OSLO, Norway — Here’s something dizzying: six times around an 8.3-kilometer course with a total vertical gain of just over two thousand meters. In non-metric terms, all 47 finishers on Saturday’s Holmenkollen 50 k classic race accumulated roughly 6,574 feet of climbing.
On the sharp end of the race for most of those kilometers were Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Finland’s Iivo Niskanen. They were the animators for the hordes of Norwegians lining the course — in some places four deep.
Around 16 k, the lead group was seven strong with a host of skiers dangling just off the back. Up front there were the alphas — Niskanen and Sundby — and a heavy hitter gang including Norway’s Sjur Røthe, Niklas Dyrhaug, Hans Christer Holund, Sweden’s Jens Burman, and the defending 50 k world champ, Canada’s Alex Harvey.
This went down on a day when the views from Holmenkollen were almost limitless, Oslo Fjord shimmered and the storied venue’s atmosphere was buoyant. The air temps were an above-freezing blend of hello-spring and we’re-not-sure-we-want-you-gone winter. In other words: perfect.
It was also a day to see if risk could play out with good fortune. What could go wrong with such a backdrop?
Niskanen left Lahti World Championships with two medals: a gold in the 15 k individual classic and a bronze in the classic team sprint, both of which were confidence boosters. With speedy skis and his kick not waning, he rolled the dice passing through the stadium after two 8.3 k laps. No ski change.
The six skiers behind opted for fresh skis. With new fluoros and fresh kick, they also found themselves in Niskanen’s wake as he made a break while the others exchanged.
“When Niskanen didn’t change at the second lap, it made Sundby chase really hard to close the gap to him,” Harvey told FasterSkier after the race. “Then that kind of blew the pack apart.”
Niskanen threw down in Sundby’s castle. For a bit, it looked like the challenge might stick. At 18.8 k, Sundby was down 15.4 seconds.
When Niskanen made his break, the gap back to Sundby was really a static line when it came to Niskanen building a lead. By 22.5 k, Sundby latched back on. The reward for Niskanen’s no-ski-switch gamble was that it became a two-skier race for 2017 Holmenkollen 50 k title.
Late in the race at 47.5 k when Sundby made a break and built a six-second lead, the gap to Niskanen was still tenuous as the waning kilometers clicked off. But Sundby’s surge was enough for the win. First is first whether by one second or a minute.
After 50 k, all that climbing, all the Norwegian-flag waving, and all the Carlsberg beer consumed by fans along the course, 9.9 seconds separated the winner Sundby from runner-up Niskanen. Sunday skied the 50 k in 2:02:59.7.
With the win, Sundby locked some things up: he secured both the Overall World Cup and Distance World Cup crystal globes. This season’s overall win makes it Sundby’s third of his career (not counting the his overall World Cup win in 2014/2015, which he was stripped of because of a doping violation concerning his use of asthma medication).
“It was a tough pace right from the beginning today,” Sundby told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after the race. “When Iivo broke away and I was able to get back to him, we worked well together and I actually convinced him to change skis with me on the fourth lap. He was going to change on third lap but I told him I would lead and we could get away together. He’s the 15 k world champ in classic and it was a tough fight with him.”
For Niskanen, Saturday’s second place was his best World Cup 50 k result and marked his best Holmenkollen 50 k classic. In 2014, he placed fourth and was 12th in 2016.
“After the fourth lap we both switched skis and it meant that I had fresh skis to battle with Martin,” Niskanen told FIS. “He was really strong today. I didn’t have any chance in the last uphill. He was running like Mo Farah. I’m happy with second but my goal was for the victory. You have to have a good race to be on the podium and I think I made a good race today but Martin was better. “
The podium’s third step wasn’t decided until after five skiers lunged at the line. Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh won the photo finish for third (+1:15.2) ahead of Røthe in fourth, (+1:15.2) and Dyrhaug in fifth (+1:15.2).
Also part of that multi-skier lunge was Harvey, just 0.2 seconds back in sixth (+1:15.4).
Asked about the Niskanen-Sundby breakaway and how that unfolded in the chase pack, Harvey lumped praise onto others.
“After that we tried to chase, but it wasn’t me doing the chase, it was mostly Hans Christer Holund,” Harvey said. “He was really strong today, probably the strongest of us all … But then after that the gap was too big, it was just a matter of not letting the guys behind us catch up and get ready for the final sprint.”
Harvey has contested the Holmenkollen 50 k classic on three other occasions. His best result prior to Saturday was 13th. “It was one of my best races here ever, so that was a great day,” he said.
Next up for Harvey is a trip back home to Quebec for World Cup Finals. He’ll land in Canada ranked third in the World Cup overall with 844 points. Finland’s Matti Heikkinen sits fourth with 837 points.
The next best North American was U.S. skier Scott Patterson (Alaska Pacific University). Patterson placed 28th (+7:18.8). Most recently, Patterson scored World Cup points after placing ninth in the 30 k skiathlon in PyeongChang, Korea.
Saturday was more of a final exam; the Holmenkollen 50 k remains a big test. (Many big names were present in Oslo that had skipped the pre-Olympic World Cup in PyeongChang.)
It was Patterson’s second-ever World Cup 50 k after racing at Holmenkollen last year, where he placed 32nd in another 50 k classic.
“It was pretty good, it could have been better,” Patterson said of his top 30 this year. “I had a little crash on the sixth lap that was frustrated because I lost a little group. Then also, one time when I went through an exchange, most of my group didn’t so I kind of lost that little, there was a group not too far in front of me that I really wanted on, but couldn’t quite get up there.”
Patterson explained this was a bottom-line race: he’s here to score World Cup points.
“I was kind of sitting in 27th for a while and at that point, [U.S. coach] Matt [Whitcomb] and some others kept giving me splits and it was, like, 45 second up to the top 20,” Patterson added. “And at that point, I was aiming for that instead. But I’m pretty happy with some points, it’s the first time I’ve scored points in Europe, so I’m psyched.”
Whitcomb had praise for all four U.S. skiers entered in the race: David Norris (APU) placed 35th (+9:56.4), Noah Hoffmann (USST) 38th (+11:02.6), and Ben Lustgarten (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) 46th (+18:44.7).
“It was definitely a day that we were happy with as a staff,” Whitcomb said on the phone. “It was inspiring to see four starters and four finishers in the Holmenkollen. It’s just an accomplishment of itself, to start the thing and finish it. … Of particular note was Scott Patterson’s race. He’s been in the points before, most recently in Korea, but this was really his first big time landing in the points, he came from the 30’s and worked his way into the 20’s early in the race. It was a nice step up from his 32nd last year.”
Of note, it was Norris’s first European World Cup; he skied two World Cups in Canada back in 2012.
“This was my first World Cup in Europe, and I don’t know if it’s ignorant or not, but I want to try for top 30, get points, and come back here,” Norris said when asked about his goals coming into the race. “To have a shot on the US Ski Team, you have to be able to show that you can top 30 on a given day, and that’s my goal, to be on that team, so I’m setting my goals high, to top 30 in everything I can.”
Also for Canada, World Cup Team member Devon Kershaw placed 33rd (+8:59.4), and Russell Kennedy (Canmore Nordic/Team R.A.D.) was 47th (+20:16).
— Jake Ellis and Gabby Naranja contributed