The first time Simen Hegstad Krüger stood atop a World Cup podium, it was last season in the company of three teammates, after Team Norway won the men’s relay in Ulricehamn, Sweden.
An individual podium win had remained elusive to the 24-year-old Norwegian for the past four World Cup seasons. Over the course of his professional cross-country career, Krüger had recorded two top-three results: his relay podium and a third place in the 10-kilometer freestyle stage of the 2017 Tour de Ski in Toblach, Italy.
On Saturday, that statistic changed. Once again in Toblach, Krüger raced to his first individual World Cup win with the fastest time in the men’s 15 k freestyle. He covered the three-lap course in 29:58.8 minutes, besting second-place finisher Maurice Manificat of France by 10.6 seconds.
“It’s great to finally win a World Cup race,” Krüger said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “I have been fourth twice this season. I thought my shape was good and I was hoping for a good performance and hopefully a podium, but to be first today, it’s absolutely amazing.”
With 30-second intervals separating racers at the start, the race was a solo affair for most, particularly for the starters in the second half of the field, including Krüger in bib 66 (out of 90).
Manificat, wearing the red bib of the Distance World Cup leader after winning last weekend’s 15 k skate in Davos, Switzerland, started 70th and also skied solo for most of the race, closing in on Krüger, but not enough to take the win.
“I congratulate Simen on the win, it was just great what he delivered today,” Manificat said, according to FIS. “I am very happy with the second place. It is a confirmation of my good shape, which I have had since the beginning of the season.”
In third, 11.5 seconds back from Krüger and 1.1 seconds out of second place, was Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave, earning what he described as his “first proper World Cup podium.”
“All the previous ones were for the fastest times in pursuit competitions,” Musgrave told FIS, referring to his stage win in a 25 k freestyle pursuit in Toblach in 2015 and his second-fastest time of day in the 15 k freestyle pursuit at 2017 World Cup Finals in Quebec. “I knew I could ski fast here. Today, everything fell in the right place. I am in a good shape and I was skiing well. My classic has not been great this year, but I am in a good position. I hope for another good result.”
Finishing just 2.5 seconds off the podium on Saturday was Canada’s Alex Harvey in fourth. Though happy with his race, Harvey indicated the finish left him hungry for more.
“I thought it was a great race,” Harvey said on the phone after. “For sure coming so close to the podium, sometimes you would rather be in sixth or fifth. Fourth is always a bit frustrating, it leaves you wanting more, but I think it’s good moving forward,”
In Sunday’s pursuit, Harvey will start 2 seconds after Musgrave and 14 seconds after Krüger in first. Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, who finished fifth on Saturday, will head out of the gate 5 seconds after Harvey.
“I have been the hunter a lot before, so I know these guys are going to be coming hard,” Harvey said, referring to the starters behind him.
After Ustiugov, who was 18.9 seconds back in fifth, Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh placed sixth (+23.8) and Hans Christer Holund finished seventh (+25.9). Finland’s Matti Heikkinen was eighth (+27.3), Switzerland’s Toni Livers ninth (+35.0), and the current overall World Cup leader who hadn’t lost a race until Saturday, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo 10th (+35.2).
“I think [Manificat and Ustiugov], those two guys are probably going to be the ones pushing the most early on to try to stay away from Klæbo especially,” Harvey predicted. “[Manificat] has had [the top] time of the day a lot in this type of event, so it will be interesting to see.”
Leading up to Saturday’s race, Klæbo had won every competition he’d entered this season. With his 10th place finish, he maintained his position as the overall World Cup leader by 250 points over Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov in second overall. Bolshunov did not race Saturday in Toblach.
Bjornsen 29th for U.S.
While several U.S. Ski Team (USST) sprinters opted to race this weekend’s OPA Cup in St. Ulrich, Austria, the distance skiers stayed on the World Cup circuit in Toblach. Erik Bjornsen led the latter contingent in 29th, finishing 1:09.6 minutes back from Krüger. Despite the 15 k freestyle individual start being his “least favorite race”, Bjornsen said he was “psyched” to be in the top 30.
“I feel like I had a good start and then was able to hang on for the last 7 k or so. I was pretty happy with that,” Bjornsen said on the phone. “I took the last weekend off hoping to have some more energy for this weekend, and so I was shooting for a top-30 finish to be within a reasonable distance of the top 20 going into my favorite race, the 20 k classic.”
On Sunday, he’ll start 1:10 back and within 12 seconds of 20th.
“I am excited for tomorrow and feel like I am in a decent spot to move up,” Bjornsen said. “There are for sure some skaters in front of me that I think should be pretty easy to pass, but then of course there are some strong guys behind me. So hopefully we can get a good crew of guys that are willing to work hard and move up the field.”
Also racing for the U.S., Noah Hoffman finished 40th (+1:24.5), Scott Patterson was 42nd (+1:29.4), and Paddy Caldwell was 53rd (+1:50.0).
A total of five Canadians competed, with Devon Kershaw placing 38th (+1:22.1), Graeme Killick in 49th (+1:47.8), Russell Kennedy in 60th (+2:13.2), and Knute Johnsgaard in 85th (+3:28.3).
— Harald Zimmer and Ian Tovell contributed