LAHTI, Finland — There were three medals up for grabs during Friday’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay at 2017 Nordic World Championships on Friday. Yet after the scramble leg, two distinct races: Norway and Russia’s dance for gold, and what eventually became a four-way tango between Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany for bronze and silver.
Russia’s Andrey Larkov and Norway’s Didrik Tønseth first strung out and then smoked the field late in their leg. By the tag to their second-leg skiers, Norway and Russia were twenty seconds up.
That margin grew to thirty seconds, as Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh and Niklas Dyrhaug finished Leg 2 and the transition to skating began.
Coming in just a half a minute later in third place, was Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, giving the fans a premature taste of the podium.
Racing the third leg was Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby. Russia tried to match the Norway’s trump card with Alexey Chervotkin. The 21-year-old Chervotkin skied the third leg for Russia in both team relays that took place this season: the first in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, the other in La Clusaz, France, where the team placed second both times to Norway.
However, the World Championship leg was the first time Chervotkin matched up against Sundby this year.
Late in the leg, it was unclear what Sundby’s strategy would be as the young Russian shadowed the 32-year-old Sundby move for move. With Sergey Ustiugov up for the Russians in the anchor leg against Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh, many armchair-relay strategists would have thought the Norwegian’s line up ploy was a dud.
Not until 1.2 kilometers left in the leg did Sundby make a sufficient gap. At that point, the time spread from silver to gold was only eleven seconds. Not exactly a huge buffer for Krogh.
By Sundby’s tag to the anchor skier, he had gifted Krogh a 17.7-second margin for error. The rhetorical question at the start of the fourth leg: when will Ustiugov catch Krogh?
“He’s the worst the worst guy you can have in back of you,” Krogh said during a press conference, referring to Ustiugov. “He made the race tough for me.”
At 1.3 k into that fourth leg, Ustiugov was 8.8 seconds back. In another 1.2 kilometers, it ballooned again to 11.6 seconds, and then it contracted again to 5 seconds with 3.8 k to go. But until the finishing stretch, when Krogh rounded the final turn with a 100-meter lead on the Russian, was Norway a sure win.
Krogh crossed first in a time of 1:37:20.1 hours for the ninth-consecutive Norwegian championship 4 x 10 k relay gold. Finishing 4.6 seconds later in second place was Russia’s Ustiugov.
“It’s not just for us, it’s the whole team,” Sundby said during a press conference of their ninth world-champs relay gold. “It’s for the waxers, it’s for the trainers. When you go the relay for the Norwegian team, you feel you’re going for your country. So it’s a massive victory for us.”
What kept the capacity crowd engaged was not so much the battle for gold and silver, but the fate of the on-again, off-again Finns.
Let’s back up to when Niskanen tagged off to Finnish skier Lari Lehtonen for the first freestyle leg. At that point, the Finns were in third, a solid 15 seconds ahead of France in fourth place, 32 seconds ahead of Switzerland in fifth, roughly 55 seconds ahead of Germany in sixth, and almost a minute ahead of Sweden in seventh.
“We are individual athletes, and you have to focus on your own leg,” Sweden’s Johan Olsson said after the race. “Both me and Daniel [Rickardsson] thought the medal chance was over when we had done two legs.”
The first sign that something was awry for the Finns was a restless home crowd. What may have been perceived as a plush-time cushion for Lehtonen was in fact cardboard thin.
Sweden’s Marcus Hellner and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna were on the hunt. Seemingly an afterthought, Hellner skied the fastest third leg, animating the race for bronze by pulling Sweden back into contention.
These four teams — Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden — stuck together through the exchange into the fourth leg until the last headwall climb, called Indian Hill.
It was then that Finland’s Matti Heikkinen hop-stepped around Germany and Switzerland, bringing Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson with him.
“I know that Matti will go on the last uphill and it was good game for me to go after him,” Halfvarsson said during the press conference.
The two appeared to have dropped Switzerland’s Curdin Perl, until Perl miraculously slotted behind the Finn-Swede duo. Finland entered the final 100-meter stretch in a sprint for bronze.
One errant pole plant as Heikkinen ramped up his gear, causing him to fall to the ground was Finland’s loss and Sweden’s gain. Halfvarsson crossed third for Sweden (+2:31.8) and Perl fourth for Switzerland (+2:32), and Finland ultimately crossed fifth (+2:42.4).
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The U.S. fielded a team comprised of Kyle Bratrud, Erik Bjornsen, Tad Elliott, and Simi Hamilton. Bratrud scrambled the first classic leg for the Americans, handing off to Bjornsen in 11th, 1:28.2 minutes behind the leader.
“I was definitely more nervous for this one because I was starting,” Bratrud said afterward.
While this is the second World Championships for Bratrud, a 24-year-old member of the Central Cross Country (CXC) Team, Friday was the first time he raced the scramble leg in a relay — he raced the third leg for the U.S. in the 2015 world champs 4 x 10 k relay in Falun, Sweden. Though he eventually lost contact with the front group, Bratrud was happy he was able to hold on for as long as he did, even if it caused him a yellow card for a technique violation.
“It was nice to at least see the front before they really picked up the pace,” Bratrud said.
“Props to Kyle on the yellow card,” Elliott wrote in an email. “Scrappy out there.”
While Bratrud had company for approximately one lap, Bjornsen raced completely alone.
“It’s not the position you necessarily want to be in, but took it for what it was worth and tried to charge up to the group in front of me, which was [the Czech Republic’s Lukas] Bauer and [Germany’s Jonas Dobler],” Bjornsen said.
“But I mean…they were moving fast,” the 25-year-old U.S. Ski Team member added. “I tried to mentally just keep pushing, but it’s tough to be out there by yourself. I felt pretty good, it’s just a different type of race.”
Bjornsen tagged to Elliott, for the Americans’ first freestyle leg. He skied the eighth-fastest third leg, 1:47 behind Hellner.
“I was also getting great splits from the coaches on making ground on the group in front of me,” Elliott wrote.”I wanted to catch them, I just didn’t really get there for Simi to save it all for his sprint. Simi skied one hell of a leg.”
Elliott handed off to Hamilton, the anchor leg for the U.S.
“By the time he tagged off to me, I think I was 10 or 15 seconds from [the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan and Italian teams],” Hamilton recalled. “They fortunately started pretty conservatively, which was nice for me.”
Those three teams were in fact 16 seconds ahead of Hamilton. He eventually closed that distance, putting the U.S. in contention for a top 10.
“I wanted to start fast and see if I could make up some time on them,” Hamilton siad. “And I did, I ended up catching them by the top of the climb after the tunnel. So I was psyched about that.”
However, when Hamilton came through for his fourth and final lap, the hill-laden course had taken a toll on his legs. He finished in 10th (+5:31.3), just half a second ahead of the Czech Republic’s Petr Knop in 11th (+5:31.8).
“That last lap my legs were definitely feeling it a little bit and those guys are all really good climbers,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t quite make the moves that I wanted to in the last kilometer because I was a little whupped by then … but I was still able to pick off Czech Republic at the finish. Maybe not the best day for us, but still a day that we were fighting.”
Canada’s team of Graeme Killick, Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Lenny Valjas finished 12th, after being lapped and thus pulled from the race on Valjas’s final leg.
In January of this year, Canada raced to a historic third place at the Ulricehamn World Cup relay in Sweden.
“It just wasn’t our day,” said a dignified Valjas after Friday’s relay. “We’re all in shape, it’s just none of us were on our A-game today and that’s what it takes to be fighting in this.”
— Harald Zimmer and Chelsea Little contributed