There’s always a bit of pomp and circumstance in Davos, Switzerland, where you’re as likely to spot a world banker, posh fur coat or World Cup skiers taking center stage. With a brisk wind, clouds descending from the Alps, and light snowfall on Sunday, it was 15-kilometer freestyle time in Davos.
With an interval-start format and the traditional three laps of the course that essentially climbs to 3.3 k then descends through forest to the valley floor — a solid but tempered start, sustainable pacing, and big lungs in the 5,120-foot altitude of Davos are critical.
If you parse the data, France’s Maurice Manificat shows up in Davos. Before Sunday, Manificat and Norway’s venerable Bjørn Erlend Dæhlie shared the honor of most Davos podiums with four apiece.
After Sunday’s race, Manificat now stands alone on the top step. The Frenchman won the 15 k skate in 33:56.2 minutes for his fifth-career Davos podium and his ninth World Cup victory. Manificat shares the title for most distance World Cup wins for France at nine with countryman Vincent Vittoz. Before Sunday, Manificat’s best finish in a Davos 15 k (skate or classic) was third place in 2009. He’s placed second twice and has one victory in 30 k skate races in Davos.
Russia took the next two steps on Sunday’s podium. Sergey Ustiugov finished second, exactly 4 seconds off Manificat’s winning time, and Alexander Bolshunov was 14.6 seconds back in third.
Post-Davos, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo leads the World Cup overall with 626 points. (Klæbo won Saturday’s skate sprint and opted to sit out Sunday’s race.) Bolshunov remains second overall with 402 points. Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby sits in third with 339 points. Sundby placed 20th on Sunday.
In what amounts to a race of truth — to poach from the ranks of cycling journalism — the interval-start format sends skiers off in 30-second increments. Early starters are lucky if they can tag onto a fresh-legged seeded skier as they lap through at the 5 or 10 k mark. But in essence, this Davos 15 k skate remains a hold-the-pedal-down, time-trial-style sufferfest.
Manificat was dialed from the start. Early on it was his race to let fade away or grasp with an oxygen-deprived grip.
“I am really happy. It was a tight race for sure,” Manificat told FasterSkier in Davos. “It is more comfortable when you have 10 or 15, 20 seconds ahead of the field. But for the suspense and for the public watching the race there is more excitement.”
Despite his admitted fear that his lead would fade, Manificat kept a race-leading pace.
“I was really afraid because I was eight seconds ahead, then five, then four, then two seconds,” Manificat said. “I know Ustiugov has a strong finish. But when I saw four seconds and green, I say, ‘Ahh yes!’”
With the climb to the top and speed-down format of the race course, the descent is no place to cede time. It’s a working downhill.
“It was an exciting race, but for me, I thought I could fight to the end,” Manificat noted. “The end of the race is crucial. The long downhill you have to be active all along the track. It is really important to be active. I felt I could do it.”
During his interview, Manificat explained his pleasure with the win since the 15 k freestyle will be contested at the upcoming 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“I am happy because it is a format of the Olympic Games and it is my goal so I am happy to win,” Manificat said.
The best placed North American skier was Canada’s Alex Harvey in 10th place, 1:01.1 minutes out of first. Like Manificat, Harvey has more long-range goals for the season: each race an incremental part of peaking for the Games.
Harvey’s 10th-place finish on Sunday is his best distance result in Davos. He was 12th in the 30 k skate there in 2016. The Canadian skier, however, feels he is never his best at altitude.
“I was good … I mean, I always struggle at altitude, but I think I’m gonna be just outside the top 10 so, yeah, it’s good,” Harvey said in the Davos mixed-zone before all the skiers had finished. “It’s all I have here, but it was a good race.”
For Harvey, the pacing strategy focused on accelerating on the last lap.
“I was thinking about the last lap, and I think I was about to move well in the rankings on my last lap,” Harvey explained. “So that was the plan. … I mean, you gotta think about your last lap –whether it’s a 10 k or a 15 k, like, you gotta be strong on the last lap.”
Harvey played that strategy well. He was in 15th at the five and 10 k mark but moved up to 13th at 13.2 k, and 10th by the finish.
Before moving onto the other North American finishers, it’s worth noting the importance of this race for U.S. Ski Team (USST) Olympic qualification. Race formats on the World Cup that are featured in the 2018 Olympics are an opportunity for automatic qualification with a top-eight result. In other words, place in the top eight on Sunday’s 15 k skate, and you’ve punched your ticket to South Korea.
Although at altitude, the race did have that added selection criteria weight. No U.S. skiers met that criteria today.
According to the selection-criteria document, “Athletes ranking in the top-50 in the distance World Cup standings or the top-50 in the Sprint World Cup standings as of January 15, 2018, shall be selected to the team.”
The season is still extremely early; only four distance races have been contested on the World Cup. Seven distance races remain before Jan. 15 (including the final Alpe Cermis final climb of the Tour de Ski).
After Sunday’s race, USST member Erik Bjornsen (who sat out Sunday’s event) is ranked 37th, teammate Paddy Caldwell 41st, and Noah Hoffman 58th. USST distance skier Scott Patterson has not skied into the points this season.
Caldwell was the best placed American on Sunday in 41st (+1:50.2). Sunday’s 15 k marked Caldwell’s 10th career World Cup. New to the U.S. Ski Team B-team this year, he’s still in learning mode when it comes to course pacing in places like Davos.
“I think it was pretty good,” Caldwell told FasterSkier about holding his race pace.
“I felt like I wasn’t totally on it, the last lap. Legs were starting to go and it’s a really funky course with the pacing. I think you have to punch it in the right spots, and I was having a hard time figuring out where I could redline and where not to. So I think that’s a bit of a learning process, but I think overall the pacing was good.”
Caldwell said he’ll finish Period 1 of the World Cup, and spend the holidays in Seefeld, Austria. Otherwise, his race schedule is yet to be determined.
Hoffman placed 48th (+2:05.5) and Patterson 88th (+3:46.2). Andy Newell did not finish, and Simi Hamilton did not start.
According to USST Head Coach Chris Grover, Erik Bjornsen planned on sitting out Sunday’s race as he preps for next weekend’s two distance events.
Canadian World Cup Team member Graeme Killick, who placed 59th (+2:27.8), gave some insight into how he has mapped out the season and how to place Davos in perspective.
“The goal is to kind of build into the training camp for the Olympics, and then just have the best races there that I can,” Killick said. “As long as the happens, and the best race of the year are at the Games, I think, I’ll be happy with that.”
Canada’s Devon Kershaw placed 44th (+1:59.8), Russell Kennedy 68th (+2:43.4), and Julien Locke in 94th (+4:27.5). Knute Johnsgaard did not start.
Racing continues in Toblach, Italy, next Saturday with more 10/15 k skate individual starts and 10/15 k classic pursuits on Sunday.
— Chelsea Little and Andrea Potyondy-Smith contributed