(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Canada’s Brendan Green.)
Finland’s Matti Heikkinen outsprinted Russia’s Alexander Legkov for the win on the brutal seven-kilometer uphill rollerski race in Lysebotn, Norway.
“It has been four years since I’ve been interviewed by Norwegian television,” Heikkinen, a former World Champion, told the media. “That’s too long.”
Legkov was 18 seconds back after the pair skied together for much of the race. Last year’s winner, Maurice Manificat of France, finished third, +44.6.
Heikkinen, who at 31 still looks boyish, had been considering ending his career, he told Finnish newspaper YLE in March.
“I have enjoyed skiing, even though last autumn, it was felt that this job would be running out,” he said. “My goal is to ski at the level of the World Cup podium and cold fact is that my level is often not enough to get there.”
But with World Championships headed to Lahti, Finland, in 2017, Heikkinen decided to refocus, train smart, build a base, and try to peak three years down the road.
Perhaps the win in a summer rollerski race against the world’s best – not only top skiers, but also biathletes – shows that the work is paying off. Heikkinen not only won, but also set a new course record in 27:45.2.
Legkov is also coming off a spring season with a lot of changes. The star Russian, a gold medalist from the 2014 Olympic 50 k, left the Switzerland-based training group he had founded and is now training with Russia’s sprint squad, but on his own program.
Biathlete Bø Tops Skiers
The races did not go particularly well for the home country, aside from Heidi Weng’s big win in the women’s race (a separate article is coming soon). Last year Norway took places two through six in the men’s competition; this year their top finisher was Tarjei Bø, in fourth place.
“It’s obviously very fun to beat all Norwegian cross country specialists, but I was supposed to have been on the podium,” the biathlete joked to NRK.
He beat a field of Norway’s best skiers, including 2015 World Cup Champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
“It’s the first time I beat the cross-country guys, and it’s kind of neat,” Bø, a former World Cup overall winner and medalist at three different World Championships, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “There is little prestige there. I look up to the cross-country skiers and their capacity, and it’s hard to beat them.”
Despite what was ultimately a very successful 2015 campaign, with three individual bronze medals at World Championships and medals in both the men’s and mixed relays as well, Bø has sometimes had a tough go since his breakout season in 2011.
He has often been sick or injured, and has rarely been able to completely follow his training plan.
Things have been better this year, which is important since Oslo is hosting IBU World Championships.
“I finally had a smooth ride, and have in fact neither been injured or sick so far,” he told NRK. “Therefore I could train exactly how it has been planned… If you ask me now, I’m on a good path for the World Championships on home soil. But it might happen much in the months remaining until the event. Now it is important to listen properly to the body.”
Locked off the podium, the Norwegian men nevertheless packed the top ten. After Bø crossed the line nearly a minute behind Heikkinen, he was followed 20 seconds later by Sjur Røthe, Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Henrik L’Abee Lund, and Hans Christer Holund.
“It was difficult to move towards the end,” Bø told the newspaper VG. “There was no one to pushing me, so then it was only to slip back and save some strength for biathlon in the morning.”
Jean Marc Gaillard and Adrien Backschneider of France rounded out the top ten.
Petter Northug, a star who admitted to NRK the previous day that his form was “not too good,” finished 72nd. Northug declined interviews from any Norwegian media after the race.
Green Leads North Americans
Brendan Green led the North American contingent, placing 16th in 30:27 to finish less than a minute out of the top six in his first Blink Festival. The Canadian biathlete just edged Robin Duvillard of France at the finish.
“It’s a tough race with a stacked field, no doubt about that,” Green wrote in an email. “I really wasn’t sure what expect with this being my first time at the Blink Festival and racing the Lysebotn climb. Our team was training in Sirdal last week and during one of our volume workouts we were able to preview the climb, but even then it doesn’t fully compare to racing the climb.
“I’m happy with my race and my overall effort throughout the course,” he added. “I think with a bit more practice on the climb and now knowing a bit more how the race actually unfolds, I feel I could improve upon today. The section through the tunnel seemed to bottle neck and break up the race which was frustrating, as I was still middle of the pack at that point and the break was already gone by the time I came out. We don’t race Mass Start races very often either so that was a bit different for us with pacing and that sort of thing.
“It was an awesome experience to race in such an elite field and I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the week,” he concluded. “We don’t see the XC guys often, so when we’re able to actually race head to head with them those are really valuable opportunities.”
Teammate Nathan Smith finished 39th in 32:11, besting American biathlete and recent newlywed Lowell Bailey by just three places and six seconds. Bailey’s compatriot Leif Nordgren placed 81st in 35:36.
“Absolutely I am happy with the results for this time of the year and a rather unusual hill climb, overall I see it more as a great training workout,” Canadian head coach Matthias Ahrens wrote in an email.