Tour de Ski medal within Matti Heikkinen’s grasp
Strong performance in long pursuit brought Heikkinen within seven seconds of bronze medal position, with two events to go
The difference is remarkable.
One year ago, Matti Heikkinen was an extremely tired man when he had six Tour de Ski events behind him and two to go.
Yesterday, however, at the same stage of the tournament in Toblach in Italy, Heikkinen was in noticeably good shape, both mentally and physically.
It had just become obvious that he is indeed a serious contender for at least the third place overall in the tournament.
Already before embarking on his third try at the Tour de Ski marathon, Heikkinen stated that he was viewing the whole thing with brighter eyes than a year ago.
Also yesterday no blur could be detected in his eyes.
This means that Heikkinen will actually finish the Tour.
”This is a milestone of a sort. Judging by my eyes, there is no reason to stop now. So far I have managed to make headway with no problems. Tomorrow is another rest day, and even today was not too tough”, Heikkinen said, after having completed convincingly and without undue problems the sixth leg of the gruelling tournament.
The sixth event of the Tour was a free technique 35-kilometre pursuit from Cortina to Toblach. The track through the most astonishing scenery in the entire World Cup consisted of a gentle but almost continuous uphill climb until the halfway point, after which the predominantly downhill section started.
Heikkinen started the race in tenth place and finished eighth. This is also his current TdS overall standing.
The main thing is that the difference between him and the top skiers narrowed down by half a minute. All in all, the sixth leg saw the differences between the fastest skiers shrink, which promises a much more intense climax to the competition.
Right now, for instance, Heikkinen may be in 8th place, but he is only seven seconds from the bronze medal spot.
Switzerland’s Dario Cologna in turn increased his overall lead to over a minute and is looking increasingly like a safe bet for the TdS laurels.
For the greater part of Thursday's race Heikkinen skied in a group of 12 men.
“Everything went as planned. In the uphill section I led the way for quite some time as I felt I could. In the downhill stretch I just tailed the other guys.”
As is his wont, Heikkinen is level-headed when considering his chances in the overall race.
“Everything looks good. But in this form of competition things can change rapidly. Still, compared with earlier my starting point is better. The role of tactics decreases from now on, and the role of sheer physical endurance increases."
A year ago Heikkinen was so exhausted by this stage that he more or less broke down during the last two legs of the tour.
This was the start of recuperation problems that in practice spoiled the rest of his season, including the Olympic Games.
“Of course I am tired this time as well, but when I look around, so is everyone else. I am not really worried. I am not nearly as empty in the tank as I was last year. In that respect this year is different”, Heikkinen summarises.
Ville Nousiainen also improved his situation. In the overall standings he now holds 20th place, separated from the leader by five minutes. Nousiainen was also 20th in Thursday's race.
Among the women, Krista Lähteenmäki is currently the best-placed Finn, holding on to seventh place overall, two minutes adrift of current leader Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland. Riitta-Liisa Roponen is 12th, a minute behind Lähteenmäki.
Riikka Sarasoja and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen rank currently 17th and 18th respectively.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Matti Heikkinen wins Tour de Ski race (4.11.2011)
Tour de Ski
Tour de Ski (Wikipedia)