Men: Hjelmeset Wins Stage; Bauer Extends Overall
Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset (NOR) won the Stage 7 mass start 20km in Val di Fiemme in a photo finish from his team-mate Jens Arne Svartedal (NOR). However the strongest skier on the day was undoubtedly race leader Lukas Bauer (CZE), who won three of the intermediate sprints and dictated the pace for much of the race. Reportedly skiing on a pair of “micro-skis” without grip wax, Bauer extended his overall lead to 1:50 ahead of Tord Asle Gjerdalen (NOR) and 2:23 ahead of Pietro Piller Cottrer (ITA).
Bonus seconds were awarded at the end of each of the six laps of 3.3km in classic technique. Roenning (NOR) and Svartedal won the first two intermediate sprints, but then Bauer decided it was time for him to take charge. He broke away from the main pack with 2-3 skiers before each of the next three sprints, and took the maximum 15 second bonus with powerful double poling. On the final lap Bauer was also looking good for the final victory however a couple of small errors cost him any chance of the stage win and he crossed the finish line in 7th place. Goering (GER) won the finish sprint for third place in the stage ahead of Gjerdalen and Teichmann (GER).
There were no changes in the first two places in the sprint standing today, with Northug and Hetland gaining no seconds and remaining equal on top. However Di Centa picked up 30 seconds today to finish in third place.
Bauer's form on the Final Climb up Alpes Cermis is untested however if his form over the last week is anything to go by he should have no trouble defending his lead. The battle for second place on the other hand is far from over. Gjerdalen has 33 seconds over Piller Cottrer, and then there are another four skiers in the next 40 seconds. The 2006-2007 Tour de Ski showed that a lot of time can be gained by someone with fresh legs on the Final Climb. Svartedal is now in 4th place overall after picking up 25 bonus seconds today, however the Norwegian has alwaya been stronger in classic and is probably not going to be the one making a big move tomorrow. The Italians could be the movers and shakers on the final stage, as they are stronger in freestyle and will also have home crowd support. Di Centa moved up to 6th place today with his bonus 30 seconds from the individual sprints, and boasted the third quickest time up Alpes Cermis last year. And then there are the Germans. Sommerfeldt, Teichmann and Goering will start 13 seconds apart just over three and half minutes behind Bauer. Their form has been slowly improving this Tour - can they pull out something special for the last stage?
Women: Kuitunen Wins Stage; One Final Climb To Go
Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) has seized the initiative in the Tour de Ski, winning the Stage 7 10km mass start in Val di Fiemme and extending her lead over Charlotte Kalla (SWE) to 39.7 seconds with one stage to go. Kuitunen won both intermediate sprints and took the maximum possible bonus seconds for the day, and while Kalla managed to take second place in the stage the Swede was unable to contest the two intermediate sprints. Claudia Nystad-Kuenzel (GER) took third place in the stage, while Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) had her worst stage of the Tour in 26th place and dropped from place three to five in the overall standings.
Kuitunen now has the sprint classification wrapped up and the overall victory in sight. But she still has to survive the Final Climb tomorrow, 9km in freestyle technique up Alpes Cermis. Kalla will start 40 seconds behind, and the young Swede has demonstrated her strongest form in freestyle in this Tour. Kalla was 45 seconds and 32 seconds quicker than Kuitunen in the two 10km Freestyle pursuit stages. Rotcheva (RUS) and Follis (ITA) will start 10 seconds apart about a minute and half behind Kuitunen, and about 45 seconds ahead of Kowalczyk. In the Final Climb last year Kuitunen was first over the line but had only the 31st fastest time and lost over two minutes to the fastest climber Neumannova (CZE). Even Follis was 1:30 faster than Kuitunen on the climb. Of course Kuitunen still won by over a minute so there was no need to dig really deep and push hard. With Kalla hunting behind there will be no such luxury for Kuitunen this time.
The second and third fastest up Alpes Cermis last year were Shevchenko (UKR) and Steira, both within 6 seconds of Neumannova's time. Shevchenko is currently in 10th, 3:19 behind Kuitunen, while Steira is 3:58 behind. Maybe they will move up the standings again this year but they wont catch Kuitunen.
Follis took second place in the sprint classification thanks to her win in Prague and her 4th place in Asiago. Muranen (FIN) moved up to third place after picking up 10 bonus seconds today.
Snow fell heavily throughout the race, which was held with three laps on a 3.3km loop. At the end of each lap there were 15, 10, and 5 bonus seconds available for the first three athletes. Right from the start Kuitunen was at the front of the pack, with Kowalczyk by her side in the first kilometre and Kalla and Saarinen also up the front (FIN) close by. The pack stretched out into single file on the downhill with Kuitunen and Saarinen at the front, and then suddenly Kalla fell! The Swede was up relatively quickly and still amongst the first 10 skiers, but meanwhile the two Finns had a small break on the field. Zeller (GER) and Johaug (NOR) took up the chase, and Zeller made it across to the two leaders just as they came into the stadium. Zeller went for the first intermediate sprint but the Finns were too strong – Kuitunen took 15 seconds, Saarinen 10, and Zeller 5
The pace dropped and the pack came together again on the next hill, about 27 skiers in touch. Muranen came to the front, while Saarinen started to drop back. Was this the team tactics of the Finnish team? In the middle of the pack Kowalczyk looked to have problems. The Pole slipped and stumbled on a hill and didn't look fresh on her feet. As the end of the second lap approached the picture looked the same as the first, except it was Muranen together with Kuitunen at the front instead of Saarinen. Zeller and Johaug gave chase again, and Zeller took the 5 second bonus once again. The pack came together again after the intermediate sprint.
As they began to climb Kutinunen extended the front of the pack again, and Johaug had problems to follow at the back of the pack. Kalla came forward for the first time since her fall and made a move at the front. The Swede gained a few metres ahead of the pack before Kuitunen responded with a move of her own, overtaking and pulling away over the top of the hill just as Kalla slipped for a couple of strides. Kuitunen went out to a five second break, with Rotcheva (RUS) leading a chasing group of five including Sachenbacher (GER), Steira (NOR) and two Swedes Kalla and Hansson. Zeller and Nystad joined on the back as they headed for the stadium for the last time. Kalla picked up the pace trying to bring back Kuitunen, and Rotcheva followed on her tail.
But Kuitunen had no intention of slowing down and hit the final straight with a winning lead. It was a six-way sprint for second place, and Kalla just held on ahead of Nystad, then Rotcheva, Zeller, Sachenbacher and Hansson. Follis in 10th place was only 13 seconds behind the winning time, however had picked up no bonus seconds and just held onto second place by 3 seconds ahead of Muranen. Kowalczyk looked very tired as she crossed the line 1:10 behind Kuitunen.