There are no brakes for the World Cup until Sunday afternoon in Seefeld, Austria. The Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics is Feb. 9. For the champing-at-the-bit thoroughbreds in Seefeld, Saturday featured the last sprint before the Games: a 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint.
If you were thinking the World Cup’s sprint leaders were taking a “taper” weekend in the run-up to PyeongChang, you’d be wrong. Jumping into the mix were overall Sprint World Cup leader Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, who’s second in the sprint standings, and Norwegian Emil Iversen, who was third at the time. The list could get exhausting. Let’s just say the heavy hitters of the sprint world came out to play.
Under Seefeld’s alpine sun, the boldest pattern on the men’s World Cup continued. Klæbo won the qualifier by nearly five seconds, covering the course in 2:46.89 minutes. Pellegrino qualified in second, crossing the line 4.88 seconds slower.
Klæbo also took the Seefeld sprint win with a time of 3:02.66 in the final. France’s Lucas Chanavat placed second overall, 0.48 seconds back, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson third (+0.97), Pellegrino fourth (+1.06), Russia’s Gleb Retivykh fifth (+1.17), and Iversen sixth (+5.57).
The winning trend is clear, these races appear to be Klæbo’s to lose. The day marked Klæbo’s sixth World Cup sprint victory of the year and his ninth overall. After Saturday, he has a 205-point lead over Pellegrino in the sprint standings. Chanavat moved up to third, 293 points behind Klæbo and six points ahead of Iversen in fourth.
“No, I don’t have a plan before I start,” Klæbo told the International Ski Federation (FIS) in a post-race interview. “I just take it step by step, and just try to be in front and to have this control. This was quite fun for me; you have this uphill where no one wants to be in first and into a downhill. It’s something else, but it’s fun.”
Let’s circle back to Klæbo’s time in the finals: 3:02.66 minutes. Much slower than his rocketing qualifying time. Yet, Klæbo commands respect like Petter Northug did in his prime or Martin Johnsrud Sundby did just a few months ago. Through the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, it’s clear the men’s field awaits Klæbo’s kill-shot before making any decisive moves in earnest.
In the first heat, which featured Klæbo, Austria’s Dominik Baldauf shot off the front in what looked like a frenzied attempt to gamble his own fast-twitch-muscle-fiber reputation. Klæbo let him go for about a minute. Midway up the first climb, the group seemed to stall a bit, waiting for the inevitable. Of course, Klæbo went. With a now trademark speed-burst, the 21-year-old Norwegian was up and over the top of the hill. Only Halfvarson was able to catch Klæbo’s tails as the pair finished first and second, with Halfvarsson 0.53 seconds back.
In Klæbo’s semifinal, slow-the-boss-down tactics played heavy until the first hill again as Halfvarsson and Chavanat controlled the pace. One-two-three it was Halfvarsson, Chavanat, then Klæbo over the top. American Simi Hamilton, who had qualified fifth and placed second in the second quarterfinal to reach the semis, crested the hill in fourth.
On the false working flat prior to the course’s second climb, Klæbo simply began to pull away. Looking under his legs passing under the 100-meters-to-go banner, Klæbo’s win was already settled. Chavanat was second (+0.33), Halfvarsson third (+0.52), Pellegrino fourth (+2.52), Hamilton fifth (+2.61) and Poland’s Maciej Staręga sixth (+28.76). While Halfvarsson and Pellegrino advanced to the finals as lucky losers, Hamilton did not.
Perhaps it is time for the guessing to start. As in, will Klæbo dominate in PyeongChang? Can the 21 year old handle Olympic size pressure? Klæbo keeps his cool. But will the Games see a field ready to play for silver and bronze as they kowtow to Klæbo or a field with steady nerves ready to settle a score in what looks to be the start of a long and storied Olympic career for Klæbo?
Hamilton was the best-placed American man on Saturday. He clocked the fifth-fastest qualifying time, 6.46 seconds off Klæbo’s top time, then placed second to Pellegrino in his quarterfinal and was fifth in the first semifinal, 2.61 seconds behind Klæbo. Overall, Hamilton ended the day in ninth.
“I felt like, in the quarters I skied downhill really well, and I was able to get a really good draft and slingshot coming down through the stadium, so I was kind of trying to rely on that again,” Hamilton told FasterSkier in person after the race. “I was just trying to be mid-pack going over the top of the big climb, and the downhill was skiing quite a bit different than it was in my quarter. It was like, much, much icier. I was definitely way more conservative skiing into it, and I just did not ski it very well, and as a result, didn’t carry my speed down through the long straightaway nearly as well as I could have or should have. I knew that Federico and I were fighting for that fourth spot there.”
