The two men who landed on the first and third steps of the podium in Saturday’s World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland, weren’t even slated to start as of a week ago. But 20-year-old Johannes Høsflot Klæbo’s breakthrough sprint result in Beitostølen, Norway, last weekend put him on the Norwegian national team’s radar, and Pål Golberg received a call on Wednesday that he could start in Petter Northug’s place. Northug chose to skip the opening World Cup weekend because his energy wasn’t where he wanted it to be.
“It’s just so competitive [this] time of year,” Canadian Alex Harvey observed in a post-race phone interview. “The Norwegians that were first and third [Golberg and Klæbo], they weren’t even supposed to race today, it’s just ’cause [Eirik] Brandsdal got sick and Northug decided not to come, so guys were racing for their season today. … Guys are racing just to be allowed to start next weekend, so I think guys from the big nations — Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway — they come in close to the best shape of the season here. I think one of the deepest fields we get is Kuusamo.”
In spite of the depth, Golberg and Klæbo rose to the top, with just Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson coming between them in second place. In his second World Cup start (his other was a classic sprint last February), Klæbo, of Norway’s U23 Team, put down the fastest qualifying time on the 1.4-kilometer course in 2:50.7 minutes. Russia’s Alexander Panzhinskiy clocked in 0.81 seconds slower in second, and the next-fastest qualifier, Estonian Marko Kilp was 2.01 seconds off Klæbo’s time in third.
Meanwhile, Golberg, a 26-year-old former Norwegian World Cup Team member, qualified eighth, 3.4 seconds back. From there, Klæbo in bib 1 rode his momentum all the way to the final, winning his quarterfinal and semifinal by charging to the front of the pack on the last of Ruka’s two sprint climbs: a grueling, 150-meter-long ascent into the stadium.
Golberg placed fourth in his quarterfinal, nipping Harvey by two-hundredths of a second for the final spot in the semifinals. That ended Harvey’s racing for the day and put the Canadian 25th overall.
“I knew it was a fast heat so I was hoping that fourth place would be lucky loser, so that’s what I was fighting for,” Harvey explained. “But in the end it was just not enough. But I never felt that I was totally out of it until I crossed the line and I knew I couldn’t come around Pål.”
While Harvey reflected that his skis may have had just a bit too much grip in the powdery conditions, Golberg had another chance in the semifinals. There, the Norwegian raced to second in another photo finish — this time with Klæbo.
“In the quarterfinals I had a pretty bad climb; I lost a few spots so I decided to stay more in the back in the semifinals and that worked out,” Golberg said in a post-race interview with FIS.
While Klæbo led his semifinal competitors into the last climb, Golberg pushed past Finland’s Ari Luusua to move into second by the top. In the last 250 or so meters of the race, which flattens out and curves left into the finish, Golberg chased down Klæbo and finished 0.02 seconds behind him. Both automatically advanced to the final, and considering theirs was the fastest of the two semifinals, so did Sweden’s Halfvarsson and Teodor Peterson in third (+0.42) and fourth (+1.17) in that heat.
In the final, Panzhinskiy — the lone Russian in the final (two Russians reached the women’s final) — set the pace out of the start while the two Swedes followed in second and third. Halfvarsson rode his faster skis on an early descent past Panzhinskiy, while Krogh lost contact with the group early.
With Panzhinskiy on one side of Halfvarsson and Klæbo on the other, the Russian and young Norwegian challenged the Swede up the first climb, but Halfvarsson kept his spot up front. Panzhinskiy drafted and passed him on the descent before the last climb, leading Klæbo, Halfvarsson and Golberg into the base of it, while Peterson stayed in contact in back. (Krogh was well out of camera range at this point.)
Halfvarsson pushed to move into first early in the climb while Golberg ran outside the track on the far left and seized the lead over the top. Peterson double poled behind Halfvarsson and Golberg raced away from the pack to secure the victory in 2:54.12. Halfvarsson stayed ahead of Klæbo and Peterson for second place (+0.75), while Klæbo, close on Halfvarsson’s heels, switched lanes with less than 100 meters to go to edge Peterson for third (+0.87). Peterson took fourth (+1.06), Panzhinskiy settled for fifth (+8.22), and Krogh came through the stadium casually, 1:12 minutes after Golberg in sixth.
According to Krogh’s hometown paper, Altaposten, he decided to save his energy for Sunday’s 15 k classic after failing to stay with the group early in the race. He stopped on the last hill to talk to coaches.
At the finish, Golberg smiled as he patted Klæbo on the back. It was Klæbo’s first World Cup podium, and Golberg’s fourth career win.
“This means a lot to me,” Golberg told NRK after. “I know very well that I can ski fast, but it’s always nice to be able to remind others of that.
“It’s a bonus that I’m here,” he added. “I know that the members of the [national] team have first priority, and that makes even more to perform well.”
The win came a week after Golberg finished second to Klæbo by 0.5 seconds in a freestyle sprint FIS race in Beitostølen. On Saturday, Klæbo told NRK in a TV interview that he was very pleased with his second World Cup start. (He placed 15th in the Drammen classic sprint last season.)
