Two previous days of racing, and back-to-back victories no less, had begun to take its toll on Johannes Høsflot Klæbo within the first few laps of the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle pursuit on Sunday in Kuusamo, Finland. The 21-year-old Norwegian could feel it throughout his body; he was tired and 38 seconds of a starting cushion wasn’t going to be enough to hold off the hungry challengers behind him.
Klæbo, who won Friday’s classic sprint and Saturday’s 15 k classic individual start on the World Cup opening weekend, wasn’t invincible and he couldn’t race to another win alone. Halfway through the pursuit, the man who started in second place, 38 seconds after him, Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov (who’s actually younger than Klæbo at age 20), had cut that deficit to 19.8 seconds. After him, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who started 10th and 1:05 minutes behind Klæbo, was up to third and just 25.3 seconds back.
On his fourth lap, Klæbo accepted the inevitable as Bolshunov and Sundby, who had linked up in an effort to catch him, in fact caught him on a climb around 8.6 k. A larger group of pursuers, including Canada’s Alex Harvey, locked on to the three leaders as well, and from there, the race truly began to take form. Klæbo had to recover, Sundby had to figure out how to try to drop him, Bolshunov had to see what he was capable of, and Harvey had to see how much he could give in the third race of the season.
The first races of each winter aren’t easy for anyone. Despite spending the summer training for skiing, most North American World Cup skiers don’t get the opportunity to actually race — even on rollerskis — too often during the offseason. Because of the rich ski culture in Europe, rollerski races are a big deal with lots of summer and fall competitions to chose from. And because of Europe’s geography, it’s often easier to get on snow than it is for North Americans.
(“I think this applies to all the North American actually, compared to Europeans we don’t race as much in summer,” Canadian World Cup coach Ivan Babikov said on the phone on Sunday. “They have races every weekend so they come into the season pretty sharp already with some good speed workouts, when we don’t have that opportunity. So that’s why, I think, every race is a step forward. It’s just, you have to remember or remind yourself how hard it is.”)
So while Canadians and American World Cup skiers alike often look at an opening weekend like Finland’s Ruka Triple mini tour as a “chance to blow the cobwebs out” or “shake off the rust”, as some have said, it’s also an opportunity to see where you stand — as was the case for Harvey in the final meters of Sunday’s pursuit.
Later in the fourth of six laps, Klæbo pushed the tempo up a climb, Bolshunov responded, and Harvey went with them. Soon after at 10 k, they lapped through the stadium with 11 men within 2.7 seconds of first. Up front, Bolshunov led Harvey, who had started the race 1:23 back in 12th.
Harvey had spent the first three laps working up to that lead group, initially with the likes of Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin (*who reportedly thanked Harvey after the race) and Sergey Ustiugov, Norway’s Hans Christer Holund and Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, and later with France’s Maurice Manificat, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson, Norway’s Emil Iversen, Chervotkin, and Holund, among others.
“I knew there’d be some fireworks on the last lap so I just wanted to be in the front third of the group, just be ready for a move,” Harvey explained in a post-race phone interview. “I thought Sundby would be the guy making the move, which in the end, that’s what happened. The big uphill in the last lap, that’s where he went. I just wanted to be close to Sundby and ready to respond when Sundby went.”
Sundby attacked as predicted on the second-to-last climb, around 13.6 k, and Harvey slotted behind him to follow him over the top.
“I was just actually there on that last uphill when Sundby attacked,” Babikov recalled. “Klæbo was right there. I think there were just Norwegian tactics … Sundby attacked on the last uphill and Klæbo just cooled down and wasn’t chasing him at all, so for Alex, that was his only chance. … If he didn’t chase him, then Sundby probably would have skied away and it would have been a bigger group at the finish, but at the moment he tried, and they actually created a gap … Alex second and Sundby first.”
With a few meters separating them from Norway’s Didrik Tønseth in third and Klæbo in fourth, Harvey thought he and Sundby had dropped them and that he would fight for first to the finish.
“I kind of went all-in with the Sundby move,” Harvey said. “When I looked in between my legs just before the last downhill I thought we had a big enough gap … so I was feeling pretty good about my chances there, but not good about taking [Sundby] because I was really, really dead.”
After what Harvey estimated to be a 45-second downhill, he realized that wasn’t the case. Klæbo and Bolshunov had slingshot back toward the front, and while Sundby was first to the top of the last climb before the finish, Klæbo and Bolshunov were right behind him while Harvey followed in fourth.
They entered the stadium together in that order, and Klæbo passed Sundby with about 100 meters remaining to take his third-straight win of the weekend.
“Coming out of my tuck there I was just full of lactate, not feeling any fresher … then I just got passed on the hill,” Harvey recalled. “I had nothing left. That was my move. … I’m happy I made that move, but I couldn’t make a second burst after that.”
