LAHTI, Finland — Through the first seven medal races of 2017 Nordic World Championships, the hometown Finns came close. There was Krista Parmakoski’s skiathlon silver. There was the spectacular Finn non-win when Finland’s Iivo Niskanen and Norway’s Emil Iversen tumbled 200 meters from the line during Sunday’s classic team sprint. At the moment of the tangle, Niskanen was primed to pass Iversen for what appeared to be a golden performance.
Instead of a cheer concluding the sprint, a collective exhale deflated the crowd: Niskanen and teammate Sami Jauhojärvi ultimately settled for bronze. While it wasn’t the result they had hoped for, it remained the 25-year-old Niskanen’s first World Championships medal.
Another race on Wednesday brought another Finnish opportunity. On a 34-degree Fahrenheit day with moist tracks and low-hanging clouds, gold was up for grabs.
During the men’s 15-kilometer classic individual start, Niskanen channeled whatever bitter taste remained from his team sprint near-win into a controlled and sufficient pace. After 1.5 k, Niskanen ranked fourth — from then on, he was the fastest through every remaining timing point, and first when it mattered most. Niskanen won in 36:44 minutes.
Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby finished 17.9 seconds off his time for silver. Sundby’s teammate Niklas Dyrhaug clocked in 31.3 seconds back for bronze, his first-career individual championships medal.
“It’s for sure a really good team, Norway, and it’s a hard fight in all the places for every distances,” Dyrhaug said at the post-race press conference about making Norway’s 12-man World Championships team. “I have been a reserve for the skiathlon and the team sprint. I have been here since Otepää — ten days now. I have been ready so when I got the chance in the 15 k, yeah, I am happy to show everybody that I am in really good shape and I have something in world champs to do.”
The 15 k classic appears an odds maker’s nightmare. It remains a fickle distance and technique with a million and one variables. There’s the course profile, the athlete’s classic technique to consider — do they thrive on headwalls or stridable terrain, double poling? The wax. The snow type. The venue’s altitude. Then there’s the pacing — go out hard? Look for negative splits? Ski it like a true distance race, not an elongated sprint?
A single 15 k classic win at a championship or World Cup level evidently doesn’t mean more will come your way. Of the 133 starters on Wednesday, Finland’s Matti Heikkinen remains the only athlete who had won a 15 k classic at a World Championships or Olympics (at 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Norway, he won the gold in this event). Not since the ’54 and ’58 championships has an athlete won two world titles in this event.
Niskanen and the 15 k classic are sympatico and eventually he may buck the consecutive-winner’s curse. Niskanen has three career World Cup podiums: all in the 15 k classic. There’s two wins — both in Kuusamo, Finland, and a second place at the last pre-championship World Cup race last month in Otepää, Estonia.
That doesn’t mean the Finn isn’t flawless.
“Many times, in many races I have started too hard for the first two kilometers,” Niskanen said after the race.
His too-early, hot-pacing issues were remedied Wednesday as he left nothing to chance. Niskanen suggested he’d had a Lahti champs dress rehearsal to test his pacing strategy.
“It was good to race here before on the Scandinavian Cup and learn the track, today I’m ready,” Niskanen said.
Back on Jan. 8, Lahti hosted a Scandinavian Cup 15 k classic. Like today, Niskanen won over another Norwegian, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (+5.8).
“Today I planned to do a half kilometer and push hard,” Niskanen said on Wednesday. “After a kilometer and a half, I was quite fresh and got quite easily a gap and pushed as hard as I can. Everyone is cheering you and so then you don’t actually feel the lactate as normal. I had a difficult last kilometers, but it was one and a half to go I just thinking about myself, ‘Now we are not going to lose 20 seconds anymore.’ ”
That losing 20-seconds remark referred to his Scando Cup race. During that 15 k, he was 17 seconds up on Klæbo with 3 k remaining. He actually lost 12 seconds to Klæbo on that final sector, not 20, but Niskanen recognized the trend — slowing down in the final push.
