Johannes Høsflot Klæbo is young enough that he could have started at the U23 World Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah, earlier this month. And the 20-year-old Norwegian probably would have done well there.
But the 2016 Junior World Champion in the freestyle sprint and 10-kilometer classic races held in Râsnov, Romania, already has his sights set much higher this season, targeting next week’s senior International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland.
And on his steep career ladder progression, he took another important rung on Saturday by stepping on the top of the podium for his first World Cup victory in the men’s 1.6 k freestyle sprint in Otepää, Estonia. In the final, Klæbo pushed hard right out of the start gate and never relinquished his lead, crossing the line first in convincing fashion in a time of 3:06.53. He also won the qualifier earlier in the morning, and advanced with relative ease through the rounds, winning his quarterfinal heat and placing second in his semifinal.
“I felt strong today and knew that those who were in the final [with me] are strong in the finish stretch, so I thought my chance would be to just go for it and that worked,” Klæbo told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, adding with a smile that he might use the same tactic for the World Championships.
His teammate Finn Hågen Krogh — who had narrowly beaten Klæbo in the semifinal — placed second in the final (+0.60) after taking the inside lane in the last turn and staying far right in better groomed snow to push past Tour de Ski winner Sergey Ustiugov of Russia on the finishing stretch. Ustiugov ended up third (+1.0).
“To win here, it’s unbelievable,” Klæbo told FIS in a finish-line interview. “I think I have learned a lot and it’s tough to be in the final because everyone is so good, but I am very satisfied with this race.”
Norwegian media have already started to compare him to his star teammate Petter Northug Jr., a comparison Klæbo is not too fond of insisting that he is his own man. And at Norwegian national championships in Lygna a week ago, Klæbo was eager to prove that he is more than a sprint specialist, winning the freestyle sprint but also the silver medal in the 15-kilometer classic race, only behind Didrick Tønseth but ahead of overall World Cup leader Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
At the start of this season, Klæbo placed second in the World Cup mini tour in Lillehammer, Norway, finishing behind Sundby in the 15 k classic pursuit. On Saturday, Sundby broke his pole right at the start of the sprint qualifier and quit the race skiing into the woods, while the young Klæbo left his more experienced national and international competitors no chance in the final.
“This is huge,” Klæbo told NRK. “I’ve been in so many finals, and I feel that this was due. It’s kind of crazy to do this before the World Championship”
“I was struggling in the quarterfinal, I did not feel that good,” Krogh told FIS, according to a press release. “I changed skis and then I felt better in every heat. In the final the lane I chose in the last corner was faster and I could carry on good speed in the homestretch.”
“To finish third is nice,” Ustiugov told FIS. “I would be disappointed if I had not finished in top three today. Finn was very fast on the homestretch today.”
Last season’s World Cup sprint winner Federico Pellegrino of Italy placed fourth (+4.77), ahead of two more Norwegians with Sindre Bjørnestad Skar in fifth (+15.53) and Håvard Solås Taugbøl in sixth place (+32.94). Klæbo now also sits in second place in the World Cup sprint standings behind Pellegrino.
Narrow Misses for Best North Americans
For the U.S., Simi Hamilton started his race day with a solid qualification in seventh position just 4.01 seconds behind the winner Klæbo; despite having to race on a newly modified course in Otepää that he believes doesn’t favor his strengths.
“I definitely felt good in my qualifier,” Hamilton told FasterSkier on the phone after. “There are two really big climbs in this course, and I think they kind of suit the more distance-type skier a little bit better because both of them are just pretty long 30-45 second climbs, and the conditions were definitely getting pretty slippery out there even by the qualifier. So that’s kind of an environment I struggle in a little bit or at least have in the past.”
“I was psyched with a seventh [place],” he commented on his qualifying result. “It’s a long course which I tend to struggle a little bit with, too, but being able to qualify in the top 10 on a course that is a little over 3:10 [minutes long], I think that’s a good time for where I am with my fitness right now especially leading to World Champs.”