Also for the U.S., Erik Bjornsen (U.S. Ski Team) finished 37th in the qualifier, 0.89 seconds out of the top 30 and 11.99 second out of first. Logan Hanneman, of Alaska Pacific University (APU) was 39th (+12.52), Andy Newell (U.S. Ski Team) 42nd (+12.90), Reese Hanneman (APU) 65th (+17.91), and Ben Lustgarten (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) 76th (+21.88).
In his second-career World Cup race, Logan Hanneman, 24, left venue wanting more.
“It was really hard, I don’t quite understand why, but I felt very close to cramping right out of the start,” Hanneman told FasterSkier after. “I think it was a lot of nerves. And then you hit this huge hill right out of the start, and then it hurt quite a bit. Then you have the downhill ripping across [the arena] and your legs just fill up with lactate quite a bit before that last uphill. But it was good. I think I was about the same as last week from out [of the heats], so really close again. I would have really wanted to get in today especially because it’s skating.”
At last weekend’s classic sprint in Planica, Slovenia, Hanneman placed 35th.
Alex Harvey was the lone Canadian in the heats and placed eighth overall. In his first World Cup race since placing a historic third overall in the 2018 Tour de Ski, Harvey played perfect tactics in his quarterfinal, holding his big efforts back on course’s first major climb. Toying in sixth initially, his hand unfolded from the back of what he called a “come-from-behind course”.
Coming into the final climb, Harvey moved up the outside and gained position.
“I was trying to see if I could save energy on that first hill and make my way past a couple guys on the downhill and come up that last hill with a lot of speed and still have the energy to makes some moves there,” Harvey said on the phone after.
In what was the fastest quarterfinals of the day (both lucky losers advanced from Harvey’s heat), the Canadian was able to ski a dicey corner into the final stretch with speed and take the quarterfinal win in 2:29.96 minutes.
“It worked in the quarter and then in the semi, I think that worked well also but it was just the very final corner before the last hundred meters that didn’t take as well as I should have,” Harvey reflected.
Iversen settled in and took control of Harvey’s semifinal with a slightly more laid-back pace than Harvey’s quarterfinal, at least initially. Midway through the first hill, Iversen punched into the lead and crested the hill with physics in his favor.
“It was slow when Emil was in the front,” Harvey noted. “We were basically just walking up that big hill and he didn’t really drill it. He just went hard the last couple of steps over the hill to generate some speed and try to hold his own and it worked well for him. Probably Emil is one of the only guys in the men’s field who can hit the top of a hill first and hold it down a hill because he is both a bit heavier than a few other guys. He is actually a really good downhiller. He can take those corners really well. … He is one of the few guys, but I still think for me and basically anyone else in the field other than him it’s not the best strategy.”
Iversen won that semifinal, the second one of the day, in 2:56.88 minutes. Harvey finished 0.47 seconds back in fourth, behind Russia’s Retivykh in second and France’s Richard Jouve in third, as he was unable to gain ground in the last hundred-meter stretch.
Canada’s Len Valjas placed 40th, 12.72 seconds back in the qualifier, after fighting a lingering injury for much of the race season. Valjas injured his back in the gym prior to last season’s World Championships in Lahti, Finland and told FasterSkier he tried to manage the injury and fight off the pain until he re-injured himself this past November.
“I went home again and pretty much got every test done and they found a herniated disk in T2-3 and below that a cracked vertebrae on T-4 which is the rib that is probably affecting my breathing,” Valjas explained. “It just feels like there is a rubber band around my chest so when it’s flared up and tight it just takes longer to take a deep breath, and I honestly can’t go any higher than [Zone] 3, my body can’t go on any slower breathing. So yesterday was a really bad day, my breathing sucked, I didn’t do any pre-race I just skied slow and got worked on.”
Valjas went on to say he felt better trying to qualify for Saturday’s heats and plans on taking the next four days off before flying to South Korea for the Olympics.
“I just need to manage resting but also I need those hard efforts to get my body ready for racing again. Right now it’s kind of a pain,” Valjas added. “I know that I can ski fast so I am trying to save my one effort for the sprint in Korea. These efforts, I need them, but also at the same time, I need to give some rest.”
Also for Canada, Julien Locke (Canadian U25 Team) skied to 43rd (+13.31), Knute Johnsgaard (World Cup Team) 51st (+14.74), Bob Thompson (NTDC Thunder Bay) 58th (+16.55), Graeme Killick (World Cup Team) 61st (+17.28), and Devon Kershaw (World Cup Team) 70th (+19.53).
“I am feeling pretty good, the shape is definitely starting to come around compared to the start of the season for me,” Johnsgaard told FasterSkier after. “But I am also coming off a pretty big kind of training block here in Livigno at high altitude so I am feeling it a little bit, but the plan is to build off that training and hopefully absorb it and be in top shape for the games. Considering that, it was a great race for me today.”
Racing continues Sunday in Seefeld with 10/15 k freestyle mass starts.
— Gabby Niranja, Andrea Potyondy-Smith, Ian Tovell and Alex Kochon contributed