FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – After so much buildup, so many strategic moves throughout the men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships on Friday, everything almost literally came to a grinding halt in the fourth and final leg.
The worker bees hard done their jobs for the first 30 kilometers of the race, making the last 10 into something like a Sunday stroll on a 10-degree Celsius (50-degree Fahrenheit) afternoon.
As expected, Petter Northug was among those controlling the pace early in the anchor leg. Norway’s relay closer for the last four World Championships, he wasn’t about to use his reserves too early. The frontrunners of the six-man group, Italian David Hofer and Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov weren’t keen on going hard, either.
Just to show how slow they were going, Northug started single sticking, basically walking up the second climb.
“It went slower than when you take your mother on Easter,” he later told NRK, according to a translation. “There were a lot of tactics, and I get what I want.”
As the pack approached the high point of the 3.3 k course, all six men stood up. Hofer did so first to let German Axel Teichmann and Ustiugov pass by, and Switzerland’s Remo Fischer, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson and Northug casually tucked behind him. Several thousand spectators watching the antics on the stadium big screens booed with dissatisfaction. Come on guys, this is a race.
But in a World Championship relay, that’s how it often goes.
“You need to race a little bit tactical, come from behind, save power for the last round because then you know it will be attacks,” Northug explained.
He quietly hovered near the back within a second or two of the lead until he decided it was time to go. Everyone knew some kind of surge would come, they just didn’t know when.
While the front guys played mind games, American Tad Elliott made up 59 seconds after starting in ninth. He caught the group on the second lap and led Northug up the second climb.
By the next hill, however, Elliott’s effort caught up with him and the 25-year-old Colorado native started to slip behind. Meanwhile, Finland’s Matti Heikkinen continued to make up ground on the leaders after starting nearly a minute and a half back in 11th. Heikkinen reached the group on the third lap and surged to the front early, but failed to hold on halfway through. He fell to the back of the group in seventh while Northug took the lead. Hofer and Ustiugov skied behind him, followed by Halfvarsson, Fischer and Teichmann.
With about 1 ½ k remaining, Northug led the downhill into a relatively boring part of the course. Before then, nothing really happened on the straightaway before the second-last descent. Northug caught his competitors off guard and attacked on the flat, where Halfvarsson in second responded quickest.
In his first World Championships, the 23-year-old Swedish anchor knew this was his moment and managed to get ahead of Northug on the fast downhill, taking the inside corner on the sharp bottom curve.
While Halfvarsson and Northug battled back up to the top, Ustiugov and Hofer put their heads down trying to hang on. The Swede led the final downhill, looking back to see how close Northug was. Really close.
The two sped over the last bump before the stadium and began the much-anticipated sprint showdown. Northug free skated alongside Halfvarsson to take the lead and just before finish, he let everyone know who the winner was. With Halfvarsson a few meters behind, Northug put his hands out and shrugged. No big deal.
Now a nine-time world champion, Northug claimed the seventh-consecutive world champs relay victory for Norway, in which he and Tord Asle Gjerdalen, Eldar Rønning and Sjur Røthe combined for a winning time of 1:41.37.2.
Sweden (Daniel Richardsson, Johan Olsson, Marcus Hellner and Halfvarsson) came up 1.2 seconds short for its sixth silver medal of the week. Russia (Evgeniy Belov, Maxim Vylegzhanin, Alexander Legkov and Ustiugov) edged Italy (Dietmar Nöckler, Giorgio Di Centa, Roland Clara and Hofer) by 0.2 seconds for third, 2.4 seconds behind Norway.
“Two hundred and fifty meters before the line I knew it was gold,” Northug told reporters. “So that feels amazing.”
“It’s awful fun to win the relay, and a dream to fight against Sweden at the end,” he told NRK. “I know what that rests on my shoulders. It is almost a scandal to be number two.”
His teammates set him up according to plan. Their scramble leg, Gjerdalen again filled in for Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who’s been out sick since Wednesday’s 15 k (Gjerdalen started in his place and earned bronze). Easily recognized as Norway’s Aviator-wearing guy, Gjerdalen wore his trademark sunglasses while putting the team in second at the first exchange, just 0.3 seconds behind Germany’s Hannes Dotzler.
(The Germans ended up seventh behind Finland in fifth and Switzerland after Teichmann crashed twice on the last lap. “Throughout my career, I’ve never had so much bad luck,” the 33-year-old Teichmann told Südkurier.)
On the second classic leg, Rønning kept the Norwegians close and tagged to Røthe in fifth, 3.4 seconds behind Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who skied a commanding second leg. Italy, Russia and Germany were also in the mix, along with Sweden’s Olsson, who tagged to Hellner four seconds back in sixth.
“It was tough,” Olsson told reporters. “In my case, maybe the glide wasn’t 100 percent today compared to some of the other competitors on my leg. It’s tough on the mind, too, when you don’t have the maximum skis under your feet.”
After taking his second-straight silver to Northug, who won Wednesday’s 15 k individual skate, Olsson told NRK: “He loses maybe one in a hundred sprints. It’s amazing how he does it again and again. No matter how the race is, he always wins.”
On the third leg, Legkov lifted Russia to first by the last exchange, 0.6 seconds ahead of Hellner. Røthe came through after the Swede in third, 2 seconds behind Legkov.
“The idea was that Petter should never have been in the lead on the last stage,” Hellner told NRK.
While he didn’t lead from the start, he was close enough to capture it.
“I did everything I could, but I had nothing to answer. I had no strength left,” Halfvarsson told NRK.
“I tried to get a few meters up in the last uphill, but he is too strong,” he explained to reporters. “I had no chance. I’m happy with the silver because this is my first medal, but when it’s so close to gold, it’s not so fun.”
Northug suggested Sweden should’ve chosen someone else and said his team was surprised to see Halfvarsson listed as its anchor.
“But we say thank you,” Northug told SVT. “All glory to him, he beat several strong sprinters, but he still has a ways to go.”
For Røthe, who also started his first World Championships relay, the gold was everything he’d hoped for.
“It’s great to be world champion,” he told NRK. “It was a fun duel with Sweden.”
“A big job for the whole team, but the last guys, they’re just walking, slow, slow, slow and doing a massive sprint,” Gjerdalen told reporters. “That’s entertainment, that’s excitement and a lot of adrenaline. The whole stadium was just quiet. It’s cool!”
At the finish, the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, congratulated Northug.
“Nice that you stopped by,” Northug reportedly said.
“We did not talk so much,” he explained to NRK. “He said it was a close fight, and seemed very pleased that Sweden had taken the silver.”