LAHTI, Finland — Up until the final 100 meters of Thursday’s race, it looked as if the 2017 Nordic World Championships sprint title belonged to Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov.
In fact, Ustiugov had won the qualifier in a time of 3:11.72 minutes, a commanding 2.7 seconds over Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh. The Russian reigning Tour de Ski champion placed second in his quarterfinal by a mere 0.19 seconds. He was second again in his semifinal in a three-way photo finish, in which Italy’s Federico Pellegrino came out on top, Ustiugov took second and Norwegian Johannes Høsflot Klæbo was third.
Coming down the homestretch of the men’s 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint final, Ustiugov seemed to have learned his lesson: race your own race, let the rest play catch up.
But charging from behind was Italy’s defending Sprint World Cup champion. As Pellegrino surged, Ustiugov faded. The end result was a repeat of their semifinal: Pellegrino in first in 3:13.76, Ustiugov second (+0.15), and Klæbo third.
His Norwegian teammates Krogh and Petter Northug finished fourth (+0.67) and fifth (+12.13), respectively. Fan favorite, Ristomatti Hakola of Finland placed sixth (+12.28).
Ustiugov was visibly frustrated within moments of crossing the line and letting the World Championship title slip away. World Cup sprint leader Pellegrino, along with his scores of yellow-hat-clad fan club, celebrated his win as if it were never in doubt.
“Last year here, I was in the final against five Norwegian athletes,” Pellegrino said during a post-race press conference. “And I tried to attack in the last uphill. I was in the front of the group in the last downhill and then I finished fourth. So this year I was just thinking, don’t be the first on the last downhill.”
The marks Pellegrino’s first individual World Championships medal. The 26 year old previously earned bronze in the 2015 World Championships freestyle team sprint with teammate Dietmar Nöckler in Falun, Sweden.
The top North American on Thursday was Canada’s Alex Harvey in 12th. Harvey advanced all the way to the second semifinal, and for a moment looked like he might make a move on the final long climb to position himself within the top two.
“The power was good, but with this fresh snow, it’s really tough to go outside the race line,” Harvey said after. “Usually this is one of those courses where you can make a lot of moves. But today, because everybody was skiing in the middle, that made the track much faster, but on the side the fresh snow was slow. So for my style of racing, it was hard to come from the back.”
According to Harvey, by the finishing stretch Poland’s Maciej Staręga had moved out of his lane ahead of him. In an attempt to maneuver back around Staręga, Harvey unintentionally skied over Norwegian Emil Iversen’s skis, causing Iversen to crash. The jury relegated Harvey to last in the heat.
Moving forward, Harvey said he was looking forward to Saturday’s 30 k skiathlon, where he believes he has his best chances at a world champs medal. Harvey has four World Championships medals: one gold from the 2009 classic team sprint (with Devon Kershaw), one silver from the 2015 classic sprint, and bronze in the 2013 classic sprint and 2015 skiathlon.
Three other Canadian men did not qualify, with Jess Cockney finishing 47th (+16.82), Len Valjas one place behind in 48th (+17.16), and Knute Johnsgaard in 53rd (+18.39).
For the U.S., Andy Newell ended up 21st after placing fifth in his quarterfinal, 1.75 seconds behind Krogh, who won that heat. Newell started his day by qualifying in 20th.
“I’m feeling healthy and strong, I definitely have come not to take anything for granted these days,” the 33-year-old U.S. Ski Team veteran said of his international-skiing opportunities. “So I am healthy and injury free. … I am happy to be here and happy to get some World Championship races in. I am pretty motivated to try to ski fast, so we will see what the week brings.”
Two U.S. men reached the heats, with Simi Hamilton landing 11th in the qualifying round. But with a lot of good U.S. luck on Thursday, there was some bad.
“We had some bad luck out there with Simi crashing,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “[Simi] was really disappointed because he had obviously been targeting this race for a long time. But he knows that that’s part of sprinting, too. And that for the times when you do make it to the podium and to the A-final, it makes those appearances that much more special when you do those have those kind of results, knowing that there are going to be these hard days in between.”
After skiing within reach of the top three with space to move into the top two, Hamilton fell during the final descent into the stadium and ultimately finished sixth, 35 seconds behind Pellegrino, who won that quarterfinal. He placed 28th on the day.
“I was feeling good … and made a good move to get kind of in the mix with everyone leading down the downhill, so I was kind of biding my time,” Hamilton, 29, said. “And we started down it, I went to pass [France’s Richard] Jouve on the right, and then I don’t know whether we tangled skis or I hooked my tip in the powder … and I just tried to take a little skate with my right to get a little more momentum over the bump, and maybe just hooked my right tip and face-planted.”
Hamilton plans on racing in the classic team sprint on Sunday. The U.S. started four men in the sprint, with Erik Bjornsen finishing 36th in the qualifier, 2.22 seconds out of the top 30 needed to qualify, and Cole Morgan 54th (of 156 in the men’s field).
For Morgan, 22, of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, Thursday marked his World Championships debut and the only race he will compete in at this year’s world champs. He planned to return to the U.S. within the next few days.
“It’s wild,” he said of the experience.
Lahti’s lower elevation contrasted greatly with many of the races Morgan has raced in so far this season. “I haven’t raced at sea level yet this year, and it’s a different feeling.”
— Harald Zimmer, Chelsea Little, and Alex Kochon contributed