Soaring into the stadium toward the finish, the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay quickly shaped up into a Norway/Sweden showdown. Surprise, surprise.
The Czech Republic and Russia’s A-team had been consistently in the mix, yet as they sprinted down the final straightaway less than a second behind, it was clear Sunday’s World Cup relay was coming down to the two powerhouses. The only thing missing was Petter Northug.
Sjur Røthe filled in, anchoring Norway to a half-second victory over Sweden, but not without what some considered a “cheeky” move meters before the finish. Racing head to head with Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, Røthe surged ahead and moved to the right in front of Hellner, pushing him toward the boards. Hellner stood up, slowing and settling for second, 0.3 seconds ahead of Martin Jaks of the Czech Republic. Russia’s Ilia Chernousov stumbled on his own on the other side of the track, crashing and ending up fourth (+9.3).
It was a series of events that left some scratching their heads and others – like the Swedes – infuriated. Sweden’s coaches protested Røthe’s late move, but in the end, the jury upheld Norway’s victory.
Røthe, they reasoned, had been ahead of Hellner when he decided to switch lanes. The Swedes saw it differently, but accepted the decision.
“It was a riot that I did not think was quite fair,” Swedish assistant coachRobin Johansson told SportExpressen.se, according to a translation. “But we realized that it was a borderline case.”
Swedish men’s coach Arild Monsen later told Langde.se: “It was a bit on the edge but Røthe was ahead and had the right to choose tracks.”
The way NRK saw it: “Røthe selected [the] corridor very late, and cut that way in front Hellner and prevented Swede to accelerate towards the finish line.”
Regardless, the Norwegians ended up on top after staying in contention from the start. Their team of Eldar Rønning, Didrik Tønseth, Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Røthe crossed the line first in 1:17:22.5. Sweden (Daniel Richardsson, Johan Olsson, Calle Halversson and Hellner) was second and the Czechs (Jiri Magal, Lukas Bauer, Ales Razym and Martin Jaks) notched their first team podium since 2008.
Early in the first leg, Kazakhstan’s Sergey Cherepanov set the pace on the sunny and balmy day, with temperatures rising into the 40s by the early afternoon. However, the course remained shaded before the start so conditions changed drastically when the sun shifted overhead.
As Cherepanov tagged off in first, Russia’s Evgeniy Belov held his own in second (+1.7) and Rønning handed off in third (+2.2). On the second leg, Kazakhstan’s Alexandr Malyshev dropped back and Russia took the lead with Maxim Vylegzhanin. The Czechs moved to second with Bauer, who later tagged off in first, and Sweden’s Olsson came through the exchange in third (+16.3).
Meanwhile, the man subbing for Northug, Tønseth remained in contention 19.3 seconds back in fourth as he tagged off to Sundby for the third leg. After Sweden’s Halvarsson led early, Russia’s Alexander Legkov took control of the third leg while Halvarsson and Sundby tucked closely behind.
The front group became a definitive four with Razym (CZE) bringing up the back. Behind them, Switzerland trailed by more than 20 seconds in fifth, leading a chase pack of Germany, Russia II and Finland. Finland’s Matti Heikkinen received a yellow card for skating during the second leg, and the Finns did not finish with anchor Sami Jauhojärvi out due to illness, according to a FIS press release. (Jauhojärvi has not raced in more than a month after his father died suddenly in late December.)
First out of the last exchange, Røthe made a point to stay in front, leading Russia’s Chernousov, then Hellner, and finally Jaks, who brought the Czechs back into contention from 23 seconds back at the tagoff. The lead four remained within two seconds of one another with about a kilometer to go, and in the final meters, Røthe outdid the others for the win.
It was Norway’s second victory in as many World Cup relays this season after their crew of Rønning, Sundby, Røthe and Northug won the opener in Gallivare, Sweden. There, the Norwegians beat the Swedes (Emil Jönsson, Olsson, Richardsson and Hellner) by 6.4 seconds.
“When I spoke with Sjur before the race he said that he needed to be within 20 seconds of the leaders and that he could win for us,” Sundby said at a post-race press conference. “He showed us today that he was telling the truth. It was a great win for the team.”
“I know I have a good sprint, but I was a little afraid [of] Hellner,” Røthe told NRK. “Thankfully it went well in the end.”
The victory was a special one for Norway, which proved it can beat Hellner with two different anchors. “I suppose I did an OK job a substitute,” Røthe said with a smile.
“In the relay you just never know what can happen,” Bauer said at the press conference. “Our team raced very tough today and Martin was able to bring us back to the leaders. This is a great result for the Czech Republic. We are very happy.”