BEITOSTØLEN, Norway — A year ago, 20-year-old Johannes Høsflot Klæbo leapt onto the scene with a season-opening skate-sprint win in Beitostølen. Before that, he made waves at 2016 U23 World Championships, winning gold in the skate sprint, 10-kilometer classic and 4 x 5 k relay. But until last season, Klæbo, a member of Norway’s national U23 team, was hardly a household name to those outside of Norwegian skiing circles.
That all ended in Beito. Klæbo landed on the podium in the first World Cup sprint of the 2016/2017 season, placing third in the classic sprint in Kuusamo, Finland, and accumulated half a dozen podium finishes throughout last winter. He capped the season as the men’s U23 World Cup champion as well as the Sprint World Cup winner.
Now a full-fledged member of the Norwegian Sprint World Cup Team, Klæbo, who turned 21 last month, returned to Beitostølen to post a second- and first-place finish so far in two International Ski Federation (FIS) races there. He started his season off by taking second in Friday’s 15 k classic, 18 seconds behind reigning Overall World Cup champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
On Saturday, Klæbo won the 1.5 k classic sprint in Beitostølen without so much as a blemish, winning the qualifier to start the day then topping each of his heats en route to the final.
Up against five other Norwegians in the final, Klæbo raced to first once more in 3:50.4 minutes, finishing 1.1 seconds ahead of runner-up Kasper Stadaas. World Cup sprinter Eirik Brandsdal followed in third (+1.8), Fredrik Riseth was fourth (+6.4), Sondre Turvoll Fossli crossed in fifth (+6.7), and Emil Iversen was sixth (+9.2).
“My goal was to ski a good race,” Klæbo told a group of reporters after. “I wanted to get away from the pack towards the end and luckily the gap remained until the end.”
Iversen called attention to the young Norwegian while speaking with reporters after the race. “There has never been a talent like him,” Iversen said.
With snow starting to fall just before the men’s qualifier, Klæbo fared best on the course, racing to a 3.07-second qualifying win over Riseth with a time of 3:39.76.
Norwegian sprint coach Arild Monsen emphasized Klæbo’s ability to accelerate in and out of turns.
“Cross-country skiing has seen some development in recent years with specific techniques in specific zones, and Johannes has developed an ability to take advantage of that,” Monsen told a group of reporters. “We saw that very clearly today. The trick is to technically skilled when you’re tired and he’s able to do that almost to point where we don’t understand how.”
Klæbo went on to win his quarterfinal by 0.5 seconds over Norway’s Gjøran Tefre, then his semifinal by 0.2 seconds over Brandsdal. U.S. Ski Team member Andy Newell faced him in the quarterfinal, where Newell finished fourth in the heat, 3.7 seconds behind Klæbo and 2.6 seconds behind Norway’s Emil Nyeng in third. Newell missed advancing to the semifinals and finished the day in 16th overall.
“I knew we were going to have a fast heat because Klæbo had set a pretty strong pace from the first hill on, so we were really close to lucky losers,” Newell told FasterSkier in a post-race interview. “The second heat was just barely faster.”
With his second Beitostølen sprint victory, Klæbo told NRK that he was glad to get this race under his belt.
“This felt good, and I’m glad that sprint is up and running,” he said. “This was a good race considering what will happen next weekend.”
The World Cup kicks off next weekend in Kuusamo with a classic sprint on Nov. 24, followed by 15 k classic and 15 k freestyle races for the men on Nov. 25 and 26.
The lone American man in Saturday’s race, Newell qualified in 11th, 10.86 seconds off Klæbo’s time.
“Felt good in qualification, skis weren’t perfect because it started snowing just before,” Newell told FasterSkier after. “Skis were fast, but not quite enough grip, so we did a little re-wax for the heats.”
He noted that he’s been working with Fischer in Beitostølen as he’s there without his team (the rest of the U.S. Ski Team is currently training in Rovaniemi, Finland).
