At 21 years old, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo of Norway had already locked up his second-consecutive Sprint World Cup Crystal Globe several weeks ago. A down-to-the-wire, season-ending finale for the sprint globe was out of the question. Klæbo has simply been that good. Out of 11 sprint races this season, Klæbo won the seven out of the nine sprints he contested. He placed second and third, respectively, in the other two. One word to describe it all: dominant.
Post-PyeongChang, where Klæbo racked up three gold medals, the young Norwegian has continued to roll. Although he had a blip in Lahti, Finland, where he placed third in 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint, Klæbo was clutch again in Drammen, Norway. And the seventh win previously mentioned, that came on Friday during the 1.4 k skate sprint, which served as the opening stage of the three-day World Cup Finals mini tour in Falun, Sweden.
Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov won Friday’s qualifier in 2:36.23. Klæbo placed second (+0.46). Clearly, the Norwegian’s form was still on after steamrolling since the opening World Cup weekend in Kuusamo, Finland, on Nov. 24.
Beyond settling for second in Friday’s qualifier, Klæbo won the first quarterfinal, the first semifinal and the final. In the final, as he faced off with Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, Sweden’s Oskar Svensson and Teodor Peterson, France’s Lucas Chanavat, and Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola, Klæbo’s tactics would initially appear timeworn but effective.
Here’s how the Norwegian’s earlier tactics played out and eventually caught the spellbound finalists off guard. In Klæbo’s quarterfinal, also featuring Pellegrino, the pack of six skiers kept tight until the course’s final V1 climb. At 1:40 into the race, American Simi Hamilton, who had qualified in 13th (+4.1), came around the pack, pushed over the top and led out the string of skiers. Klæbo sat in fifth place. At 2:02 minutes, Klæbo and the group closed on Hamilton. Pellegrino led around the top of the final corner heading into the finish straight, then it was Hamilton followed by Klæbo. Stepping around the corner, and gliding out, Pellegrino and Klæbo unleashed a fifth-gear free skate and separated themselves from Hamilton. Klæbo and Pellegrino finished first and second, respectively, and Hamilton third. That put Hamilton 14th overall on the day as his time was not fast enough to move on as a lucky loser.
“With Simi, we took an aggressive approach today,” U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier in person after. “We threw him in with Klæbo and Pellegrino in the quarters and thought that he could potentially beat one of those guys and advance, or potentially be a lucky loser.
“He just got too tactical over the top of the last hill, so the lucky losers came from heats down the road,” Whitcomb continued. “And, Simi, unfortunately, ended up going over the hill in first and almost was able to hold it off. It was really impressive that he was able to hang onto third, but not enough for today. When he gets tactical, it tends to not be your lucky loser heat.”
On to the semis. In the first semifinal, Klæbo again allowed others, primarily Bolshunov, to do the pacing work. Bolshunov shot off the start like a starved thoroughbred chasing its first meal. Knowing Klæbo can close, the Russian hammered with a high-turnover tempo no other skiers could match. Bolshunov couldn’t pull away, but he could control for much of the semifinal.
As much as Klæbo can hide, he stalked in the back. Again, on the small hill before the finish, while Bolshunov faded, the Norwegian went. Right on cue Klæbo nailed his finish, outdueling second-place skier Peterson (+0.21), third-place Pellegrino (+0.32), and Ristomatti in fourth (+0.59). Bolshunov finished fifth (+3.10).
Coming into the final, Pellegrino, Hakola, and Peterson had already been schooled in Klæbo’s Falun-sprint scheme during the semi. After watching Bolshunov burn up taking a flyer off the front, that race strategy seemed unwise. But allowing Klæbo to draft in the pack had also proved futile.
Study Klæbo all you want. There’s still much to learn.
Up and over the first indecisive climb during the final, Klæbo paced behind Sweden’s Svensson. Stepping around a corner and into the course’s second hill, only 48 seconds into the race, Klæbo sent it: hop-skate style.
