Sunny skies. Craggy Slovenian Alps. Fresh snow and firm classic tracks. The perfect backdrop for the coiffed hair and pink sunglasses. On Saturday in Planica, Slovenia, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo again proved his form is on another level. Sometimes calm with tens of meters to spare, sometimes allowing others to draft momentarily on his ski tails, Klæbo won the World Cup men’s 1.6-kilometer classic sprint in 3:27.35 minutes.
In a final that featured three Norwegians, two Swedes and a Russian, Norway’s Emil Iversen placed second (+0.62) and Sweden’s Teodor Peterson third (+8.14). Yes, that’s a big gap to third place, and the gaps only bulged to the rest of the men in the final. Sweden’s Oskar Svensson finished fourth (+11.80), Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal fifth (+19.77), and Russia’s Gleb Retivykh sixth (+27.08).
“I had a lot of fun out there today,” Klæbo said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “It was great to see so many people along the course and the stadium. I really liked the course with the long uphill sections.”
To say Klæbo is on a roll is an understatement. The 21 year old, in fact, seems to be skiing in total control and on a different level — his swing from top-end efforts to dialing it back for the “show” seems like a quid pro quo to keep competitors from discouragement. Not that another Klæbo win was ever in doubt, but great World Cups are sporting theater after all, and drama heightens the tension.
Klæbo was the first-place qualifier, rounding the 1.6 k course that featured two small climbs and a larger one lasting for nearly half a kilometer in 3:26.8 minutes. Dissecting some of Klæbo’s strategy from the qualification time splits, he skied the first 0.65 k of the course a full three full seconds faster than Sweden’s second-place qualifier, Calle Halfvarsson, who finished in 3:29.5. Klæbo then skied the next 1.59 k of course, which featured the major climb, with the second-fastest split. Halfvarsson skied that sector the fastest by only 0.3 seconds over Klæbo, who had the second-fastest split time on that section. The point is this: Klæbo won the qualifier in the first 0.65 k, and could then control his speed the remaining distance and still win the qualifier by 2.75 seconds.
Effortless? Not exactly. But at moments it appeared that way.
Klæbo skied in the first quarterfinal, which also featured American Andy Newell. Like in his qualifier, Klæbo torched his heat from the start. Off the front at around fifty seconds, Klæbo looked around and realized he’d broken away, then he appeared to literally let off the double-pole gas. Perhaps it was a small tease as Newell chased behind in second. On the long climb, Klæbo set tempo as the other places began to fall into order. On the descent, Klæbo streamed away as if on double secret wax. Twenty to thirty meters before the finish, he began taking his poles off. He won the heat by 1.55 seconds over Finland’s Iivo Niskanen in second place (+1.55). Germany’s Sebastian Eisenlauer followed in third (+2.34) and Newell fourth (+2.59) to miss advancing to the semifinals. Overall, Newell ended the day in 20th.
Klæbo’s semifinal again found him in total control. By the long climb, Klæbo was in his groove with teammate Iversen pegging his efforts to remain 5 then 10 meters back. But Iversen hung in, and by the final stretch, after Klæbo pulled up and chilled, Iversen took Klæbo at the line in what appeared to be a nonchalant gift.
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The final began with Klæbo storming into the major climb with such speed that for a moment he became unbalanced. But in an instant, Klæbo’s stride was back in form as he strung out Petersen, Iversen and Svensson. With a quick skate into another lane followed by a killer double pole, Klæbo was gone up and over the climb. Iversen also made his move late on the climb, but by then, Klæbo was away.
With a tidy bow across the line, it was curtains for Klæbo.
After Saturday’s sprint, Klæbo is positioned first in the World Cup overall standings, despite skipping the entire Tour de Ski. He’s started a total of 10 individual races and has won eight, including Saturday’s sprint. In the other two, he placed second in last weekend’s freestyle sprint in Dresden, Germany, and was 10th on Dec. 16 in a 15 k skate in Toblach, Italy. Klæbo has won all three classic sprints this season.
No real prognostication here, it is too early. Yet, Klæbo has won every classic sprint this season and the upcoming Olympic individual sprint next month in PyeongChang, South Korea, is classic technique.
Two U.S. Men in Top 20
For the U.S., Simi Hamilton qualified 16th and ended his day in 19th after finishing fourth in the fifth quarterfinal, 2.35 behind the winner, Pål Golberg of Norway.
“I feel like a classic sprint is always up in the air for me how it’s going to go,” Hamilton told FasterSkier in person after the race. “Especially this season, the only other classic sprint I have done is in Ruka, and I was kind of getting really sick there, so I kind of had no idea how my body would respond.”
After skipping most of the Tour de Ski, leaving after the second stage on Jan. 1, Hamilton contested the sprints in Dresden last weekend and finished 10th in the individual skate sprint and eighth in the team sprint with Erik Bjornsen.
