It’s a modified saying, but when in Norway, ski like Norwegians do. During Wednesday’s 1.2-kilometer classic sprint in Drammen, Norway, the Norwegian men took that saying to heart.
On a postcard day, with the late-afternoon sun dipping below the quaint city and the surrounding forested hills, Norway dominated the finals — they locked up the top-four spots. Double poling to victory was Petter Northug Jr. in 2:38.95. Ola Vigen Hattestad, also a double-poler, finished second (+0.41) in a photo finish with Eirik Brandsdal (+0.47), who took third.
Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh skied to fourth, 1.98 seconds back. The first non-Norwegian was Sweden’s Teodor Peterson in fifth (+2.13). Russia’s Alexander Panzhinskiy rounded out the final in sixth, 11.41 seconds behind Northug.
American skier Simi Hamilton was the top North American finisher, placing 11th on the day. Hamilton was eliminated in the first semifinal, where he finished sixth.
The remaining U.S. Ski Team members did not advance after the qualifier. Erik Bjornsen skied to 46th, 8.23 seconds behind top qualifier, Panzhinskiy, who skied the course in 2:32.69. Reese Hanneman followed in 59th (+10.02), Andy Newell in 63rd (+11.52), Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess in 69th (+15.13), and Scott Patterson in 71st (+18.07).
The top Canadian was Alex Harvey, who placed 20th overall — he was knocked out in the fourth quarterfinal when he finished fourth, only 2.08 seconds out of first. Teammate Len Valjas qualified in 19th, and placed 28th overall after finishing sixth in his quarterfinal. No other Canadians entered the race.
It’s been nearly a month since the last World Cup classic sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany. That race, as part of the 2016 Tour de Ski, saw many tired sprint specialists — many dropped out of the Tour after that stage. Wednesday’s qualifiers should have seen a World Cup crew of sprinters on rested and ready-to-hustle legs.
As noted, Russia’s Panzhinskiy, a classic sprint specialist who took Olympic silver in 2010, bested the field in the qualifier, crossing the line in 2:32.69. But it was a notable Northug who placed fifth, 2.84 seconds behind. Northug has been a results enigma — always in the hunt, sometimes a crafty World Cup win, on-form for championships.
Despite all the glory, the top-of-the-world all-around skiing, Northug last won a regular World Cup sprint nearly three years ago; a 2013 classic sprint in Stockholm, Sweden. The week prior to that victory, Northug also won the classic sprint in Drammen. (He double poled to victory in those sprints as well.) So to say Northug was due for a win isn’t exactly the truth. But to say that Northug skied wisely, powerfully, and stamped his authority on the reality of the new double-pole norm, is tough to refute.
The first semifinal was stacked. The top finishers on the day, Northug, Brandsdal, and Hattestad finished second, first, and third, respectively. Hamilton placed sixth (+4.69). On a firm-and-fast course, where most skiers used klister and strided on the short-steeps and used a combo of kick and double poling on the false flats, Northug proved he could stay in the mix with the heavy hitters by relying on his slick skate skis and a hammering double pole.
Northug’s semifinal never really strung out. Like a Slinky, expanding and contracting, every time a small gap formed, the group eventually came back together. And that’s how it was: the six skiers entered the final stretch in a clustered group, and it was a frenzy to the finish.
Yet in the finals, it first appeared Northug’s double-pole only strategy would come to naught. Northug dangled in fourth while Panzhinskiy and Brandsdal strided ahead — both used kick wax.
Then the dynamic changed 1:36 into the race. On a fast gradual downhill, in a tight tuck, Northug simply glided past first, second, and third, and into first himself. Just before the final 180-degree turn back to the everlasting homestretch, Northug had time to give a glance, or maybe a glare, behind.
The race then was his to lose.
With his signature forward hips and high hands, Northug looked to be in rare form in victory. As were his comments after the race. Across the finish line, celebrating, Northug flexed his arms.
In a translation from an NRK article, Northug said he was signaling his mother. “It was a signal to my mother that she can be proud that she produced a crazy guy like me,” he said.
Crazy or not, the choice to double pole was never in doubt. “Perhaps it would have been smart to use kick wax in the quarterfinals, but I have always double poled in Drammen,” Northug told NRK. The translation reads that Northug thought he’d be bullied or made fun of had he used kick wax.
“I laugh at those who use kick wax and feel like we should spare our waxers that job,” Northug commented to NRK.
With the win, Northug immediately looked ahead to Saturday’s 50 k classic mass start at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway. Apparently, even with his energy expenditures Wednesday, he’s looking forward to it.
“The double poling cost me nothing. It’ll be easy to keep up the same pace for 50 k on Saturday,” Northug joked with NRK. “I’ve been training for the Holmenkollen 50 k the past weeks, it’s the year’s toughest race. My dream is to be in the mix and fight the whole way. I will challenge Martin [Johnsrud Sundby].”
