Eight years ago, France’s Maurice Manificat and Jean-Marc Gaillard waved to the French cheers of their country’s fans as they climbed onto the men’s World Cup relay podium in La Clusaz, France. The two — along with their former national-team teammates, Vincent Vittoz and Emmanuel Jonnier — had secured the final podium spot by less than a minute, just barely missing out on second place.
Little did they know as they climbed down that it would be close to a decade later before they would reach a relay podium again during the regular World Cup season.
On Sunday, for the first time since December 2008, both Manificat and Gaillard — joined this time by their teammates and current French national-team members, Alexis Jeannerod and Clement Parisse — reclaimed their podium spot in the men’s 4 x 8-kilometer relay, once again against the backdrop of La Clusaz.
“It was a great day for our team,” Manificat said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “Everybody did an awesome job on their legs. I knew Finn [Hågen Krogh] and Sergey [Ustiugov] would be the biggest opponents today on the last leg. My plan was to ski with them and eventually go away. Finn and Sergey were stronger but it is great to finish on the podium.”
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Starting in Row 2 behind Russia’s Evgeniy Belov, Gaillard skied the first classic leg for France, holding tightly to a third place for much of the first part of his race, behind Belov and Norway’s Didrik Tønseth.
By the 3.5 k mark, Pål Golberg of Norway’s second team and Sweden’s Emil Jönsson had overtaken the lead and Gaillard was getting pushed back to fourth then fifth and eventually seventh.
Yet the Frenchman’s skis proved faster than most in the field and by 6 k he had regained his position in third. Belov had also found his way back to the front. As the group rounded for their final lap Goldberg charged the group to the exchange zone, putting Norway’s second team on the attack.
Gaillard ultimately tagged off in sixth to Jeannerod for the second classic leg. Norway’s first team came through in seventh, handing off to Martin Johnsrud Sundby. Russia I tagged off in second to Alexander Legkov.
It didn’t take long, however, for Sundby to put Norway’s first team back in the lead. By the 2 k mark it was his red bib that led the chase pack, with the Norwegian double poling on skate skis. Within the next 2 k, however, Italy’s Francesco de Fabiani, Legkov and Sweden’s Jens Burman had swallowed up Sundby, while Jeannerod now sat in seventh.
With 2.5 k to go of the second leg, de Fabiani quickened the pace and Sundby struggled to keep up while double poling the course climbs.
The second exchange came down to a battle between Italy and Norway’s second team, with Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug outsprinting de Fabiani to be the first through. Russia’s first team exchanged in third, while France I was now positioned in fifth. Sundby was the last of the chase pack to come through in ninth, tagging off to Anders Gløersen for the first freestyle leg.
“It’s necessary to take a proper stance for the classical diagonal technique,” Sundby said told VG. “I did that today by getting a real beating.”
As the first freestyle leg began to unfold, it was Sweden’s Martin Johansson who led the charge, not far behind was Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin and France’s Parisse. Also working his way back into the mix — despite the 20 meters Sundby had lost on the lead group — was Gløersen of Norway’s first team.
In fact, by the 3 k mark, Gløersen had propelled himself to the front and taken command of the lead.
“Anders did a great job on his leg and put us back in contention,” Finn Hågen Krogh, the anchor for Norway’s first team, said according to a FIS press release.
With the lead returning to Norway, France, Russia, and Sweden were back in the hunt. The 4 k mark found a front group of seven nation’s relay teams — Norway I, France I, Germany, Sweden, Russia I, Finland, and Italy.
Rounding the corner for the final exchange, it was Norway I, followed by Sweden, and Russia. Parisse, who tagged off to Manificat, came through in fifth.
The anchor for Russia’s first team, Sergey Ustiugov, wasted no time moving to the front of the group to set the pace. The six other frontrunners followed closely behind, with Krogh and Germany’s Lucas Bøgl positioned in second and third respectively.
Then came the waiting game. The group slowed, Ustiugov and Krogh casting a few glances over their shoulders to see who would make the first move. Ultimately it was Ustiugov first. The Russian began to push the pace around the 3 k mark, initiating a scramble. Yet within another kilometer, Ustiugov slowed giving the lead back over to Krogh.
“In my leg I wanted to save some energy and gave everything in the last corner and in the finish stretch,” Krogh said, according to a FIS press release.
The front group had now split in two, with Germany, Norway I, France I, and Russia I breaking away. Sweden, Finland and Italy had fallen behind.
As they approached the final course climb, the real sprint began with Krogh and Ustiugov going head-to-head straight to the last 100 meters. In a lunge to the line, Krogh bested Ustiugov by two tenths of a second for the overall win in a time of 1:11:25.7. Crossing 7.7 seconds later was Manificat, securing France on the podium in third.
“I gave everything I had in the finish,” Ustiugov said, according to a FIS press release. “The speed increased in the last two laps. It is always disappointing to lose, but Finn was very strong on the home stretch. But it is still a very good result to be second and to share the podium with my teammates.”
Neither Canada nor the U.S. fielded a men’s relay due to illness. Racing will resume Dec. 31 in Val Mustair, Switzerland, for Stage 1 of the 2016/2017 Tour de Ski.
— Aleks Tangen contributed reporting