Sunday’s World Cup 15-kilometer classic in Planica, Slovenia was a coupling of efficiency, power transfer and patience. Three laps of the course on which skiers climbed roughly 650 feet per 5 k cycle required the low-revving thump-thump-thump of a diesel engine and just the right timing for speed bursts to close time gaps.
Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin covered the 15 k distance in 36:45.7 and won the race by 13.2 seconds over overall World Cup leader, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden, who did not finish Saturday’s classic sprint after crashing into netting in his quarterfinal, placed third (+42.8) for his second World Cup podium of the season. Emil Iversen of Norway missed out on his second podium of the weekend (he had placed second to Klæbo in the classic sprint) striding to fourth place (+54.7) on Sunday.
This season Klæbo has barnstormed — he’s podiumed in every race entered with the exception of a 10th place in a 15 k skate in Toblach, Italy. He’s won the most World Cup distance races of any skier with three this season. The Klæbo buzz is worthy and justified.
Yet Sunday marked a historic moment for Poltoranin. He tied the longtime mark at seven wins in the 15 k classic held by Swedish legend Gunde Svan. Klæbo may be center stage, but Poltoranin is no simple supporting actor. Revered as a classic specialist, but proving his all-around capacity by placing fourth in this year’s Tour de Ski (TdS), Poltoranin is not one dimensional.
As he kicked and strided on Sunday, Poltoranin made clear why he holds the record (15) for 15 k podiums. His tall and muscular frame epitomize clean classic strides that belie the amount of wattage produced.
Poltoranin was never first through any of the time splits until the finish line. Through 3.9 k, 6.9 k, 8.9 k, and 11.9 k, it was Klæbo with the fastest times. Klæbo began in bib 42, Poltoranin began a minute back as the 44th starter. With the knowledge of Klæbo’s splits, however, Poltoranin could wait until the final lap to punch the speed.
At 3.9 k, Poltoranin was 5.5 seconds back with the second-fastest split. By 11.9 k, he was right on par with Klæbo, as 0.3 seconds separated the two skiers. In the next three k, the 30-year-old Poltoranin was able to gain 13.5 seconds on Norway’s 21-year-old for the win.
Flexing his bicep for the cameras in the leader’s chair, Poltoranin showed, for now, who’s the 15 k classic boss.
“I am really happy to win,” Poltoranin said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “This is a good course for me and I had very good skis and want to say thank you to my service team.”
Klæbo, a press-conference regular this season, paid respects to Poltoranin with his comments.
“It was a very hard course,” Klæbo said, according to the release. “I had great skis on the downhills, but was a bit light for kick on the climbs. Polto was so fast from 12 k and I couldn’t match his pace.”
After Sunday’s race, Klæbo leads the World Cup overall with 1012 points, while teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who did not contest the weekend’s races, sits in second with 875 points.
Scott Patterson (U.S. Ski Team) was the top North American in 43rd (+2:56.2). In his first race back in Europe since racing at U.S. nationals in Anchorage, Alaska, where he won the 15 k freestyle, Patterson told FasterSkier in Planica that he was recovering from a post-national bout with bronchitis.
“This was kind of building back and see what I could do,” Patterson said. “Didn’t feel great out there, it was a race to build a little experience.”
Patterson also commented on the nature of the Planica course’s long hills which kicked up gradually.
“It was a deceptively hard course,” Patterson said. “You never felt like you were going that hard, but it just wore you down over time. You almost want to double pole them, but not really.”
Patterson said he plans to race in next Sunday’s 15 k freestyle mass start, the last World Cup race before the Olympics, in Seefeld, Austria.
Ben Lustgarten (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) was the next best American finishing 46th (+3:04.9). Lustgarten earned World Cup starts as the Period 1 SuperTour leader.
After Sunday’s race, Lustgarten recalled focusing on relaxed skiing and maximizing his effort.
“We all know the hills are long,” he told FasterSkier. “It was a good race. I didn’t feel amazing, to be honest, but I felt like I pushed as hard as I could. And I really worked the technique. I might have lost some time on the transitions and cresting hills because I was so dead. … But I don’t think I could have gone any harder because my whole body was maxed out on the top of the climbs.”
Also on the American side, Tyler Kornfield (Alaska Pacific University) was 57th (+4:03.7). Andy Newell did not finish.
“For sure not our best weekend,” U.S. Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier in Planica. “That said, classic weekends are usually our best. But at the same time, I thought some of our skiers looked a little bit flat — probably to be expected, we have some athletes obviously who just got here, some who came out of U.S. nationals, some who are just coming back to skiing after the Tour de Ski. And some of those athletes that are coming from the Tour de Ski are feeling good, like one-hundred percent back, others are ninety percent back, and are not quite there I think. … Also, a few that are getting over some illnesses, and we also have some that are kind of in the middle of a training block to get ready for the Olympics — kind of a mixed bag.”
But Grover also noted that in the end, the weekend proved positive.
“A couple of great performances,” Grover added. “Jessie’s fourth yesterday, that is her best classic sprint result of all time. Really cool to see her making that progress. I thought it was a great race yesterday out of Logan Hanneman to be that close to qualification, he just got over here this week from the U.S. Similarly, a really nice qualification out of Tyler Kornfield yesterday. Same deal. Just got over here. Those were some silver linings for sure.”
Canada’s Devon Kershaw returned to the circuit and placed 44th (+2:57.1), Bob Thompson (NTDC Thunder Bay) was 64th (+5:05.0), and Dominique Moncion-Groulx (Alberta World Cup Academy) was 70th (+6:11.7).
Racing continues next weekend with a freestyle sprint and 10/15 k freestyle mass start.
— Gabby Naranja contributed