There was no mistaking Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo in Friday’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint, even with no natural light illuminating the course in Kuusamo, Finland, by the time the men’s final left the start line. The 21 year old’s distinct runner-like, high-tempo stride could be seen leading the five other men’s finalists on every climb, distinguishing him from the light fog and densely packed trees lining the course’s firmly packed tracks.
Making his World Cup debut in the spring of 2016, Klæbo has since racked up four-regular season World Cup individual sprint podiums — of the eight World Cup sprints that he has entered — and ended last season as the men’s U23 World Cup champion as well as the overall Sprint World Cup winner, all at the age of 20.
Last weekend at Norway’s first International Ski Federation (FIS) races of the season in Beitostølen, Klæbo not only won the classic-sprint final, but he also topped the men’s qualifier, his quarterfinal and his semifinal.
Klæbo repeated the feat this weekend in Kuusamo, starting first with the qualifier, clocking the fastest by 2.26 seconds over Finland’s Anssi Pentsinen in a time of 2:46.53 minutes. He then won his quarterfinal by 0.6 seconds over fellow Norwegian national-team member Pål Golberg. In his semifinal, Klæbo bested Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson by 0.29 seconds and then, with a convincing gap on the rest of the field, crossed the finish line first in the final in 2:48.19, kick starting his 2017/2018 World Cup season with a win.
“It was not my plan to ski away so early but before the final hill I was told I had a five-minute lead so I went for it all the way to the finish,” Klæbo sai,d according to a FIS press release.
Even before the course’s last climb, Klæbo had already set himself apart from the rest of the racers in the men’s final: Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson, and Norway’s Golberg and Sondre Turvoll Fossli. By the bottom of the first major climb he had double poled his way to a three-meter gap.
Klæbo already in his descent, Hakola, Golberg, Pellegrino, Fossli, and Halfvarsson crested the top of the climb in a pack and settled in for the chase. But Klæbo continued to hold them off into the second major climb, extending his gap by another two meters. As the others reached the second major climb, the race became one for second place between Halfvarsson and Goldberg. Hakola, Pellegrino and Fossli had all fallen back.
Finishing with no one close enough to challenge him, Klæbo took the win in in 2:48.19. Goldberg crossed 1.35 seconds later for second place, while third went to Halfvarsson, 4.03 seconds after Klæbo.
“I’m happy about the third place, but I was quite behind Klaebo,” Halfvarsson said according to a FIS press release. “I will try to catch up for the [Olympic] Games. He was impressive today.”
Rounding out the top 10 was Finland’s Lauri Vuorinen in seventh, Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov in eighth, Switzerland’s Jovian Hediger in ninth, and Finland’s Martti Jylhä in 10th.
Canada’s Alex Harvey advanced to the quarterfinals after qualifying in 13th (+6.13), the fastest North American in the preliminary round.
“The goal was to execute a solid day of racing since it’s the first time I put a bib on this year!” Harvey, of the Canadian World Cup Team, wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I was pretty happy with my qualifier, it’s a short sprint here so 13th for me was a great start.”
In his quarterfinal, Harvey went up against Finnish skiers Vuorinen, Iivo Niskanen, and Toni Ketelä as well as Estonia’s Marko Kilp, and Japan’s Hiroyuki Miyazawa. However, a loss in positioning before the major climb cost him a few seconds, and he finished his quarterfinal in fifth, 2.16 seconds behind Vuorinen, who won the heat in 2:47.40.
“In the 1/4 final I did 1 or 2 mistakes that just cost me in term of positioning before the big hill,” Harvey wrote. “I felt great technically and actually pretty good physically too especially for the time of the year.”
“Like normal the steep terrain is a bit of a weakness for me so again in the final wall I don’t think I was moving fast enough there,” Harvey continued. “The rest of the course I think I skied well.”
The only other North American to qualify on Friday was Erik Bjornsen of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) in 26th (+8.71). Racing in the same quarterfinal as Klæbo, Golberg, Finland’s Juho Mikkonen and Matias Strandvall, and Russia’s Gleb Retivykh, Bjornsen ultimately crossed in fifth, 5.12 seconds behind Klæbo.
“We are really proud of [Erik] to qualify as strong as he did, in Scandinavia, in a classic sprint,” USST coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone. “This is one of the hardest races of the year to do this, and it bodes really well.”
“Talked to him between the qualification and the quarterfinals, and he was just exuding confidence and commented on how strong his double pole is feeling,” Whitcomb continued. “We saw him fire that jet in the finish stretch today. He had a really fast heat and it stressed him out a little bit, don’t know exactly what happened, but he was in the mix today and we are psyched.”
Another USST member, Andy Newell missed qualifying by 0.38 seconds in 34th. He was 9.38 seconds off Klæbo’s top qualifying time.
“It was frustrating to be so close and just on the outside of the qualification bubble,” Newell wrote in an email. “Just a few tenths of a second out of the top 25. I felt like I struggled today to get the right amount of glide vs kick… which is just as much on me as the tech. Grateful to be feeling healthy and looking forward to big races to come.”
Julien Locke of Canada’s National U25 Team was the next-fastest Canadian, placing 59th (+12.07) in the qualifier. Locke finished 0.04 seconds ahead of the American Simi Hamilton (USST) in 60th (+12.13).
“A little bit of an off day for Simi and Andy,” Whitcomb said. “For Andy on a course that is particularly good for him and he is in really good shape right now, I think he struggled with some glide.”
Canadian World Cup Team member Len Valjas finished 63rd (+12.58). Before departing Gällivare, Sweden — where he and most of his teammate had been training and raced the opening FIS competitions — Valjas suffered a shoulder subluxation and was not “back to full health” by the time Friday’s sprint rolled around, he explained in an email.
“I took the week really easy on the shoulder to let it recover, and gave it a try in today’s race,” Valjas wrote. “I didn’t have my normal strength in the double pole sections of today’s race. I just felt weak and couldn’t hold any speed on the flats.
“I was happy that I was able to compete today, but I am definitely not skiing at 100%,” Valjas continued. “The shoulder is pretty sore and stiff from the qually this morning. Huge thanks to Pete Dickinson (USA physio) for taking care of me this week and helping me speed up my recovery.”
Also competing for Canada was Knute Johnsgaard in 73rd (+12.58), Devon Kershaw in 74th (+14.01) Graeme Killick in 85th (+14.01), Jess Cockney in 95th (+18.83).
Three additional Americans raced in the qualifier, with Scott Patterson (USST) finishing 84th (+16.14), Patrick Caldwell (USST) finishing 103rd (+21.43) and Noah Hoffman finishing in 105th (+21.85).
Canada’s Continental Cup leader, Russell Kennedy (Team R.A.D.), who earned Period 1 World Cup start rights after ending winning last season’s overall NorAm title, did not start Friday’s sprint race.
— Jason Albert and Harald Zimmer contributed