“I know that I am fit right now, and I have been feeling great so I kind of had that going into the day,” Hamilton said. “I had a really good interval workout here a couple days ago so it was awesome just to see the course and get a feel for doing that. I felt great in my qualifier, I felt like I stayed really relaxed. Sometimes I think classic sprinting, classic skiing in general, I have a tendency to get a little bit tight and I felt like in my qualifier I just stayed really loose the whole time, which kind of let me get pretty good glide on that really long gradual climb.
“In the quarter I just kind of focused on the same thing,” he continued. “Just started kind of conservatively so I had some energy for the long climb … I felt like I skied the climb really well, tried to make a move at the top, and when I was in third and then just needed to really pin it those last 200 meters, I just ran out a little bit of juice. But I think we were in a little slower heat anyways, so I wouldn’t have gone as a lucky loser, but it’s great … I love skiing heats obviously, and I think any day I can ski heats in a classic sprint with a pretty strong field, I think that is kind of a successful day for me.”
Newell, who qualified in 23rd and finished the day in 20th, wrote in an email that he had been hoping for more.
“It was beautiful classic conditions out there and pretty straightforward waxing which made for really fun skiing,” he wrote. “The course had a little bit of a different feel because it basically just had one really long climb from the low point to the high point and, of course, some fast icy corners to keep things interesting. Especially in qualification, I felt semi out of control and scrubbed some speed. The courses actually skied a bit better in the heats I thought once they had less traffic.”
Matched with Klæbo in his quarterfinal, Newell clearly knew he’d have a speedster to chase.
“In the heats, I again chose heat one with the same strategy I’ve been using — choose the first heat and shoot for a final/podium rather than a top 15 etc.,” Newell added. “Not sure if that’s the right call … hard to tell sometimes. I skied the majority of the heat on the tails of Klæbo until the top of the climb he and Niskanen got a small gap. In the end, it wasn’t fast enough.”
Like Hamilton, Newell left the Tour de Ski early (after Stage 3) and contested last weekend’s skate sprints in Dresden. Needless to say, Newell is focused on PyeongChang.
“Although this wasn’t the pre-Olympic result I was looking for I still have a few weeks to fine tune classic skiing and fitness and think about what I need to do to have a top performance in PyeongChang,” Newell reflected.
A large contingent of U.S. men competed, with the Alaska Pacific University (APU) duo of Logan Hanneman and Tyler Kornfield narrowly missing the heats, finishing 35th (+13.55) and 38th (+13.96), respectively, in the qualifier. Teammate Reese Hanneman finished 51st in the qualifier (+17.99) and Ben Lustgarten of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project placed 59th (+19.41).
For both Logan Hanneman and Kornfield, this was their first career World Cup starts. Hanneman is 24 and Kornfield is 26.
Kornfield is coming off a stellar U.S. nationals in Anchorage, Alaska, where he won the 30 k classic mass start, and placed third overall in both the classic and skate sprints. Kornfield is slowly adjusting to Europe and said his body still feels the effects of his national 30 k win.
“I have had a little time, but ever since the 30 k, I haven’t slept past five hours,” Kornfield said on Saturday. “I’ve just been trying to calm the heart rate. The first night before the classic sprint [in Anchorage], I went to bed at 3 AM. I was in bed at 11 or 12, just laying there. Just trying to process that. I know I can be better, I am just super amped to be here.”
Kornfield won sprint titles at U.S. nationals in both 2010 and 2012. Now, older and wiser, he understands World Cup starts are precious.
“I qualified for my first World Cup in 2010, but I decided not to go,” Kornfield said. “And ever since I have been just regretting that. But I think in the end, I’ve been working so much harder for this and it feels so much better. The harder you work the more struggle you go through, it’s feels so good.”
In an email exchange, Kornfield elaborated on his World Cup invitation decline back in 2010.
“After doing well in the 2010 US Nationals in Anchorage, I qualified for the sprint in Canmore, the final World Cups before the Vancouver Olympics,” Kornfield explained. “I went into US Nationals with the sole focus of making my first World Juniors. I hadn’t expected to do so well in the sprints and because I was a Freshman at UAF, I also wanted to make NCAAs.”
As for his turned-down 2010 World Cup starts in Canmore, those are “would haves” and “could haves”.
“I regretted not going for a long time because as I got older, I realized just how hard World Cup starts are to get and you cannot take them for granted,” Kornfield wrote. “When you are young and you get your first real breakthrough, you have so much confidence and belief that you are going to take over the world. It has been eight years and every now and then, that belief begins to wane. Eventually, I started to wonder if I would ever get that opportunity again. This is probably the first year in the last six years that my old confidence is starting to come back. I am also older and wiser and I know that the shape I am in now will not last forever, so I need to capitalize on this moment.”
The four Canadians that raced last weekend in Dresden also competed in Planica, with Julien Locke (Canadian National U25 Team) leading the way in 62nd on Saturday (+21.26), Dominique Moncion-Groulx (Alberta World Cup Academy) 65th (+22.70), Bob Thompson (NTDC Thunder Bay) 66th (+24.48), and Antoine Briand (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre) 70th (+27.20).
— Ian Tovell and Gabby Naranja contributed