For the first 300 meters of his quarterfinal, six skiers started at a relaxed pace with Klæbo and Newell at the back of the pack leading into the the first downhill. While both were able to work their way to the front on the first climb, Newell lost steam on the second-to-last hill, “Danskebakken” (Danish hill).
“I was stuck in the back up the first hill, so I had to burn a match to get to the front, which probably made me a little tired for the last hill,” Newell reflected.
With what he called “great grip” up the big climb, he felt like he was dragging a bit over the top.
“I was definitely getting a little tired on the flat part over the top,” he said. “Because it’s the first sprint, maybe I wasn’t aggressive enough in the transitions, maybe it’s because the skis were a little draggy, but it seemed like I would get passed by somebody or two people going into each hill.”
With enough grip on the climbs, he would pass those racers back.
“So tried to finish strong but not quite there, but it’s a long season and hopefully the body will feel a little better in Kuusamo,” Newell said. “It’s all good, just training so looking forward to the World Cup.”
Out of the 30 men who qualified for Saturday’s sprint heats, only two were not Norwegian: Newell and Great Britain’s Andrew Young (who qualified 22nd). Young went on to finish the day in 23rd overall after finishing fifth in his quarterfinal.
Falla Stuns with Late Attack
In the women’s race, Maiken Caspersen Falla controlled the women’s race in a similar fashion to Klæbo, winning the qualifier, quarter, semi, and ultimately, the final.
In the final, Falla, who won last year’s Beitostølen skate sprint as well as her second-straight Sprint World Cup Crystal Globe, skied with the pack until the final climb where she made her move before entering the final stretch alone. Falla, 27, finished 3.7 seconds clear of anybody in 3:01.1. In another all-Norwegian final, Mari Eide placed second and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen claimed third (+4.8). Tiril Udnes Weng placed fourth (+6.7), Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes was fifth (+11.1) and Ane Appelkvist Stenseth was sixth (+18.5).
Falla started the morning with a qualifying win in 2:54.86, 1.77 seconds ahead of Slovenia’s Katja Visnar in second. She didn’t slow down much for the heats, racing to first in each in 3:01.7, 3:02.3 and 3:01.1, respectively.
“I felt that it went better and better and it’s wonderful to have that feeling when you’re sprinting,” Falla told NRK after.
After watching her attack and pass three women on the final hill, NRK commentator Fredrik Aukland called her “the best sprinter in the world”.
When asked if this performance was good enough to win any race in the future, she told a group of reporters, “I hope so, of course. There is finishing hill already next weekend that is kind of similar to this one and I have practiced running up hills a lot so it’s obviously fun to test it in a race.”
Teammates with Newell on the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) Elite Team, Anne Hart raced to 31st for the second day in a row, missing qualifying in the top 30 by 0.28 seconds.
“I am happy about my qualification,” she told FasterSkier immediately after her race, before she knew whether her time was fast enough for the heats. “The course is a lot faster than yesterday, good condition.”
Hart started the qualifier third out of 58 women, just ahead of Visnar in bib 4. Her time was 17.55 seconds back from Falla’s.
“I skied with Katja Visnar and she is really good classic sprinter,” Hart said. “… It feels really good to be able to ski with all these World Cup skiers.”
Nichole Bathe, who was born in the U.S. but is racing for Great Britain, finished 33rd (+19.26), about 2 seconds out of the top 30.
Canada’s Isabella Howden of Barrie Cross Country (BXC) finished 58th (+57.28) in the qualifier. In the men’s qualifier, her teammates Joey Foster and Scott James Hill finished 74th (+32.45) and 84th (+36.64), respectively, and fellow Canadians Ryan Jackson and Maks Zechel (who are training in Norway with Team Asker) finished 97th (+43.99) and 102nd (+48.48), respectively, out of 109.
The Beitostølen weekend concludes with 10/15 k freestyle individual starts on Sunday.