In his quarterfinal, Hamilton faced Krogh, Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal and Russia’s Gleb Retivykh, the winner of last week’s sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“The tactic that I was focusing on the most all day was just trying to ski the first half of the course as efficiently as possible,” Hamilton explained. “I felt like I did that pretty well, slipped into second and felt really good about that position. I was able to take my own lane coming up that really long hill on the backside and I think that was tactically really good, because I could just ski that hill the way I wanted to and I wasn’t in danger of getting boxed out or anything.”
Hamilton came onto the finish stretch behind Brandsdal, pushing next to him before lunging in a photo finish to narrowly place second (+0.02), and was able to keep Krogh just behind him in third (+0.22). Krogh still advanced as a “lucky loser” with his time, while Retivykh finished fourth (+1.14) and was out.
“I felt good for the V1 part and just tried to punch it over the top and get a really good draft off of Brandsdal,” Hamilton said. “I just focused on getting in his stream and coming into the stadium, I still felt like I had some energy in my legs and was able to turn on a pretty decent finish stretch. I was psyched about that for sure.”
In a stacked semifinal heat and in worsening snow conditions, Hamilton had to race against the dominant Tour de Ski winner Ustiugov, Skar, Taugbøl, and the two Finnish skiers: Ristomatti Hakola and Martti Jylhä.
“In my semis, I toasted my legs a little bit on the first climb just trying to get through that really deep snow,” Hamilton explained. “Coming over the top, I think I was still in a good position. I think I was third there but I couldn’t get an open lane on the long climb coming up the backside, so I just kind of struggled behind I think Taugbøl … and I think Ustiugov was on my left coming up that and he did a really good job punching it up and over that V1 section and with really good speed into that long downhill.”
Hamilton tucked down trying to conserve energy and momentum on the downhill section, and with only Jylhä and Hakola gapped a little had to go into a four-way finishing sprint.
“I took a really good move coming into that last 180 into the finish stretch and Ustiugov was right in front of me, and then the Norwegians were in front of him, and they were all staying close to the V-boards on the right side because they were trying to ski that corner really narrow,” Hamilton recalled of the final turn. “I just took it a little bit wider and then cut narrow at the end of it, and I was able to basically get past Ustiugov a little bit … But that move spit me into the middle lane at the finish stretch, and that lane was getting pretty chewed up with so much traffic all day. It was definitely pretty soft in there and I think Ustigov’s lane on the left was staying pretty firm and icy all day. So I was bummed I couldn’t really throw down a better last 100 meters. I did what I could, but I was definitely getting a little caught up in that soft stuff and couldn’t really rely on my power to try to get down the home stretch.”
Skar won the semifinal ahead of Ustiugov (+0.15) to advance directly, with Hamilton (+0.33) ranked just behind Taugbøl (+0.29) as the outcome of the photo finish. Taugbøl’s time was enough to advance as a lucky loser. Hamilton ended up eighth overall on the day.
“Regardless I was happy with the fourth [though I] obviously would have liked to advance into the finals,” Hamilton said. “And I feel good about where my fitness and speed is right now, and just kind of one or two things didn’t line up for me in that semi and you know it’s a bummer. But at the same time Thursday [the freestyle sprint in Lahti] is a big day and hopefully some more things will line up on that day and that is the main goal. So I feel good about where everything is going for World Champs right now.”
Hamilton stated that he does not to plan to race on Sunday, training and then traveling in the evening to Finland a day earlier to be rested before the sprint at World Championships.
Canadian World Cup Team member Alex Harvey, who had skipped the World Cup trip to Korea for a recovery and training block, snuck into the sprint heats in 29th place (+10.26) after a mishap, avoiding elimination by less than a second.
