It doesn’t get much more perfect for a team sprint than a bluebird day in the mountains on the same snow that will hold Olympics one year from now. The outcome doesn’t get much more perfect either, at least for the host country. In the classic team sprint, the final race of the test weekend for the Games, Russia’s first team of Dmitriy Japarov and Maxim Vylegzhanin blasted the field apart to win by 18 seconds over Sweden in second and Germany in third.
Japarav put his feelings quite simply after Vylegzhanin crossed the finish line with no one in sight: “It feels great to be on the podium on the home soil,” he said. “Maxim did a very good job on his legs and we could build up the gap. It was our plan to go as fast as possible right from the start. I hope we can repeat the same performance also next year at the Olympics.”
Has a team sprint ever been won by a difference of 18 seconds? If so, Sochi erased all memory of it on Sunday. The field was stunned when Japarav created a gap on the first leg, and even more so when they never relinquished it. Germany led the chase for most of the race and Tobias Angerer expressed his surprise at the decisive early surge.
“We expected the Russians to be strong but it was surprising to see them go away so early,” he said.
In another race — a distance event, or even a long an individual sprint — a bold early move might have backfired. Or at least the threat of it backfiring would have left some hope that there was still a chance for something unexpected to happen. Someone might blow up, or a chase group might reel in the break.
But in a race that gets a reset button every few kilometers, Japarov and Vylegzhanin didn’t give anyone a chance. They know the Sochi terrain better than anyone, and with minutes to recharge in between legs they attacked the course afresh each time with unmatched confidence. The announcers could have called the race after the second round, when Vylegzhanin extended the lead to 20 seconds. Remarkably, both he and Japarov continued to post the fastest course splits even as they skied alone.
The fight for silver, then, was the only contest left to decide. A small train pulled away from the rest of the field towards the middle of the race, with Germany, Sweden and the U.S. matching each other stride for stride. It wasn’t until the final lap that it broke apart. Andy Newell (USA) lost contact off the back as Emil Joensson (SWE) put on a surge to blow by Angerer. Joensson, currently the men’s World Cup sprint leader, redeemed himself of just missing the sprint heats on Friday to take silver by two seconds over Germany.
“It was really hard to go uphill but today we had very good skis, which allowed us to take a good grip up the hill,” Joensson said. “I tried to save some energy for the last leg. It is great to be on the podium.”
Russia’s second team took fourth (+28.08), an unusually fallible Norway finished fifth (+29.13) and Kazakhstan took sixth (+29.74). Newell fell on the last downhill, dropping the U.S. from fourth to seventh (+43.85).
If it hadn’t felt like hype for the Games had started before, it certainly does now. Even the imagery looked Olympic; the sun came out for the first time all weekend, giving cameras an excuse to dwell on the picturesque Caucasus Mountains in the background as Japarov and Vylegzhanin strode away from the field as if it were standing still.