QUEBEC CITY — Having a goal of simply staying upright may seem odd for a two-time Sprint Cup Champion, but after crashing out of two consecutive sprint races, Emil Jönsson (SWE) was thinking just that as he toed the line in the Quebec City sprint final.
“It is so good to stand up and feel like you have power left in the end,” Jönsson said after not only avoiding a fall, but winning the city sprint for his 14th career victory.
On a wintry day in the heart of the old city, the Swede overcame a recent run of bad luck, defeating teammate Teodor Peterson and Russian Alexey Petukhov, undaunted by a soft, sloppy course.
Light, yet steady snow fell throughout the day, never accumulating, but providing a seasonal air to an already festive atmosphere. Crowds packed the twisting course in a scene typical of Norway, not North America.
Unbridled enthusiasm manifested as waving flags, clanging cowbells and passionate support for all skiers.
With this as a backdrop, Jönsson threw down the gauntlet from the get-go, posting the fastest time in qualification, just ahead of Peterson.
With a ferocious tempo, Jönsson is often first in the preliminary round — it has been the heats that have given him headaches. In Friday’s team sprint he went down hard on a corner, skidding across the trail and into a course barrier.
After that disappointment, he said he had extra motivation to succeed.
“I felt I had something to prove to myself, that I can stand up and ski fast,” Jönsson said after the race.
Jönsson won the Sprint Cup in both 2010 and 2011, but ceded the title last season to Peterson, while slipping to an uncharacteristic 8th. He won just a single race last season, and graced the podium only one other time.
Today, however, he skied with authority, winning both his quarterfinal and semifinal in convincing fashion.
He had some work to do in the quarterfinals as Swiss upstart Jovian Hediger took the lead off the blocks, looking like he wanted to shatter the field, an impossibility in a relatively flat sprint.
Jönsson bided his time just behind, taking over the lead halfway through and looking back only in the homestretch to check on the security of his lead.
In the semis Jönsson earned what amounted to a head start, blazing off the line to take the lead. He blurred up the first 100-meters, free of any potential entanglement.
Eirik Brandsdal (NOR) came by on the first corner, a right-hander up a short steep pitch, leaving the Swede to tuck in and conserve energy.
According to Peterson this was an intentional strategy that both men employed — keep the effort as low as possible on the first lap before moving to the front for the second lap.
Second position gave the Swedes the opportunity to relax, but also control the situation Jönsson explained.
“If something happened I had the plan of passing the one in front of me,” Jönsson said. “As long as no one was near me from behind I was confident in second place.”
The remainder of the strategy was simple — move into first later in the race to avoid “trouble with anything.”
Peterson executed in similar fashion while winning his quarterfinal. He tailed Petukhov around the loop in the semis — “a nice ride” he said — and while he never made it by, he was not in danger of slipping out of the top-2.
“Sometimes it can be easier to go in the front, but today it was okay to stay a little bit behind,” Peterson said.
With both Swedes in the final, second position could get crowded. Petukhov punched it off the line, taking the early lead and Peterson and Jönsson slotted in comfortably behind, avoiding any jockeying for position.
Team tactics, they said, are difficult to implement in a sprint race, but Jönsson pointed out that having another skier that is not going to “ do much harm” is helpful.
“Of course we can try to help each other as much as we can,” Peterson agreed, “but it is always hard.”
Heading through the hard right turn into the homestretch at the end of the first lap, Jönsson moved passed Petukhov to take pole position, with Peterson holding in third.
Despite some early disappointment in the sprints this season, Jönsson said he is feeling very good and trusts his fitness.
“I am confident that I will have something left [at the end],” he said.
Coming into the final stretch, Jönsson said that if he “has power left” in his legs, he knows that his chances for the podium are solid.
Leading into the homestretch he had that power, and never relinquished his lead.
He took nothing for granted, both skis becoming airborne with each stroke, digging for every last remaining ounce of energy.
“It is not often that a plan works.” Jönsson said. “Today it did, and it felt really good.”
Just behind, Peterson swung the last corner wide, pulling alongside Petukhov to set up a drag race for second.
In terms of pure speed, the 24-year-old is one of the few men who can push Jönsson. Three weeks ago in a pre-season FIS race, it was Peterson outgunning his elder in the final 100 meters.
He wouldn’t replicate that feat today, but stayed clear of the Russian to secure the 1-2 for Sweden.
The Sprint Cup standings perfectly mirror today’s podium, with Jönsson holding an 18-point lead on his teammate.
Sprint racing continues next week in Canmore with another skate event, though one that will certainly feature more climbing and an epic finish stretch.
– The top three finishers qualified in that same order
– Sweden placed four men in the top-10. Norway was the only other team with more than one.
– Joeri Kindschi (SUI) made his first A-final, placing sixth, and cracked the top-10 for just the second time on the World CUp.
– Alex Matthews contributed reporting