“I felt good in the qualifier but right out of the start, in the first corner, I hit an icy patch and almost crashed, right at the base of the first uphill,” Harvey wrote in an email. “My ski hit my pole and I broke a basket. After that I had to get my momentum back and I think that I actually skied pretty decent but lost some time and speed there. So I guess you can say I got lucky to end up on the good side of the top 30!”
Harvey believed the redesigned course in Otepää suited him relatively well, though he was not too stoked about one modification:
“I think the length of the course suits me well,” he wrote. “The only thing I didn’t like was a short finishing stretch…we are used to a really long one here so I was looking forward to that, but this year there was a 180-degree turn just before the finish so that made the opportunity to pass in the finish not as good.”
In his quarterfinal, Harvey had to race against Pellegrino, Norway’s defending sprint world champion Northug (who’s been trying to round back into shape in time for this year’s championships), as well as Andrew Young of Great Britain.
“My quarterfinal was super slow, from the start I knew I had to be top 2 to move on,” Harvey recalled. “Young kinda picked it up right at the top of the second climb (the steeper wall) so he tried to gap the field or at least stretch it for the long downhill into the stadium.”
Pellegrino managed to pass Young on the final turn into the finish stretch and created a little gap gliding the last meters over the line in first, while Harvey had to sprint for second place against Young who lunged across the line falling down. After a photo finish, Harvey was determined to be 0.04 seconds behind Young to place third (+0.60), while Northug was fourth (+1:45). Harvey’s time was not fast enough for a lucky loser spot and he finished the day in 15th. Young went on to finish last in his semifinal for 12th overall.
“I feel good about my finish, I was able to re-accelerate quite well after that 180 degree turn and almost got by Young in that short finish so that was a good sign for my finishing speed. Now I just gotta work on my lunging game…” Harvey wrote. “15th is not too good but I think the most important in a pre-worlds weekend like that is the feeling you have on the skis, and today it was very good.”
Harvey wrote that he plans to race the 15 k classic individual start on Sunday in order to keep his strong position on the overall World Cup ranking, though he doesn’t intend to race this distance at World Championships.
“I’m feeling good heading into Lahti,” Harvey concluded. “I did a very similar camp as I did before the 2013, 2014, 2015 championships and the 2016 Tour of Canada so I know it’s the right thing for me!”
Hamilton’s teammate Andy Newell started the day by qualifying in 16th.
“Qualifying today I felt decent,” Newell wrote in an email. “I think my legs are still recovering a little bit from last week [a training block in Valadalen, Sweden]. I was missing a little bit of that pop on the steep climb. That was a decisive part of the heats as well, so if I were a little stronger there it would have been a much better day.”
In his quarterfinal with the finalist Skar as well as the semifinalists Jylhä and Hakola, Newell could not quite keep up in the finish sprint and placed sixth (+1.89), for 27th overall.
“Positioning in the heat was tricky,” Newell wrote. “It’s always hard to pass in skate sprinting so I should have positioned myself better before the last S-turns.”
“I’m feeling healthy and strong going into this weekend and into Worlds so I can’t complain,” he added. “I wish today would have gone better because its always great practice to race as many rounds as you can leading into the championships, but in general I’m in a pretty good place leading into Lahti.”
Canada’s Len Valjas missed qualifying for the heats in 40th, as did his teammate Devon Kershaw in 50th.
Erik Bjornsen of the USST was 53rd, Canada’s Jess Cockney was 54th and Knute Johnsgaard 56th, and the fourth U.S. starter Ben Lustgarten in his first World Cup finished the qualifier in 64th place.
According to U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb, Bjornsen and Lustgarten planned to compete in the men’s 15 k classic race on Sunday. Fellow distance specialist Noah Hoffman originally had looked forward to that race as well, but decided to not make the trip to Otepää after an illness last week.
For Canada, Harvey, Valjas, Kershaw, Cockney, Johnsgaard, and Graeme Killick were all listed to start Sunday.
— Alex Kochon, Ian Tovell and Aleks Tangen contributed