You could call him a specialist. An all-around contender in classic distance races, Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan has proven time and time again that he has the 15-kilometer classic individual start figured out.
On Sunday in Lahti, Finland, he set a new World Cup record by winning his eighth-career 15 k classic (including both individual and mass-start formats). He had previously tied Swedish legend Gunde Svan’s mark of seven with a win in the last 15 k classic contested in Planica, Slovenia.
Three of Poltoranin’s 15 k wins have come this season, and all of his 11 career World Cup victories have been in classic races. Two were of shorter distances: a 5 k classic stage race in 2013 and a classic sprint that same year.
But in the last men’s race of the 2018 Olympics last Saturday in PyeongChang, South Korea — the 50 k classic mass start — the 30-year-old Poltoranin only had about 30 k of full-tilt speed in him. For 29 valiant kilometers, he had stalked Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, who was leading the race.
But then, the wheels started to come off. In less than a kilometer, Poltoranin was passed by Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov and lost more than 10 seconds to Niskanen. By about 33 k, he was no longer able to keep up with Bolshunov as he continued the race in the dreaded position of no man’s land, skiing alone in third. The chase pack eventually caught him with 5 k to go, and he slipped to seventh. He ultimately finished 15th, more than 5 minutes behind Niskanen in first.
But that was over a week ago. By Sunday, Poltoranin was back in familiar territory at a venue he had raced at multiple times in the last 13 years, but never placed better than second at in Lahti.
He started 44th out of 71 in the men’s field and came through each timing point with some of the best, if not the best, splits over the three-lap course. But one man who started behind him was faster at every checkpoint — Bolshunov, wearing bib 64— and as Poltoranin sat in the leader’s seat at the finish, watching the rest of the race unfold, it was the Russian he was likely most nervous about.
Niskanen was looking strong, too, but as the Finnish Olympic champion skied in bib 60, a couple of minutes ahead of Bolshunov, his times were consistently about 5 seconds slower.
When Niskanen finished, he was 20.9 seconds shy of Poltoranin’s time. Then Bolshunov, who had led through the 11.1 k checkpoint where he was almost 7 seconds faster than Poltoranin, came into the stadium, yet ended up 9.1 seconds short of the win.
Poltoranin’s finishing time of 33:11.9 proved unbeatable on Sunday, and he pumped his fist as he realized the win was his.
“It’s great to win again,” Poltoranin told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after, according to a press release. “I won in Planica before the Olympics and this is a much better feeling than last weekend’s result in the Olympic 50 k.”
Bolshunov, who finished second to Niskanen in the Olympic 50 k, 18.7 seconds from the gold medal, placed second again on Sunday.
“I was disappointed after the Olympic 50 k and was a little bit tired but I am happy with how I skied today,” the 21-year-old Bolshunov, who won silver or bronze in all four races he competed in at his first Olympics, told FIS. “Thanks for the service team for great skis. Good to get another podium for Russia.”
Niskanen, 26, was a clear crowd favorite in Lahti, with several fans holding up gigantic cutout photos of his face. While he was an early race leader, Niskanen’s split times were second to Bolshunov from 3.7 k on.
“It was an OK race for me,” Niskanen told FIS. “I have had a busy and emotional week after the gold medal in PyeongChang. I think I have not fully recovered yet. I felt my muscles were quite stiff. It was a very hard race for me. I wanted to finish on the podium and it would have been nice to win in front of the home crowd.”
Note: Poltoranin is currently second in the Distance World Cup standings, 39 points behind France’s Maurice Manificat (who placed 21st on Sunday) in first. Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby (who placed fifth behind teammate Emil Iversen in fourth on Sunday) is just 5 points behind Poltoranin in third in the distance rankings. Sundby is second in the Overall World Cup, 228 points behind his Norwegian teammate Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (who placed seventh on Sunday).
Kershaw in the Points in 25th
After placing 26th in the Olympic 50 k, Devon Kershaw led four Canadians in Sunday’s 15 k in 25th (+1:43.2). An early starter in bib 24, his split times were relatively consistent throughout the race, ranging from 20th at 1.1 k to 26th with about 4 k to go.
“I was actually really excited for this race,” Kershaw wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “15km classic is my favourite race we do. Also, Lahti was peaking. It was about -10, sunny (I know?! In Finland) and the track conditions were 10/10. When you love classic skiing like I do, the World Cup rarely offers conditions like we had here. I loved it. Motivation-wise, I have never really struggled too badly with that after championships if the calendar has races I enjoy and know I can be good in. With this 15km classic and then a mass start 15km classic in Falun, it makes it easier to keep motivated. Also, racing in the Nordic nations to end the year is always awesome. Good, knowledgeable fans and nice venues. I love it.”
After struggling with “major lung/breathing issues” at the Olympics, Kershaw explained that he felt much better leading into Lahti. He spent a few days after the Olympics at home Norway with his wife Kristin Størmer Steira and their 13-month-old daughter, whom he hadn’t seen in two months.
“I had some tough days for sure with that mentally,” he wrote of his time away from family before and during the Games. “But when I got home and the first time I saw my daughter in 2 months she crawled right up to me with a big smile on her face and knelt there putting her arms in the air (for me to pick her up) – that was the highlight of my winter right there. It has been great to see them again.”
While he was pleased with what he called “a solid race” on Sunday, Kershaw added that he was also disappointed that he didn’t have anyone to ski with and finished within 10 seconds of the top 20.
“But – I skied a very consistent race,” he wrote. “My pace felt like I was moving at the same speed at km 2 as I was at km 14. That’s a nice feeling. And what you strive for if you are alone in an individual start. I was missing that last gear to attack the last lap, but I didn’t die either, and was able to keep my speed, so I am satisfied. When you pace a race like I did – even if it leaves you wanting more – it shows you did do a good job managing your speed alone for 15km. And that feels good.”
Kershaw’s best result so far this season was 19th in the 30 k skiathlon in Lillehammer, Norway. At the Olympics, he competed in three events with a best result of 26th in the 50 k.
“I was massively disappointed with the Olympics,” he continued. “… 25th isn’t anything stellar or fireworks worthy, but it’s in the points and close to a season’s best for me – which is still something I’m looking to accomplish,” Kershaw added.“I have some more chances, mainly in Falun, but I’ll drag my ass around Holmenkollen this coming weekend because I have such a big respect for the race. I hope I can continue to feel good body-wise and have good energy like I feel now. I hope my lungs can continue to slowly get better and if they are better in Falun then they are now then that won’t hurt!”
Also for Canada, Graeme Killick placed 39th (+2:22.9), Julien Locke was 69th (+4:56.6) and Andy Shields 70th (+5:42.1).
Leading the U.S. men was Erik Bjornsen in 32nd (+2:06.6). After clocking the 53rd-ranked split at 1.1 k, Bjornsen sped up throughout the race to come within about eight seconds of the top 30.
Noah Hoffman finished 40th (+2:24.0), Paddy Caldwell was 45th (+2:40.5), Scott Patterson 50th (+2:58.7), Kevin Bolger 54th (+3:09.5), and David Norris 57th (+3:23.5).
With three World Cup stops remaining, the circuit continues in Drammen, Norway, this Wednesday with city classic sprints followed by the Holmenkollen 30/50 k freestyle mass starts next weekend. World Cup Finals will take place the following weekend, March 16-18, in Falun, Sweden.