PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — First a quick parable every skier has heard: never give up. From coaches, teachers and certainly parents, it’s always the same. Never give up. For those on the receiving end of the timeworn parable, it can sound like the annoying advice of elders; something that only applies in the later years. Easily brushed off words that might apply later, never now.
During Sunday’s blustery and downright frigid 30-kilometer skiathlon, the first men’s cross-country race of the 2018 Olympic Games, that parable came into play not more than fifteen seconds after the start. Sixty-eight skiers shot off the line and merged into the classic ski tracks — the front-row athletes, the likes of Canada’s Alex Harvey, Norwegians Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, and Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, skied clean up the first climb.
Caught up in the striding, double poling and the tumbling was Norway’s 24-year-old Simen Hegstad Krüger, bib 7, waving his arm as he lay prone on the snow. Skier down — broken pole. There really didn’t seem much to it other than it was bib 7. Bib 7 slow to get up, slow to unstrap his mangled pole, slow to get into the tracks and single stick for tens of meters. Bib 7. Krüger.
Then the coach arrives, the pole becomes functional, the game is on. By then, Niskanen, a renowned classic skier, had accelerated the pace. From the front, the pack was pulled apart like taffy. From the back of the mass of skiers, where Krüger now ventured, a sea of 67 other bib numbers waited to be picked off. Whatever the phrase “never give up” is in Norwegian, it most certainly rattled around in Krüger’s mind.
“It’s my first-ever Olympic race and it started in the worst possible way,” Krüger said during the post-race press conference. “I just had to try to stay calm and use some time to catch up because I think if I had skied too fast there after my crash, I don’t think I would have any power when I caught up.”
Let’s ascend from the bottom up on Krüger’s World Cup results pyramid. He has 28 World Cup top-30 results, 12 of which are top 10’s. Of those top 10’s, he has two podiums: a third place in the fifth stage of the 2017 Tour de Ski, the 10 k skate in Toblach, Italy, and another win in Toblach this past December in the 15 k skate.
Surely this is no spoiler — bib 7 won the Olympic 30 k skiathlon on Sunday in 1:16:20 hours in burley conditions. On top of that, consider this: he’s a first-time Olympian, this was his first Olympic race and first championship gold.
Let’s get back to Niskanen, who is a no-joke classic skier. Of all his major wins, including Finland’s National Junior Championships (with multiple titles in 2012 and 2013), you have to comb through to find a freestyle win. There are three skate wins, none on the World Cup. And here’s another striking piece of information, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS) database, Niskanen has never won off of Finnish soil except for the 15 k classic at 2014 U23 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
PyeongChang is in South Korea, seven time zones from Finland.
Number crunching in sport is nothing new. Somebody in the Norwegian head-shed must have known Niskanen’s skewed geographic preference.
Off the Finn went with the skiathlon favorites all in tow. By all accounts, Niskanen set a punchy pace. Nearly through 10 k, the 26 year old owned it. No doubt he knew his chances were slim if he didn’t break the pack and stretch out a solo lead before the transition to 15 k of skate technique. For a bit after 10 k, Sundby took some pulls up front. But in what became a familiar classic leg trend, the 13 skiers, separated by no more than five seconds, zipped down the banked corner before the 15 k mark gear exchange led by none other than Niskanen.
The Finn had done the job of cutting the lead pack down to a manageable number, but he hadn’t built a gap from which he could nurse a cushion during the skate leg. In being the fox for at least 12 hounds, Niskanen had burned through his high-pace fuel. Fourth out of the transition, 1.3 seconds behind Klæbo in first, he was back in 18th just under 4 k later, 9 seconds out of first. He ultimately finished the skiathlon in 19th place, 1:14.2 minutes behind the winner.
A quick swap of the skis and the poles and the 21-year-old young gun from Norway, Klæbo, was first through the 15 k time check. Harvey followed next with a tight grouping from first to 13th within 9.5 seconds, tightening pole straps on the run and readying for the skate leg throwdown.
