How do you beat Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo at his competition-crushing game? Take him by surprise with minimal time to recover. Italy’s Federico Pellegrino did just that on the last uphill rise of the 1.2-kilometer sprint course on Saturday in Dresden, Germany.
Dresden, a historic city in eastern Germany, debuted its brand-new course along the Elbe River on manmade snow amid damp conditions and temperatures above freezing throughout the day. Pellegrino had done what he needed to advance through the rounds, clocking the first-fastest time in the qualifier, 2.9 seconds behind France’s Lucas Chanavat in first, then placing second in his quarterfinal and third in the first semifinal. Klæbo won that semi by 0.16 seconds over Chanavat in second and 0.3 seconds ahead of Pellegrino in third. With a fast-enough time, Pellegrino moved on to the final, where he met the 21-year-old Klæbo again.
“I knew that at the beginning of the race, I’m becoming a little bit old so the younger Klæbo and Chanavat were faster than me,” Pellegrino, 27, said of the final in a post-race interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS). “So I just had to wait, but I wanted to attack in the longer race to the finish line.”
The race from his point of attack might have seemed like an eternity, but in actuality, it was about 500 meters before the finish. Klæbo and Chanavat had burst out of the start at lightning speed, skiing “shoulder to shoulder,” as Chanavat later said in a press conference, and slightly gapping the four skiers behind them — one of which was Pellegrino.
While Klæbo pushed the pace up front, Pellegrino kept the two leaders close, skiing just a couple strides back. France’s second man in the final, Richard Jouve slotted into fourth behind him and Sweden’s Emil Jönsson — in his first final in a year — followed in fifth. Behind them, Norway’s Even Northug (Petter Northug’s 22-year-old brother) worked to fasten a new pole after breaking his on the starting gate. That took him out of the race from the gun.
Chanavat attempted to get ahead of Klæbo on a tight righthand corner, but Klæbo held the inside line and his position. Coming out of that corner, Pellegrino latched on to Chanavat and brought the rest of the group with him. Shadowing the two leaders’ every move, Pellegrino accelerated just before the final rise, taking just three V2 pushes to get to the top.
Even with Klæbo, the Italian took another push to move ahead and left Klæbo chasing. With about 75 meters to go, they began their all-out showdown to the finish, side by side, with Pellegrino staying just ahead to cross the line first in 1:52.77 minutes. Klæbo was just 0.18 seconds back in second and Chanavat 0.98 seconds behind in third.
“When I will have grandchildren this will be the story I am going to tell them, that I beat Johannes,” Pellegrino said, according to a FIS press release.
It was his first World Cup victory in nearly a year since winning a freestyle sprint in Falun, Sweden, late last January, and his 10th career individual World Cup win.
“Klæbo is a really good guy because if he wanted to he could stop me,” Pellegrino told FIS. “… He tried to stay stay quiet to let me go … he’s really good to continue to win.”
In the four sprints Klæbo’s contested this season, Saturday marked his first loss (he did not compete in the Tour de Ski, opting for a training block instead and racing at Norwegian nationals in Vang, Norway, where he won the classic sprint).
“It was a tough one,” Klæbo said of Saturday’s final. “Me and Chanavat was trying to go pretty hard from the start of the final, and I think both of us went a little bit too hard. … I’m satisfied with second place here but I have to do something else to beat him next time.”
Two seasons ago, Pellegrino was the overall Sprint World Cup champion. Last season, it was Klæbo as both the U23 and Sprint World Cup Champion.
“I always try to do my best; if the best means the victory it’s great,” Pellegrino said, according to FIS. “It was a really good show. I prefer courses with more hills. Yesterday I changed the way I was thinking about the race.”
“He was clever,” Klæbo said in an interview with NRK. “He skied like this in the semi and quarterfinal. Our strategies differed slightly.”
While Pellegrino kept himself in contention in the heats by skiing from behind, Klæbo did as he usually does, by leading with a pace few, if anyone else, could match. Klæbo qualified second, 0.15 seconds off Chanavat’s top qualifying time of 1:50.42, then won his quarterfinal by a clear-cut margin of 0.6 seconds over Switzerland’s Roman Schaad. Chanavat won his quarterfinal by 0.12 seconds over Pellegrino, then hung with Klæbo once again in the semifinal.
At the last World Cup sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, the first stage of the Tour de Ski, Chanavat placed third in the skate sprint.
“I did my best and I competed to try to get the victory today, but I was a lot focused on Johannes,” Chanavat, 23, said at the press conference. “So I was surprised when Pellegrino came pretty strong on the side in the race.”
He added that the gap between him and Klæbo is getting closer. “So I’ll try to keep it shorter,” Chanavat said.
Jouve finished 0.25 seconds off the podium in fourth, 0.98 seconds behind Pellegrino, Jönsson finished fifth (+2.36), and Northug sixth (+12.04).
Hamilton 10th, Locke 15th
American Simi Hamilton made it to the semifinals and finished the day in 10th overall after placing fifth in the second semi, 0.38 seconds behind Jönsson in first. That heat ended in a three-way photo finish for first, which Jönsson took ahead of Northug (+0.01) and Jouve (+0.04). Those three men advanced to the final, but Hamilton and Norway’s fourth-place finisher in that semifinal, Pål Trøan Aune (+0.23) did not.
Before that, Hamilton had qualified in 15th and finished second to Norway’s Fredrik Riseth in his quarterfinal.
“It was a really cool venue, great course,” Hamilton told FasterSkier in person after the race. “But it was really tight the whole way around so it was hard. My starts aren’t that good right now and so my quarter, I was basically trying to start as fast as I could and I still was second or third out of the blocks, so I wasn’t feeling super confident after that.”
