Liberec, Czech Republic – Petter Northug is on his way to cementing his position as one of the all time great Norwegian relay anchors, once again overcoming a deficit before powering it on in the finish to claim the men’s 4x10km relay gold over Germany.
Northug, at 23, already has anchored a number of impressive relay victories, and now has a World Champinship gold in the event. This was Norway’s fifth consecutive World Championship relay gold.
The race broke apart quickly, a rare occurance in these mass-start events. Usually a large lead pack stays together through the first leg. But by 8 kilometers the lead group was down to six teams, and one kilometer later, Canada and Germany were 10 seconds off the front. At the first handoff, the field was stretched out and a minute separated 1st and 7th.
Devon Kershaw (CAN) skied an impressive first leg, leading the break with Germany’s Jens Filbrich. The two had 13 seconds on third place Estonia, and Norway was a full 25 seconds back in 6th.
Over the next five kilometers, Finland and Estonia caught Germany, while Canada’s George Grey was unable to hold the pace. Veteran Odd-Bjorn Hjelmeset worked to bring Norway back into contact with the leaders.
At the halfway point, it was Germany and Finland tagging first, 14 seconds up on Estonia, and 22 up on Norway. Tore Ruud Hofstad skied the first skate leg for the Norwegians and took 8 seconds out of Franz Goering’s (GER) lead. Finland, with the relatively inexperienced Teemu Kattilakoski skiing slipped back to third 41 seconds out.
Northug took the tag 14.5 seconds behind Axel Teichmann. The young Norwegian did not wait to close the gap, and just two kilomters in, the two were skiing together. Northug let Teichmann lead, sitting behind the tall German, before making his move and cruising to victory in the home stretch.
“I closed the gap to Axel quite fast on the first two kilometers and then I tried to relax a bit,” said Northug. “I launched the attack before the finish on the uphill and saw that Axel could not follow we and I knew I would take the win. I am not dangerous- not dangerous at all, but I know that I have a strong finish.”
Teichmann was not happy to settle for silver. “I tried to go away during the race but I wasn’t able to do it. These conditions are not my favorite and I tried to change my way of skiing as my coaches suggest. But I couldn’t manage it on this wet snow. For sure, at this moment I am disappointed, but a bit later I will be happy to have a medal.”
The Norweigan classic skiers struggled a bit today, starting with scramble leg Eldar Roenning. “I skied very fast in the first two laps of my round but in the third one I was tired and my skis were not the best anymore. It is great to get a gold medal and I must say that Petter again did a great job for us.”
Added Hjelmeset, “I felt like Eldar, I was trying to close the gap. It was hard work as I was alone and also I felt very tired in my last lap. I have to say that I’m proud of our team and especially of Tore Ruud – he had an amazing race today. When he changed to Petter I said to Petter that you have now to go and take it – the gold medal.”
Finland maintained position in third, and continuing a strong showing at the World Championships. The Finnish men have been overshadowed by the women’s team in recent years, but with a bronze in the Team Sprint and another in today’s relay, they are enjoying success at a level unmatched since before the team was decimated by the 2001 doping scandal.
Said Matti Heikkinen ““This is really a great day for the Finnish Ski Team. It is the first relay medal after 2001 for the Finnish men. In today’s race, I tried to follow the leading group and not lose too much. I am happy about my second medal in this World Championships and will celebrate together with my team.”
Canada turned in a very impressive performance, finishing 5th, just behind Italy. The Italians did not ski well in the classic portion of the race – Roland Clara and Valerio Checchi combined to leave the team 1:22 down and in 10th place at the halfway point. But Pietero Piller Cottrer posted the fastest time on the third leg and brought the Italians back into the top 5. Meanwhile, Canadian Grey handed off to Ivan Babikov in 5th place. Babikov overtook Estonia, and with 10km to go, Canada was in 4th, under 40 seconds off the podium.
20-year old Alex Harvey took over, leading Italy’s Giorgio DiCenta and Sweden’s Mathias Fredriksson by 18 seconds. The rising Canadian star was unphased and held the lead for the first 5km. But the experienced DiCenta was closing, and by the 6.5km mark, had caught Harvey. Fredriksson, hoever, had not been able to stay with DiCenta, and remained well back in 6th. With one kilometer to go, Italy and Canada remained together, but DiCenta had more left at the end and was able to ski away by 9 seconds.
“That was by far the best result we’ve ever had. It takes four guys to ski well and we knew we could be competitive. Personally I have had a hard World Championships and it just feels so great to crank it open,” said the 26-year-old Kershaw
This is the first time that the Canadian men have ever cracked the top 10 in a World Championship relay.
“That was an absolutely bullet-proof performance,” said Dave Wood, team leader, National Ski Team. “We had super good legs today and were in the fight for fourth until the final kilometer. That really was an incredible day for us.”.
The US, led by Kris Freeman, started very well. Freeman, in his last race before season-ending surgery continues to demonstrate that he is in top form. Freeman skied the 4th fastest leg, coming in 16.8 seconds off the pace, and ahead of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia among others. He tagged to Chris Cook who battled to maintain position. Halfway through his leg, Cook still had the US in sixth, but continued slipping back and was 9th at the next tag. At this point the US was still mixing it up with several teams, and held a sizable gap on Russia and the Czech Republic. James Southam took over for the first skate leg. He was no match for Russian Alexander Legkov, who skied the 4th fastest leg time, but kept the US within striking distance of the top 10. Andy Newell took over for the anchor in 11th. Newell has not completted a World Cup distance race since the early season. It showed, and while there was no lack of effort, he lost between 10 and 20 seconds per kilometer to the leaders, and the US team slid into last place.
Australia and Great Britain were lapped and had to withdraw.
– Emmanuel Jonnier (FRA) skied the fastest anchor leg of the day ,moving up from 12th to 9th.
– The home Czech team did not fare well, finishing 12th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.