Here’s the thing: the 14th skier through the exchange, 15.2 seconds back was Krüger. This athlete was in 67th at 0.88 k, and improved to 57th 1.5 k later. Fast and steady, Krüger would reel in the front group. By 17.25 k, he was within a few seconds of lead.
“As soon as I changed skis, then suddenly my legs felt great again,” Krüger said at the press conference. “I knew that now all possibilities are open again and just tried to start fresh.”
The skate leg’s dynamics proved the opposite of the classic. There was no Niskanen-type breaking the wind. At moments it appeared Harvey would surge, or Cologna, or Sundby, or Holund, or Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave.
Krüger hung tight, never taking the leadership reins.
“I knew that the skating part is my strongest part and I had to try to save some power the first two laps there and just stay with the group,” Krüger reflected.
The plot thickened as the k’s ticked off. With the likes of Sundby in the pack, Krüger couldn’t risk a finish-line sprint. In his third Olympics, Sundby is still seeking his first Olympic gold (after taking bronze in the Sochi 30 k skiathlon and silver in the 2010 Vancouver 4 x 5 k relay).
Before Sundby, 33, could dictate the closing chapter of Sunday’s race, Krüger stung the group with a power surge around 26.25 k and quickly gapped the chasers by 9.1 seconds. A little over a kilometer later, Krüger had opened up a 22.8-second lead.
“I know that there’s some quite fast skiers in the group, so I knew that my chance was to get rid of them before the finish,” Krüger said of his tactics. “When I got some meters there I had to go for it and don’t look back.”
He never looked back. It was an exclamation-point Olympic gold medal win, and he beat Sundby in second by 8 seconds and another Norwegian teammate Hans Christer Holund in third by 9.9 seconds.
Although Krüger kept his eyes focused ahead, Sundby said during the press conference that he and Holund were looking around for potential chasers.
“For sure, we have a really clear team tactics,” Sundby explained of why he and Holund did not attempt to close the gap on Krüger. “If one of us gets seconds from the rest of the pack, the others cannot try to catch him, so me and Hans Christer, I think we were waiting for Alex, Dario, Maurice [Manificat], everybody else to try to catch Simen. I think both of us were a bit surprised that nobody really tried.”
Both Sundby and Holund acknowledged that when the gap grew to 20 seconds, they felt the team pact to not chase down a potential Norwegian gold medalist had been honored. On the final hill climb before the finish Sundby and Holund went.
“I don’t think either me or Martin wanted to have Alex or Dario, we didn’t want to sprint with them in the last few hundred meters so when it was like 1 1/2 kilometers [to go], I think [Sundby] said or I said, ‘Now we just go,’ ” Holund said at the press conference. “And we did that in the hill.”
Sundby settled for silver and Holund bronze, 2.8 seconds clear of Denis Spitsov, representing the Olympics Athletes of Russia, in fourth.
“For sure, for us it was a bit frustrating, we also wanted to go for the gold for sure,” Sundby said. “But our team tactics was clear today and it’s just amazing that we really pulled this [podium sweep] off.”
“… Simen is a really strong guy, not just physical but also mental,” said the 28-year-old Holund, also in his Olympic debut. “I think we should give credit to Simen that he was actually daring to break loose on the last lap there. I don’t think many people would have the confidence to do that and that’s why he deserves that gold medal.”
After the race, Krüger acknowledged that he owed some gratitude to his silver and bronze Norwegian teammates.
“I think both the guys there on both sides [of me] could’ve gone faster when I got some meters, but they let the others do the work,” noted Krüger. “So I think I owe them a big thanks for not catching up with me when I went for it.”
Spitsov, 21, also in his first Olympics, finished fourth, ahead of France’s Maurice Manificat in fifth (+14.2), Cologna in sixth (+25.1), Musgrave in seventh (+25.7), and Harvey, who edged Martin Jaks of the Czech Republic, for eighth (+33.4 and +33.8, respectively). Klæbo, one of the pre-race favorites, finished 10th (+43.4).