Going into the semifinals, he decided not to worry about his start and concentrate on moving up later in the course.
“What ended up happening around that corner, I just couldn’t get around anyone,” Hamilton recalled. “Every time you get an opportunity to make a move, it gets shut down almost immediately, so that was really frustrating, but I was happy with how my body is feeling right now, and it’s fun to get into the heats.
“I am always way more comfortable skiing towards the back of the pack and then making a definite move somewhere on the course, so unfortunately for me like this course doesn’t favor doing that too well,” he continued. “You can’t afford to ski at the back and then pass four five people, not enough room or time.”
He added that he enjoyed how different the Dresden course was in comparison to other, much hillier World Cup terrain.
“I think the only super-short flat course we race like this was in Milan [Italy] years ago, so its fun just doing something different,” he said. “The crowd is awesome here.”
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover observed that Hamilton was at a disadvantage trying to move up from behind on Dresden’s course.
“He made it work in the quarterfinal,” Grover told FasterSkier. “He’s so good when he gets that opening to go. I think we saw in the semifinal that he would be starting to go and then get blocked. And again after the corner, started to go, and got blocked. And under the bridge, started to go, and then got blocked. It’s nobody’s fault, nobody obstructed him or anything like that, it’s just not a course with many passing options. The guys are so well-matched, in a semifinal or final it becomes that much harder. So he’s a little bit frustrated, but I think he’s in good shape.”
Two Americans qualified for the heats in the top 30, with Andy Newell finishing 18th in that preliminary round, but Grover noted the U.S. team’s qualifiers overall were “uncharacteristically poor”.
“To have Erik Bjornsen just miss the qualification, to have Kikkan [Randall] just miss the qualification, to have the four athletes who did go in not have the best qualifications, something was a little bit missing,” he said.
(Bjornsen placed 32nd and Randall 34th in their respective men’s and women’s qualifiers. Bjornsen was 0.23 seconds out of 30th.)
Newell’s run ended in the quarterfinal, after he initially took the lead, ahead of Canada’s Julien Locke, but slipped to sixth on the second half of the course.
“Andy didn’t have the best start, but he got himself to first and he was able to take the best line,” Grover reflected.
He wasn’t sure why Newell then dropped to the back of the group, and Newell wrote in an email that he wasn’t sure what happened, either.
“Felt like I was able to accelerate to the front well but then managed to get swarmed before the last little bump and then it was extremely tough to pass before the finish,” Newell wrote. “I should know better than to let myself get stuck in the middle… on narrow tracks like this if you get stuck in the middle with guys on either side you can’t get a full push and thats how you get swarmed, bad tactics on my part.”
“Tomorrow should be fun, fast, and wild,” he added of Sunday’s freestyle team sprint. “Hopefully I’ll be able to be more aggressive tomorrow 🙂 Looking forward to it.”
He finished his quarterfinal in sixth, 1.54 seconds behind Northug in first, for 27th overall. Meanwhile Locke hung with Northug and Jouve up front and finished third, 0.62 seconds out of first and just 0.18 seconds out of second.
While second place in that heat would have put him in the semifinals, 15th overall was still a career best for Locke, of the Canadian U25 Team and Black Jack Ski Club. Last March at World Cup Finals in Quebec, he placed 20th in the freestyle sprint. And just over a week ago at the NorAm Olympic trials in Mont Sainte-Anne (MSA), Quebec, Locke, 24, won the classic sprint final, but missed out on a potential Olympic spot by one place after qualifying second (the tiebreaker) behind Russell Kennedy (Team R.A.D.).
The individual top 30 was the second of Locke’s career. Fresh off of competing in Canada, he arrived in Dresden a day and a half ago.
“… A little bit of a tight schedule, but body feels great, and super-fun course out there with all these spectators,” Locke told FasterSkier after. “And yeah, short, very short. It was close to 1.1 [kilometers] and definitely the shortest sprint race I have ever done.”
“I was prepared to hit it hard here and I was hoping for sure to get into the heats and then get into the rounds,” he added. “I don’t like getting knocked out, but I am content with how today went.”
Three other Canadian men met the Cross Country Canada (CCC) selection criteria for Dresden, where Bob Thompson (NTDC Thunder Bay) finished 50th in the qualifier (+8.67), Dominique Moncion-Groulx (Alberta World Cup Academy) 59th (+9.99) and Antoine Briand (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre) 60th (+10.12).
(Note: CCC High Performance Director Thomas Holland explained in an email that Briand was added as the fourth man, based on the U23 selection list, after Kennedy had to relinquish his starts in Dresden due to illness.)
For the U.S., Period 2 SuperTour leader Ben Lustgarten (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) finished 49th (+8.64) out of 67 men.
“I thought I skied well — usually this stuff is my weakness,” Lustgarten said after. “It’s like icy and slushy so usually when it’s like that skate skiing, I get off balance, but I was like trying really hard to stay focused and ski big. I only got bogged down a little bit on the big hill, but … I was only nine seconds out of first, so I think that is really good. I am really happy with that.”
The U.S. and Canada each have two teams entered for Sunday’s freestyle team sprint on the same course in Dresden, with Bjornsen and Hamilton (United States I), Newell and Lustgarten (U.S. II), Thompson and Locke (Canada I), and Briand and Moncoin-Groulx (Canada II).
“It’s going to be wild out there,” Lustgarten said. “[The Dresden organizers] pulled it off; they had to shorten the course a little bit because they didn’t have enough snow … but it was good. It’s the shortest sprint I have ever done in my life by far.”
— Gabby Naranja, Ian Tovell, Chelsea Little, and Aleks Tangen contributed