Although young, Niskanen has struggled with repeated sickness and overtraining. Promoted as a potential World Cup overall contender, Niskanen’s three 15 k classic victories remain the sole podiums highlighting his World Cup resume.
“It has been many hard years and I said when I wake up, ‘I feel healthy today and I have hope’,” Niskanen said. “I have gotten easily sick for many years and over training, maybe I have been training too much and too hard during the last years. But this year I have trained more than ever, but I have not raced in every weekend.”
The higher-volume, limited-racing recipe worked. This season, the Finn tailored his race schedule — not too much, not too little. To date, he’s raced 11 World Cup races.
“The goal was to win here in Lahti and be in the best shape here and we see it with my gold,” Niskanen said.
Norway’s Sundby remains a World Cup benchmark— he’s a mutiple overall Crystal Globe winner and leads this year’s standings. But for the reigning overall World Cup winner, an individual championship gold (at world champs or the Olympics) still eludes him.
“I think my race was really good, I felt so fast out there,” Sundby said after the race. “And then I was 20 seconds behind, I don’t believe it. It was tough for the mind to motivate myself for fighting today, but I did what I thought was one of my best race ever at this distance.”
Asked if he felt demoralized knowing he was 20 seconds down grinding away on Lahti’s wooded tracks, Sundby explained how he attempted to remain in the hunt.
“It is not so difficult in the World Champs … [Niskanen] did the race here in the Scan Cup a few months ago, where he for sure lost a lot of seconds in the last 3.75,” Sundby added. “And I tried to motivate myself. I said, ‘He will meet the wall, he will meet the wall, you just have to push.’ I felt good, I felt good all the way and tried to gain seconds but it was nearly impossible today.
“It is an amazing performance Iivo showed us today, everybody,” Sundby said of his Finnish protagonist. “You have to appreciate a really good sportsman. Also with some things that happened before here in the world champs, maybe in the team sprint, and it’s called karma. Today he showed everybody.”
Best World Champs Finishes for Bjornsen in 18th, Bratrud in 33rd
While Niskanen took the overall victory on Wednesday, American Erik Bjornsen walked away with a win of his own. Two days earlier, the 25-year-old Washington native had raced to a historic fifth place in the classic team sprint with his U.S. Ski Team (USST) teammate Simi Hamilton for the best team-sprint result for the U.S. men’s program. Before that, the team’s best was seventh place in 2015.
Bjornsen had raced the anchor leg for the U.S., challenged by names like Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov and Wednesday’s eventual 15 k winner, Niskanen.
Despite some of the heavy hitting names that challenged Bjornsen on Sunday, he found himself in the mix (two of his laps were the fifth fastest and one the fourth fastest of all second-leg skiers).
“In the team sprint the other day, you saw some of the best skiers, I mean, I was skiing with Iivo Niskanen, who has a good shot at winning today, and I felt pretty comfortable skiing with some of those guys,” Bjornsen after Wednesday’s race. An early starter in bib 26, he initially finished third before being bumped 15 places to 18th (+1:56.7).
“I definitely went into the [15 k] race with quite a bit of excitement from the team sprint,” he said.
Bjornsen added that the energy he was able to find during the team sprint is something he sees as working it’s way into his longer-distance efforts.
His performance in the 15 k appears to prove that, as he finished in the top 20 for his best individual World Championships result. The finish also ties his best individual World Cup result — he placed 18th three years ago in a 15 k in Toblach, Italy. The finish was also the best championships result of an American in the men’s 15 k classic since Kris Freeman placed fourth at Liberec world champs eight years ago.
Bjornsen explained that a slight bonk toward the end of his first lap caused him to put on the brakes briefly, though he found he was ultimately able to pick his pace back up before finishing.