Harvey, who had been eyeing the skiathlon, said after the race the best skiers had won.
“I think the three best guys won today,” Harvey told FasterSkier after. “It was a fair race and they were just stronger than anybody else in the world.”
Asked about the race’s defining breakaways in the final kilometers, he said he just didn’t have the legs to react.
“I was feeling good until Sundby and Holund went and then I just couldn’t go,” Harvey said.
After Harvey’s top 10, the next Canadian across the line was Devon Kershaw in 36th (+3:35.3). Graeme Killick finished 45th (+5:19.6), and Knute Johnsgaard was lapped and did not finish.
Kershaw noted the high pace during the classic leg curtailed his later-race efforts.
“I was really shocked that the classic went out as hard as it did,” Kershaw told FasterSkier. “And, after that, you’re in survival mode … It was really, really brutal today. “You know, it wasn’t the coldest day I’ve done, but it was for sure the windiest race I’ve ever competed in. When you’re having a bad day, that wind really tears at your mind, so I struggled.”
For the U.S., Scott Patterson led the way in 18th (+1:07.5). In his first Olympics, Patterson’s moxy was palpable. The the 26-year-old, first-year U.S. Ski Team member began the skate leg in 27th position, 47.7 seconds behind the leaders.
Immediately as Patterson skated away, his powerful strides were evidence he’d only be picking off spots in the final 15 k.
“The last couple skiathlons I’ve done it’s been a little bit rough classic,” Patterson told FasterSkier after. “Then you switch to skating and it’s like, ‘OK, now I know what I’m doing’, and it definitely felt like that today.”
A year ago at the pre-Olympic World Cup in PyeongChang, Patterson finished ninth in the 30 k skiathlon. Besides that result, his best individual World Cup finish was 27th in the 15 k freestyle mass start at the most recent World Cup on Jan. 28 in Seefeld, Austria.
As he completed the third of four skate laps, Patterson could see Sundby’s lead group 34 seconds ahead of him.
“Everyone was giving us splits off to that front group and it was like, ‘OK, maybe we can make it, maybe we can make it,’ ” Patterson reflected, smiling. “But then you’re also like, ‘They’re going to start charging real soon.’ So I was kind of optimistic, but also, when you’re leading that pack, it’s like, I want this pack to move up, but I don’t want to be the one making it move up because that’s a lot of work.”
He credited France’s Jules Lapierre, who finished 15th, and Italy’s Francesco de Fabiani, who placed 20th, for helping to pull the group along.
“I ended up leading the final sprint hill quite a few times, but [Lapierre] did a lot of work out on the course, which was super helpful…,” Patterson said. “We were able to kind of pull apart our group a bit and pick off a few of the guys struggling from the lead pack, like we got Iivo Niskanen right at the end, which I was pretty psyched about.”
Also for the U.S., Erik Bjornsen finished 42nd (+4:34.7), Paddy Caldwell 51st (+6:58.1), and Noah Hoffman 54th (+7:08.7).
“I really enjoy both courses and I think the classic portion was maybe a little trickier with the wind today,” Caldwell said of his race. “I was just telling Reese [Hanneman] that I thought that things were pulling apart more in the classic side. You know, if you lose the group in front of you and then you catch the wind, it gets really tough. I think that the time gaps today are probably going to be quite, quite large because of that, but we had awesome skis on both sides [classic and skate]. I was trying to maintain position in classic and pick off people where I could in skate.”
In his second Olympics, Hoffman also said the wind played a factor.
“Honestly, it was gusty and there were sections where you’d come into the wind and just be brought to a dead stop,” Hoffman said. “But overall, it could have been a lot more of a grind because we had this warm spell the last couple days and the snow was quite fast out there. It was an uphill wind in terms of the general direction, and so for the most part the downhills were slower, but still tucking and then the uphills, you got a little bit of a boost … My body wasn’t there today.”
Olympic cross-country racing continues Tuesday with the men’s and women’s classic sprints.
— Alex Kochon and Andrea Pontyondy-Smith contributed