While Klæbo won the pursuit and with it, the Ruka Triple mini-tour title in 36:23.2 minutes, Sundby placed second, 0.4 seconds back, Bolshunov claimed his first World Cup podium in third (+1.0), and Harvey finished another 0.6 seconds back in fourth (+1.6).
On the day, Harvey’s course time ranked fifth fastest behind Manificat, who was the “winner of the day” in 34:50.9. Finland’s Matti Heikkinen was second fastest (+5.4) after starting 22nd and placing 14th, Holund was third fastest (+7.5) after starting 14th and finishing ninth, and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who started 26th and finished 17th, was fourth fastest (+8.7).
Harvey said starting 17 seconds behind Sundby was a tall task on its own, and he had started the race with a goal of breaking into the top 10 overall. All things considered, fourth place was better than he expected at this point in the season.
“… But I knew it was still within reach,” Harvey explained. “I believed in it, but I didn’t put too much hope in, let’s say, a top five or fighting for the podium. It was more like I wanted to be back in the top 10 and just that to me seemed already hard enough.”
The fact that he was able to hang with Klæbo and Sundby to the finish was a good sign, he added.
“Right now, he’s not just a good sprinter, he’s the best distance skier in the world, too,” Harvey said of Klæbo. “I mean, to win a 15 k individual you have to be in very, very good physical shape, so he’s in really good physical shape and I know I’m not yet. I’m not in my best form and Sundby probably isn’t yet, so you never know what’s going to happen later in the season at the Olympics, but for now it’s hard to drop him when he’s actually just in better shape than everybody else in the world.”
After the race, Klæbo told NRK he was relieved to get the win and have some time to rest before next weekend’s World Cup in Lillehammer, Norway.
“My legs are shaking now,” Klæbo said. “Feels incredible to be the first to cross the finish line. Now I need a few days rest.
“This was brutal,” he added. “I’m actually glad they caught up to me and luckily I had good skis. I’m glad I had a few seconds today.”
Norwegian national-team coach Tor-Arne Hetland told NRK he was “really impressed” with Klæbo. “We have a diamond in the sport of cross country skiing now,” Hetland said.
“That’s very nice of him to say. It’s probably a little too much, but it has been a good start to the season,” Klæbo responded to NRK.
Sundby spoke excitedly about having Klæbo to contest for the overall World Cup lead.
“For the moment, he’s taking international cross-country skiing for men to a whole ’nother level,” Sundby told NRK. “It is a little humiliating for the rest of us, but at the same time it’s extremely inspiring to see what he does in his second year at this level. It’s hell of fun to have a guy like that on the team.”
Bjornsen 26th, Kershaw 29th; Caldwell Posts Top-20 Time of Day
Canada had two in the top 30 on Sunday with Devon Kershaw in 29th (+1:47.8), scoring World Cup points for the second-straight day. He started 28th and 1:59 out of first, just one second behind Cologna in 26th and Russia’s Andrey Larkov in 27th.
“I just wasn’t strong enough to go with Dario,” Kershaw said on the phone. “I had the perfect chance to be able to follow Dario up the field, but he just started so fast, and on the steep terrain, my legs just — I tried up the first steep wall and at the top, I’m like, man, if I keep going like this, after 5 k I’m gonna be dead.
“So I had to manage my energy a little bit and in the end, it turned out that Bjornsen and I’s group just wasn’t strong enough,” Kershaw continued, referring to U.S. Ski Team member Erik Bjornsen, whom he started eight seconds behind and spent most of the race with. “[Our group] had a good 7 1/2 k and then after that, between 7 1/2 kilometers and 12 k, we were skiing really slow. So that’s a bit frustrating in a pursuit because you’re just stuck there in no-man’s land.”
While he felt like he was skiing the flats well, Kershaw said he struggled with the “biting” conditions, which seemed to limit glide, especially on the notoriously steep course’s climbs.
“I had to make the choice to be like, OK, I’ve got to just stay in this group and I’m not strong enough to drive the bus, because my legs just weren’t there today on the terrain” he said. “In the end I made a tactical error in the last 600 meters. I should’ve followed Bjornsen on the outside and I went on the inside and was hoping it would open up for me and it didn’t. So I ended up 29th, but that’s OK.”
Bjornsen started 24th and finished the pursuit in 26th (+1:43.6), after following Larkov in 25th (+1:42.8) across the line and holding off Iceland’s Snorri Einarsson (a former Norwegian skier who raced for the University of Utah) in 27th (+1:46.2), Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave in 28th (+1:47.2), Kershaw in 29th, and France’s Jean-Marc Gaillard in 30th (+1:49.2).