Aware he was speaking about Sundby, an indomitable force this year, Northug doesn’t believe Sundby is nervous. “I’m sure he’s snickering when he thinks about how I raced four heats today. But I’m still really looking forward to Saturday,” Northug told NRK.
Simi in the Semis
North America’s top finisher, Hamilton, who sprinted to 11th overall, was satisfied with his performance.
“I’m definitely happy with today, not ecstatic,” Hamilton said in a post-race phone interview. “It’s always to nice to ski more than just a couple rounds. Drammen for sure is one of the harder sprints of the year, especially for me as more of a skate sprinter. It’s always been either good or bad here, and luckily today was good.”
The Drammen sprint was deep with Norwegian skiers. That, coupled with the nature of the course, made Hamilton’s efforts particularly taxing. Despite cheering fans, Hamilton said the lungs still burned.
“It’s a pretty straightforward course, but you are working for a lot of it,” he said. “The start and finish straight especially, is really tough because it’s so long and you can see where the finish is when you come around that corner at the very far end. And it’s just kind of mentally really hard because you can see it and then you just have to know that it’s just 45 seconds of all out skiing during that section.”
In his semifinal, Hamilton was positioned in second place for much of the first kilometer.
“My tactic was to to ski really comfortably the first half of the race … and just conserve energy and then try to make a move at the bottom of the course,” Hamilton said.
Coming out of the final corner, Hamilton played his tactics well for a big push down the stretch.
“I was in a great spot coming out of that very bottom corner and we hit the finish straight and I just ran out of steam in a big way,” he said. Hamilton finished sixth, and explained that his energy reserves may have had something to do with his lack of rest between his quarterfinal and semi.
“It’s always tough being the second lucky loser coming from the fifth quarter because you go straight into the first semifinal,” he said. “And that basically, it gives essentially six minutes of rest. So it’s a tough spot to be in, it happened at World Champs last year, too. So you’ve just got keep thinking positively and it’s hard for sure.”
Notably absent from the rounds was Newell. He’s a consistent sprint qualifier who craves the classic sprints.
U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb said Newell’s result was unexpected. “I think he [Andy] is a little bit puzzled, he is really disappointed. He chose to double pole and in the end it didn’t end up to be a great value to doing so. What we look for is conditions where klister is slow and skate skis can really shine. But even then, it only works if you have the very fastest pair of skate skis.”
Newell himself got right to the point in an email. “I guess you could call today an interesting day for me!” he wrote. “In a lot of ways I think it was a perfect storm of bad ski selection and just messing up the qual. I didn’t spend enough time dialing in my grip wax skis instead was just too dead set on double poling. The course broke down a lot more than I thought it was going too and I think that caught me off guard when I was out on course and I bogged on the uphill and my skaters just didn’t feel like they were gliding well in the stadium. One of those days when I would love a do-over!”
Newell added that Wednesday’s racing in Drammen was a learning experience, too. “I’ve always taken qualifying for granted so it was hard not to be in the heats today especially on a course where I have been so successful in the past. Its tough but at the same time its good because it helps put things in perspective and makes me realize how important those race day adjustments can be and to be more grateful of the opportunities I have to go for it in the heats.”
Another U.S. skier frustrated with their Drammen results was the Bend Endurance Academy’s Blackhorse-von Jess. Racing and training in Europe for the past three weeks, Blackhorse-von Jess wanted more.
“I was hoping for World Cup experience — in the rounds,” he wrote in an email. “But clearly my issues qualifying are keeping me from the next step. I’ll head home now and see if I can figure out how to put together a race in the Ski Tour Canada.
“The biggest jump for me is figuring out how to put a race together,” Blackhorse-von Jess added. “At home, I never have a problem putting races together. Good days, bad days, I make it work. I haven’t figured out how to make it work over here. Yes, these guys are fast. No question. But if I can’t figure out how to show up and race as fast as I can then I’ll never get the chance to actually race — qualification is important, but it isn’t ‘the race’.”
On the Canadian side, the Drammen rounds accounted for a solid result — Harvey finished 20th overall for his second-best sprint result this season after the Oberstdorf classic sprint, where he placed 15th.
“So for me to qualify was already like a really good sign. This year I have qualified only once before and really it was at the Tour, the second sprint of the Tour, when people had already dropped out and their are less sprinters. So really, it’s the first actual real sprint that I have qualified in this year,” Harvey said on the phone.
Harvey’s strong skiing on the day positioned him close to making the semifinals. His fast quarterfinal, the fourth of five heats, earned him a lucky loser spot until Hamilton knocked him out. Yet Harvey comes away with renewed sensations.
“I felt like I had a good kick in the end for the last two to three hundred meters. I think that is the first time this year I felt that strong in a finish,” he said. “In the the past I have quite good finishes in both distance and sprinting. But this year, for some reason, it just wasn’t there until today.”
Harvey plans to race this weekend’s Holmenkollen 50 k classic. He sits 12th overall on the World Cup.
Racing continues for the men on Saturday with the Holmenkollen 50 k classic mass start.
— Kaitlyn Patterson and Chelsea Little contributed reporting