“I went for it in the beginning, for sure, and I think I had a pace for the first lap that would have been pretty similar to some guys in the top ten,” Bjornsen said. “Then I kind of hit a little bit of a wall there, a little bit through the first lap, and struggled for a couple of kilometers … then I was able to pick up a little bit of steam before the finish.”
“I mean hopefully I can just continue to improve and be able to keep that pace up the whole way and then I think it can come together for me,” he added.
The second American to finish on Wednesday was Kyle Bratrud in 33rd (+3:11.5). Bratrud’s result was 20.7 seconds out of the top 30 and marks his best individual result at his second World Championships and career best at the World Cup level.
Seeing himself as a stronger skater, Bratrud, 24, of the CXC Team, entered Wednesday wanting to test his ability to push his classic-technique limits.
“I think I’m a little more confident in skate skiing, so classic I figured I had nothing to lose,” Bratrud said after. “I basically just went as hard as I could from the gun … to see if I could hang on.”
While the decision resulted in Bratrud having to ease up during some of the climbs, he indicated that managed to recover well enough on the descents to regain control.
“The course is pretty rolly and I was dying a lot on the uphills,” he said. “On the downhills I was getting some recovery and and all of a sudden I’d feel good again, but I’d get to the next hill and I’d be totally dead.
“It was kind of a roller coaster of energy, but I just tried to keep my legs moving as fast as I could,” he added.
With Wednesday also being his mother’s birthday (both his parents made the trek to Lahti to watch him race), Bratrud was thankful for the opportunity to race before throngs of fans, even if the names most were yelling didn’t belong to him.
“This is pretty awesome to not even be able to hear yourself breathing because it’s so loud,” Bratrud said “I love when people are cheering, even if it’s not for me.”
Two other Americans competed on Wednesday, with Andy Newell (U.S. Ski Team) finishing 50th (+4:21.7) and Ben Lustgarten (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) 55th (+4:56.9).
With his USST teammate Noah Hoffman out due to sickness, Newell explained that he was then slotted to race Wednesday’s classic event.
“It was fun to get a 15 k in at the championships like this, it’s unfortunate that Hoff wasn’t feeling good so I had to come in and take his spot,” Newell said after.
Adding that much of his goals are geared towards races scheduled to take place next season –particularly the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea — Newell is not too concerned with numerical results.
“I felt OK in a few places, but definitely lost too much time out there. I’m just kind of going after a feeling. It wasn’t a great day, but I didn’t feel awful, either,” Newell said. “I’m hoping to build on this year and kind of use this year as a platform to be at my best by the Olympics. I’m not worried too much about results, just trying to feel good when I can.”
Lustgarten indicated that he had been dealing with a bout of food illness prior to Wednesday. Unable to eat much in the days leading up to the race, the 24 year old had difficulty tapping into his normal race speed.
“I was just blown. I tried to ski really smooth and then on the the steep stuff, I tried to ski really light and I tried not to throw up,” Lustgarten said. “I’m probably at 70 percent right now and I’m just trying to ski as well as I can here. … It’s a great experience and it was cool to hear the crowd going, I just wish I could ski like I was a month ago.”
Canada was led by Devon Kershaw in 35th (+3:24.8). The next Canadian to finish was Knute Johnsgaard in 56th (+5:00.7), followed by Jess Cockney in 65th (+6:20.7).
“I don’t think I pushed as hard as I should have. … Mentally, maybe I wasn’t totally zoned in, but I was happy to do a distance race in front of a big fan base like this in Finland for the hometown favorites, so that was good,” Cockney said.
This being Johnsgaard’s first world champs experience, the 24 year old was happy with how he race his third individual event of the week.
“I just went out at a pace I thought I could sustain for 15 k and kept that pace pretty steady I think and was able to push hard and kind of sprint up the last hill,” Johnsgaard said. “I felt like I paced it as well as I could, so I’m pretty satisfied with my race.”
— Gerry Furseth and Harald Zimmer contributed