“I started right around Cologna and [Finland’s Matti] Heikkinen but there was no way I was going to hold their pace, they were flying,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I had to settle in with the group around me. It soon became clear our group was not going to catch anyone in front of us or get caught, so it became a tactical game. Some surges, but for the most part nobody wanted to lead.”
Kershaw laughed when he talked about some “tips” he gave Bjornsen during the race.
“He had really fast skis so there were a few times that he came by me on the downhill and then would kind of try to hammer for a minute and then get tired and slow down again,” Kershaw said. “I told him, like, ‘Dude, you’ve got great skis. Unless you can stay in the front and really press, then it’s better just to play the game and wait for the end.’ After that, he did that and he torched us all in the end. So that was kind of fun to see for him.”
According to Bjornsen, Kershaw suggested he sit back and wait for the sprint.
“My skis were good but I think my weight is what helped me the most on that last huge downhill,” Bjornsen wrote. “I was fine going for that tactic but at the same time it would have been nice to leave a little more out there today. Stoked to get double points for 26th though!”
Paddy Caldwell, new to the U.S. Ski Team B-team this year, posted his best World Cup result with the 19th-fastest time of day, 50.5 seconds back from Manificat. He started with the wave in 70th and finished 51st overall (+3:03.1).
“Going into the race my goal was to move up as much as possible,” the 23-year-old Caldwell wrote in an email. “I wasn’t really thinking about place or time of day – I was just trying to ski fast and put together a good effort.
“It was really hard to move up in the pack,” he added. “I started midway back in the wave and we kept picking up more and more skiers as the race went on. I tried to relax as much as possible on the hills and build in energy to pass where I could on the flats. … I am really excited with the day and psyched to have had a good result here in Ruka. I’m looking forward to the rest of period 1 and learning more from the big dogs!”
“Very exciting race out of Erik today,” U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb commented on the phone. “… When he settled to the back of his pack on Lap 6 and headed into the downhill with one climb to go, we just all sort of expressed confidence over the U.S. radio channel, got ready see what he could do. It is so fun to watch him in a stadium when he has to go head to head against five other athletes … he did not disappoint today. Really proud of Erik’s 26th place.”
As for Caldwell, who skied the 25th fastest time of day in the 2017 World Cup Finals freestyle pursuit, Whitcomb said, “this is his race, the skate distance.”
“There were times that he was a little bit road-blocked out there, just the way the pursuit race unfolds in that start … and it looked like today Paddy could keep going, so really great signs out of him,” Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb also highlighted the races of Scott Patterson, who raced up from 78th to 55th (+3:28.4) with the 31st-fastest time, and Noah Hoffman, who improved from 45th to 39th (+2.33.3) with the 35th-fastest time. Also for the U.S., Andy Newell finished the tour out in 75th (+5:39.6).
Canada’s Len Valjas moved up two places for 44th overall (+2:47.5), Graeme Killick finished the tour in 68th (+4:39.5), Knute Johnsgaard 81st (+6:43.6), and Julien Locke 83rd (+7:33.6).
Babikov pointed out that Valjas had a shoulder injury that he mostly recovered from, but caused him to struggle with double poling in Friday’s sprint. Despite placing 63rd in that sprint, Valjas was the team’s third-best man in the weekend’s distance races.
“[In] two distance races, he was third best and actually placed higher than he placed in sprint in the distance, 15 k, hardest one with lots of climbing,” Babikov said. “So that shows he has a good shape, but just needs to scrape that rust off and remember how to go fast again. I think physically he is in a good place, just need to do some more races, and it will come.”
*Post-race sidenote: According to Harvey, after the race, the Russian team’s massage therapist told Canadian coach Ivan Babikov that Chervotkin wanted to thank Harvey for pulling him in the pursuit. Chervotkin, 22, started 11th and finished fifth, 6.2 seconds out of first and 4.6 seconds after Harvey in fourth.
“There’s a bit of beef with the Russians and me right now,” Harvey said. “I came in wondering if they were just going to punch me in the face. They said they wanted to break my teeth, so this is a good turn of things.”
As Harvey understands it, that was because of what he’s said to journalists regarding Russian doping at the 2014 Olympics.
“I read that in the Norwegian news, actually, that Petukhov wanted to …,” he said with a laugh. “But I knew the media likes that sort of thing. But I think things are good now.”
Harvey noted that Bolshunov and Chervotkin, neither of which have been implicated in the doping scandal, are part of “a new generation” in Russian cross-country skiing. “I saw the results in Bruksvallarna; it looks like the have almost as much depth as Norway does. They’re really strong.”
— Aleks Tangen, Ian Tovell, Jason Albert, and Harald Zimmer contributed