Note: This article has been updated to include comments from U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman and APU skier Eric Packer.
When exactly was the race’s defining moment on Sunday during the final mini-tour stage, a 15 k classic pursuit in Lillehammer, Norway?
It wasn’t at the start when tour leader, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson, cruised out with a 28-second head start on the next released skier, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov.
It wasn’t the time check at 2.2 k, despite a growing chase group rife with Norwegian colors. At that point, Halfvarsson strided powerfully with a sizable 49-second lead on the likes of Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
Here’s the moment.
Around 8.3 k heading up the course’s longest climb, Halfvarrson’s skis slipped. On cue, Halfvarrson glanced behind as if the catch to come couldn’t be over too soon.
It was like a band of released hounds chasing down the maimed fox. The time back to the chasers had shrunk to 22 seconds.
The group of salivating oncomers included Sundby and teammates Finn Hågen Krogh, Emil Iversen, and Pål Golberg, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, Simen Hegstad Krüger, and Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, and Canada’s Alex Harvey.
From then on the Swede seemed to ski in fear.
The catch came four kilometers later. Then Sundby tried make the race his own. He had an eight-second lead with a little less than two kilometers to go. But this is not a dominate Sundby. His skiing is somewhat more subdued. His attack less of a kill shot and more of an alpha’s warning that he’s still there.
Sundby hung on for the stage and overall Lillehammer mini tour win sharing the podium with 20-year-old, second-place finisher Klæbo (+2.3), and fastest time of the day skier Heikkinen (+2.7) in third.
“It was an interesting race,” Sundby said during the post-race press conference. “Calle set quite a good pace from the beginning. It looked like he had full control of the race. Suddenly after five or six k, he struggled with the kick, and we really had a chance to catch up with him. I tried to make my move when we left the stadium for the last time. I tried to keep the pace high all the way up on the longest hill. Luckily I gained some meters and won in the end.”
Leaving Lillehammer, Sundby finds himself in a familiar color: he’s wearing yellow as the overall World Cup leader. Halfvarsson is 34 points back in second, Klæbo is third overall, 46 points back.
Harvey Hunting in Front and Kershaw Moving into the Points
Coming into the third and final day of racing in Lillehammer, Canada’s Harvey sat in eighth place, 51 seconds back from Halfvarsson and one second behind Sundby, the seventh starter in the pursuit. Strategically speaking, Harvey had his Norwegian rabbit. The only question was could he hang on?
Affirmative. No matter where you checked for race stats, live in Lillehammer, an Internet stream, or live FIS timing, you’d see Harvey’s name and the maple leaf. Up until 12.2 k, Harvey stuck to the chase group like a limpet.
“I think I had the fastest skis in the group,” Harvey told FasterSkier’s reporter in Lillehammer. “But I went too limited on the kick … on the hills I was drifting because I couldn’t really go … but it’s my mistake because our skis were really, I think we had the best skis in the field today. But I took a pair that was a little too aggressive I think.”
As the finished neared, Harvey eventually lost 16 seconds to the Sundby pack, ultimately placing ninth overall in the mini tour. Harvey added that he’s feeling confident after the three-stage Lillehammer mini tour. “I mean three races, three tops 10’s. I think the fitness is really steady and everything, the support team, the equipment has been really steady.”
For some perspective on Harvey’s enthusiasm, here’s some context: after last year’s opening three-day Ruka mini tour, Sundby won the overall by 44 seconds. The next 2015/2016 weekend in Lillehammer, a 30 k skiathlon, Sundby again soloed to a 44-second win. During Weekend 3, in the 30 k freestyle in Davos, Switzerland, it was Sundby in first by 20 seconds.
2016/2017 on the World Cup has begun with diminished margins for Sundby. A win is still a win. But for skiers like Harvey, Sundby is more human.
“It gives us confidence I think,” Harvey said of the more-level World Cup playing field. “This year there’s nobody you know that’s invincible as compared to the last couple of years, so that’s motivating for everybody.”
Harvey’s next stop is an all skate weekend in higher altitude Davos with a 30 k and sprint lined up. “Now we have to rest,” Harvey said of his week ahead. “Three races in three days is hard on everybody, and with a travel day coming up, we are going to have to recover from that. And then coming up in altitude, you got to really monitor your body well and re-test your equipment because that’s a new type of snow in central Europe. There is a bit more humidity in the snow and it’s a bit different … now it’s race-race, recover-recover, race-race, recover-recover until pretty much until the end of the season.”
Harvey, who skied the sixth-fastest time on the day, leaves Lillehammer ranked 10th overall on the World Cup.
The next best Canadian finisher was his fellow World Cup Team member Devon Kershaw who started 43rd, 2:01 behind Halfvarsson. Fifteen k later, Kershaw had moved up to finish 27th (+2:08.5) after skiing the 23rd-fastest time on the day.
“The last stage was the one brighter spot of the mini tour,” Kershaw said over the phone. “The sprint didn’t go that great then the 10 k didn’t go that great either.”