Klæbo’s burst of speed scorched the skiers behind. Initially, the others were caught off guard and failing in their response. Cresting the course’s third hill, Klæbo kept up the furious pace. One minute and 50 seconds in, Klæbo had nearly a thirty-meter gap over a chasing Chanavat.
The win was never in doubt at this point. It was as if Klæbo wanted to include a new chapter in his young career’s book of dominance. On Friday, Klæbo proved he could win a sprint by accelerating with nearly a kilometer to go. There was no fade. There was no catching up from behind. (Klæbo did pull up before the line to celebrate as Pellegrino came flying toward the finish.)
Klæbo won the final in 2:37.03 minutes. Pellegrino was second (+0.39), Chanavat third (+1.76), Ristomatti fourth (+3.26), Svensson fifth (+3.88), Peterson sixth (+6.17). Klæbo earned 50 World Cup points for the win. Heading into the two final World Cup races of the season, a 15 k classic mass start on Saturday and a 15 k skate pursuit Sunday, Klæbo leads the Overall World Cup standings by 272 points over fellow Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby. The winner of the entire weekend will get 200 World Cup points, so it’s safe to say Klæbo has that overall Crystal Globe locked up as well.
“I learned after Lahti that I needed to be away from Pellegrino if there was a long downhill with a fast finish so I attacked on the first climb today in the finals to make sure that I was far enough ahead before the finish,” Klæbo told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after the race. “It’s just been an incredible season with my second sprint globe and the Olympics. But I am focused on also taking home the overall crystal globe and will fight the next two days to make sure I get it.”
Bolger Reaches Quarterfinals
Along with Hamilton, Kevin Bolger was the only other North American to move onto the heats. In his third-career World Cup sprint, the Sun Valley based skier qualified in 29th and placed 30th overall after finishing sixth in his quarterfinal, 2.21 seconds behind Peterson in first.
In his World Cup debut two weeks ago, Bolger previously placed 11th overall in Lahti’s skate sprint. He went on to finish 50th in Drammen’s classic sprint. Bolger also skied to 52nd in last weekend’s Holmenkollen 50 k skate race.
“Qualifying, I was super excited,” Bolger, 24, told FasterSkier in Falun. “Obviously, it’s super early in these World Cups for me, so just qualifying is insane. Super fired up when that happened and just tried to kind of repeat what I did in Lahti, and didn’t work out, but I felt a little bit tired, maybe shaken out by the 50 k a little bit still, from Holmenkollen.”
Bolger is a recent graduate of the University of Utah and is in his first season as a professional skier. He skis with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation in Utah.
“I just came to Sun Valley this year so my coach Chris Mallory changed my tactics coming into sprints,” Bolger said about his early season work on qualifying. “I definitely, mentally and physically, been doing a lot of things differently. And just kind of going in with these World Cups, it’s a lot of pressure to do well. But at the same time, there are no expectations, really, so you just gotta go in with an open mind and hopefully, you don’t want to expect too much. So you just go in and do what you can.”
Whitcomb seemed as stoked as Bolger at his early World Cup success.
“Thrilling to see Bolger qualify in his second skate sprint,” Whitcomb said. “Being two-for-two in skate sprinting this year, in just a short tour with us and so fun to watch his excitement as a rookie, getting in there and mixing it up. I think it’s a unique course and it’s also the end of the long season for him as well, and just didn’t quite have the gear over the last hill, is what it looked like. But he by no means is getting blown out and it’s really exciting for the future.”
Also for the U.S., Erik Bjornsen missed qualifying by five-hundredths of a second in 31st, Andy Newell placed 43rd, Paddy Caldwell was 60th, David Norris 84th, and Scott Patterson 87th.
For Canada, Julien Locke placed 32nd, just 0.06 seconds out of qualifying, Alex Harvey was 34th, Devon Kershaw 74th, and Graeme Killick 81st.
Racing continues Saturday at World Cup Finals with a 15 k classic mass start for the men.
— Gabby Niranja, Harald Zimmer, Andrea Potyondy-Smith, and Alex Kochon contributed