make, but it was difficult tyring to keep track of everything else so we might as well jump to the finish.
Larsson had the best time with 30 skiers having finished. Roenning lost time in the last half a lap, and crossed the line 10 seconds back. Pankratov came in and took the lead by 11 seconds. Then Svartedal exhausted his tank down the straight to take the lead by 0.7 of a second. Dementiev came in, the commentators thought he was still a podium contender but he crossed the line in 5th, 25 seconds behind Svartedal. The top 15 skiers in the overall ranking began to finish. Soedergren (SWE) was not in contention, 1:02 behind Pankratov. Most of the Germans were well off the pace, but Sommerfeldt (GER) had an okay day and was 1:07 behind. The camera followed Bauer and at the 13.85km mark he led Svartedal by 36 seconds. As they crossed the finish line the rest of the top ranked skiers weren't anywhere close. Gjerdalen (NOR) went across in 17th place, with almost the same time as Sommerfeldt. Then came Bauer, having overtaken and dropped Koukal, Piller Cottrer, Checchi, and Di Centa. He won the race by a comfortable 27.8 seconds ahead of Svartedal, with Pankratov rounding out the podium.
Where now with the overall standings? Bauer has a 2:07 gap over second placed Gjerdalen, with Piller Cottrer still in third place. Sommerfeldt has jumped to 4th overall, not so much from his great race today (he was 17th) but more due to the collapse of the rest of the overall contenders. Svartedal is up to 6th overall, from 28th before today's stage. There are three stages to go, including the longest 20km stage and the Final Climb up Alpes Cermis. But if Bauer can break into the top 30 in Asiago and get some sprint bonus seconds then he would just about have the race sown up.
Finnish Double - Saarinen Wins Stage, Kuitunen Back In Gold
Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) claimed her first stage win of the Tour de Ski in the 10km Classic in Nove Mesto today, tipping out Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) by just 2.6 seconds after nearly half and hour of racing. Junior Therese Johaug (NOR) took third place. Saarinen led at all the intermediate timing points, picking up maximum bonus seconds, and her victory today has moved her up to 6th place overall.
With the overnight leader Kalla finishing in 6th place, 25 seconds behind, Kuitunen is now back in the leader's golden bib. Kuitunen also leads the sprint classification after gaining 20 bonus seconds today, with 79 points ahead of Ariana Follis (ITA) with 60 points. Saarinen is now in 3rd with a total of 57 points after scoring 30 today. Follis will continue to wear the silver bib of the sprint leader while Kuitunen is in gold.
The interval start race was seeded in reverse order, with the overall winner starting last. Smutna (AUT) starting with number 17 held the early lead at the 2.2km timing point, which was also the first intermediate sprint of the Tour and worth a bonus of 15, 10, and 5 seconds for the fastest three skiers. Johaug smashed Smutna's time by 21 seconds, but she held the top spot for only two minutes when Saarinen came through 6 second faster, and 10 seconds quicker than Majdic (SLO) who was having her best race in the tour so far. The faster seeds came through one by one but no-one came within 10 seconds until Rotcheva (RUS), the 6th last starter. Bjoergen was out of it, 21 seconds down. Then there was Kuitunen, quicker than Johaug but just 0.2 seconds behind Saarinen. Kowalczyk was 12 second back, Follis 18.5 behind, and then Kalla just missed out on bonus seconds with the 4th quickest time, 0.8 behind Johaug.
At the 7.1km time check Smutna's leading time was blitzed again by Johaug, and when Saarinen came through she was only 5 seconds up so the young Norwegian was holding her steady. Follis on an earlier lap was following in Saarinen's slipstream, so if the Italian could hold the Finn it would move her up the rankings. Mischol (SUI) came through only 37 seconds behind Saarinen, not bad for the Swiss, and Jacobsen (NOR) was also doing okay 34 seconds down. Bjoergen... Still out of the running, back in 21st place. Kuitunen was down to third place, 8 seconds behind Saarinen and 3 behind Johaug, and Kowalczyk and Kalla were almost dead even 19 seconds off the pace.
At the finish Antonova (KAZ) enjoyed a moment in the spotlight as the early leader. Smutna took over for only a minute before Johaug came in, almost skating in her eagerness to double-pole fast and unable to control her legs. Majdic came in only 12 seconds back, no doubt happy to have finally had a good race in this tour. Then came Saarinen, the likely race winner, 13 seconds ahead of Johaug. Steira (NOR) and Skofterud (NOR) came in, both nearly one minute behind, then Shevchenko (UKR) who had hardly been sighted all race with a good time, 23 second down and likely to move up in the overall standings. Mischol snuck in a couple of seconds ahead of Zeller (GER), who turned out to be the fastest German of the day. Rotcheva came in with a fast finish and looked like she might knock down Johaug, but the clocked ticked over one second too late. Then Kuitunen was picked up early by the cameras and following all the way in. Could she beat her team-mate. No, the first paragraph already told the story and Saarinen won by 2.6 seconds. Kowalczyk lost time in the last kilometre to end up 8th overall, and Kalla the last to finish was 6th, just behind Shevchenko.
With the bonus seconds added in Kuitunen ended up 25 seconds ahead of Kalla in the overall classification, with Kowalczyk in third place 42 seconds behind. Rotcheva jumped up from 6th to 4th, and is now just 3 seconds behind Kowalczyk. Follis is still in touch, 5th place overall and 56 seconds behind. With Stage 6 another Freestyle Sprint the Italian has a chance to score bonus seconds once again. The big loser of the last two stages has been Bjoergen, who has dropped from 1st to 11th in the overall classification. Though she too would normally have been looking forward to picking up seconds in the next Sprint in Asiago, it is hard to see her coming back after two average days. The first Norwegian in the overall standings is now Jacobsen in 8th place. Tomorrow is a rest day, but there is also about 900km of travel from Nove Mesto to Val di Fiemme where most teams are setting up camp for the last three stages. In Asiago in two days time we will see who has managed to travel and recover the best.