On Friday, Kershaw placed 42nd in the sprint. He was 40th on Saturday’s 10 k skate. “But I have been feeling good since the start of the season,“ Kershaw added. “I am just missing that fifth gear, but the legs and body are working well. I just can’t get into that last gear that you need on the World Cup to really compete at the top top.”
Despite lacking that fifth gear, on Sunday Kershaw was set up with plenty of opportunities to pick off skiers.
“Today was fun to move through the pack a bit and it’s too bad I couldn’t quite get to that next group in front of me,” Kershaw said of his attempt to close the gap to a group of skiers fifteen seconds in front. “I tried with everything I could to get on that group, but I just wasn’t strong enough today to make that last jump and that would have made it a lot easier, to have some skis to follow instead of of just plowing along at the sharp end of my group. But I cannot complain, I started the day 43rd and finished 27th. I did as good of damage that I could in 15 k. It was a step in the right direction for sure.”
Kershaw, is now an Oslo resident as he’s married to former Norwegian star Kristin Størmer Steira. Kershaw said Steira’s father, mother, and sister all reside in Lillehammer and constituted a small-but-vocal Lillehammer fan club. Kershaw’s father-in-law served as assistant chief of competition during the mini tour. On Sunday, Kershaw’s wife, sister, mother-in-law, and even the family dog (who Kershaw stated was well trained and didn’t bark) were all trailside to see the Canadian veteran move into the World Cup points.
The remaining Canadian finishers were Len Valjas (World Cup A-Team) in 46th (+3:44), Graeme Killick (World Cup B Team) 51st (+3:53.9), Knute Johnsgaard (U25 Team) 70th (+6:20.3), Bob Thompson (NTDC Thunder Bay) 79th (+8:16.3), and Andy Shields (NTDC Thunder Bay) 81st (+9:57.3)
For the Americans, U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Noah Hoffman continued to show improving form on Sunday.
Stage 3’s pursuit found Hoffman starting in bib 48, 2:08 back. Hoffman finished Sunday’s pursuit 36th after skiing the 29th-fastest time on the day (+1:30.2).
“After last week’s disappointment I was really just looking to have a solid race where I skied within myself, with energy, with relaxed muscles, clean muscle environment and just tried to demonstrate my fitness a little bit,” Hoffman said on the phone Sunday night. “Both days I tried to do that and I think I was pretty successful both days. Certainly none of the results this weekend were something to highlight my season … I’m obviously looking for more, but a big step in the right direction from last week and that’s really much all I can ask at this point.”
During the offseason, Hoffman implemented a training plan with a large percent increase in training hours.
“He skied well and I think he is still coming out a little bit from underneath the load of all the training he has done,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “But the last couple starts he really feels like he is going in the right direction.”
Erik Bjornsen (USST) began the day in bib 44 and dropped to 57th (+4:33.3)
“Unfortunately for Erik, he had good skis, but he chose to go a little too thin on the wax I think,” Grover said of Bjornsen’s day. “He was too slick, so he started out really well. But with the massive climbs out there he just fatigued in a hurry and started going backwards after a bit … Erik is definitely disappointed because he wanted to ski well today. He had been looking at targeting this race and has been looking at it for a long time. He was pretty bummed out.”
Simi Hamilton did not start and the remaining U.S. skier in the mini tour, Eric Packer (APU), placed 68th (+5:45.1).
Despite his 68th place on Sunday, Packer, who emailed from Oslo before boarding a plane to Zurich, Switzerland, remains a sponge when it comes to the World Cup. “It’s been an awesome experience racing over here for period 1,” Packer explained. “The level of the competition is definitely high, and it’s been an adjustment getting used to racing WC vs Supertour, but I’m definitely learning a bunch and finding things to work on.”
Although energized coming into the fall training season, Packer fell ill for the first three weeks of November. The Anchorage based skier took a full twenty days off from intensity training before traveling to Europe for period 1. “On the plus side, I think the illness allowed me to get some really quality rest, and my energy levels are great,” Packer added. “I can feel my form improving with each race, and am looking forward to the racing ahead.”
84 skiers completed the mini tour. Packer started day 3’s 15 classic pursuit in bib 75, and placed 68th overall. Yet he skied the 58th fastest time on the day (+3:23.1). Only two places back from Ustiugov’s ski time, who began the race as the second starter. “The 15k Classic Pursuit in the Lillehammer mini tour went well for me, and was a big step in the right direction,” Packer wrote about the mini tour’s last stage. “I had a tough starting spot, toward the back of the field, but was able to bridge up to a good group and pick off some spots. I finally felt like my body was working like it should, and ended up 58th for time on day. Obviously I still want better, but for period 1 racing, and for distance, I was happy with the result.”
World Cup racing resumes Saturday, Dec. 10, with a skiathlon in Davos, Switzerland.
— Aleks Tangen and Ian Tovell contributed reporting