“I didn’t chose the right tracks in the last hill and the end of the final, but I’m still happy about the third place,” Klæbo said.
It snowed Friday night and throughout the day on Saturday, making Ruka’s notoriously tough sprint course even more challenging. Harvey estimated there were three to five centimeters of fresh snow in the morning, and snow continued to fall into the afternoon. He said organizers didn’t groom after around midnight on Friday to avoid making the course even softer.
“These were quite difficult conditions with the new snow, but I had perfect skis,” Golberg told FIS. “Most important today was to have a good kick on the uphill. It is great to start the season with the win.”
For Halfvarsson, it was his first podium in a classic sprint and first time back on the podium in an individual World Cup since the Tour de Ski two years ago.
“I am very happy,” the 27-year-old Halfvarsson said. “[The] finish was really hard today. Pål was very strong there. The crowd was great.”
Harvey, who narrowly made the top-30 qualifying cutoff in 28th said he was happy to make the heats. He called Kuusamo one of the hardest places to qualify because of the depth of the field. Last year at the same venue, he placed 47th in the classic-sprint opener.
“Just qualifying made the day a positive day already,” he said. “It was a really tricky day to find the right combination of glide and kick at the same time. In the qualifier, I went for an option with kind of slick skis, but fast, and I think the skis were really fast in qualification, but I went maybe a little too thin on the grip so I came out of the track a little earlier than I would’ve hoped for, but it was still good enough to just sneak in there.”
For his quarterfinal, in which he faced Golberg, Halfvarsson, Russia’s Anton Gafarov, Norway’s Sondre Turvoll Fossli, and Finland’s Sami Jauhojärvi, Harvey went for more grip.
“Knowing that it would come down to the last climb, the strategy was to go for a little more kick,” Harvey said, adding that he decided the night before to go on faster, slicker skis for the qualifier then switch to more grip for the heats. “I think I might’ve just overdid it a little bit, but the skis were still good. They were still fast.”
Finding himself around fifth place for most of his quarterfinal, Harvey stayed in contact with the four frontrunners until the base of the last big uphill. Despite being several strides behind the group, he caught up to Golberg by the top.
“In the hill, I had the skis to make a move, but you need to be so quick up that hill and I’m better when there’s more of a gliding phase in each stride, and when it’s just running like that, I’m not as quick as some of the other guys so I kind of got stuck in fifth,” he said. “In the finish I was starting to come around Pål Golberg for lucky loser, it was a photo finish between us, but I knew he beat me before I saw the photo and in the end he ended up winning the day, and at the end of the day, I had the best two guys in my quarterfinal.”
All things considered, Harvey said he felt good. “I take a lot of positive out of the day but it was not perfect. I just have to be a bit stronger in the finish.”
The seventh-ranked man in the overall World Cup last season, Harvey was the lone North American qualify for the men’s sprint rounds on Saturday.
Andy Newell led the U.S. men in 40th, missing the top 30 by 0.48 seconds and finishing 7.74 seconds behind Klæbo. Another 0.07 seconds back, Newell’s teammate Erik Bjornsen placed 42nd (+7.81), and last year’s SuperTour winner Eric Packer finished 78th (+17.3) out of 94.
“It was unexpected for me not to make the top 30 today,” Newell wrote in an email. “I felt pretty decent, but then again have not done any maximal efforts in about two weeks because of my elbow infection so it was hard to tell. I think it was a combination of being a little flat and also dragging a little too much kick wax around the course.”
Saturday marked Newell’s first race of the season after having to sit out the Beitostølen opener with a bacterial infection.
“He healed up really quickly,” U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone after Saturday’s race. “He’s been really smart in his preparation, he hasn’t been overreaching, and today I think he was a little bit flat. He wasn’t too far out; things were pretty tight. I think that’s as far as we have to look there. He’s been looking pretty good and I think it’s a matter of getting a race under his belt.”
Whitcomb said Newell would likely start Sunday’s 15 k classic, but Newell didn’t give a definitive answer.
“I will feel things out tomorrow and see how it goes,” Newell wrote. He was listed on Sunday’s start list.
Simi Hamilton did not start on Saturday, and Whitcomb said he’s trying to get over a small cold.
“[Not] a full-blown cold, but slightly elevated heart rate when he moves, and just general feelings of lower energy,” Whitcomb explained. “He was feeling quite a bit better yesterday so we had him do a short little race prep to test things out, about a half an hour of skiing, and it ended up sending him in the wrong direction, not dramatically but it gave us the information that we needed to say, ‘Hey, it’s not going to be smart to start today.’ ”
Len Valjas placed 54th for Canada, 11.28 seconds off of the top qualifying time, Devon Kershaw was 63rd on the day (+12.28), Knute Johnsgaard 69th (+13.46), Bob Thompson 80th (+17.64), and Jess Cockney 83rd (+19.52).
– Aleks Tangen and Gabby Naranja contributed reporting