Kusaamo, Finland – Petter Northug (NOR) staged an impressive come-from-behind victory, in the men’s 15km classic World Cup race in Finland. This was Northug’s first World Cup win in a classic distance race.
Northug sat out yesterday’s sprint as he recovered from a stomach ailment, and his participation today was questionable for much of the week.
The Norwegian star started slowly, sitting in 41st place, 16 seconds off the pace. Meanwhile, the Russian team set a blistering pace, holding the top three spots, and 4 of the top 5 three kilometers in. Maxim Vylegzhanin took over the lead from teammate Alexander Legkov at 5km, and the two kept a stranglehold on the top spots for the majority of the race.
Northug moved up throughout the race, and by 10km he was 3rd, 7.3 seconds down. He actually slipped back over the next kilometer, to 12.2 seconds down. With less than two kilometers to go, Northug was still 8.3 seconds down on Vylegzhanin, but he found an extra gear, overtook the Russians, and won by 1.2 seconds.
Northug’s previous best in the 15km classic was a 7th in 2007. His top distance classic finish was a 5th in the 50km last spring in the Trondheim 50km.
Given this history, Northug expressed surprise at his win, saying, “I can still not believe it, it is amazing. I heard at kilometer 10 that I am 11 seconds behind and then, I came closer and closer – 8 – 6 – 4 seconds behind. I gave absolutely everything I had.”
Vylegzhanin claimed the first podium result of his career. He just missed in Trondheim last year when Alex Harvey (CAN) outsprinted him for 3rd.
Vasillia Rotchev (RUS) who joined Vylegzhanin and Legkov at the top of the standings early in the race, could not maintain the pace, and slipped to 12th. Russia still had an excellent race, with Serguei Novikov finishing 6th.
Norway had a strong day overall with four in the top 10. Joining Northug were Martin Sundby Johnsrud in 5th, Jens Arne Svartedal in 8th, and Roger Aa Djupvik in 10th.
Kris Freeman (USA) skied a similar race to Northug, charging hard over the final 5km to finish a World Cup career-best 4th, just 2.2 seconds off the podium.
“I did ski what I thought was my best race ever today. I’m a little pissed off that I didn’t make the podium, but whenever you ski your best race, it is a good feeling,” Freeman said. “Overall it was really what I had hoped to do today, except that I would have liked to have been 10 seconds faster and have won.”
Freeman’s fourth was the best non-sprint U.S. World Cup finish since Tim Caldwell was second in a 15k in Anchorage in March, 1983. Freeman was also fourth twice in this same event at World Championships in 2003 and 2009.
“He finished really strong, which has been a huge focus for us to have them finish the last 5K strong,” USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg said. “Regardless of his place, just the fact that he finished so strong, I would have been really happy with it.”
For Freeman, pacing himself on course is an important strategy in his pursuit of World Cup and Olympic success this season.
“I paced it really well. I was 32nd by the 5K and moved up to 12th by the 10K. I just picked people off over the last 5K,” Freeman said. “I practiced this type of pacing all summer long. This is exactly what I have been working on doing.”
Freeman was not the only American to ski well. Andy Newell, on track to shed the sprint-specialist label, finished 48th. While the result may not seem impressive, Newell was only 1:24 off the winning pace, good for a 32 point race. He has only one other distance World Cup points race under his belt – a 119 point effort. His top FIS distance race came in the US in 2003 – good for 57 points. So today was a major step forward.
Torin Koos was not far behind his teammate. Also primarily a sprinter on the World Cup circuit, Koos was 57th, 18 seconds in back of Newell, good for 38 points.
The Canadians did not fare as well as their neighbors to the south. Ivan Babikov capped a challenging weekend for the team, finishing 38th.
Devon Kershaw, 55th, tweeted “Worst. Weekend. Ever,” but followed up with “But like a rock classic once belted out, ‘it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.’ Our team will be back. 74 days to go.”
The last week has been one of upheaval for the Canadians. They experienced travel issues getting to Finland, and then World Cup coach Inge Braten broke his hip, likely ending his tenure heading the team. Team Leader Dave Wood was then delayed getting to Europe to replace Braten.
George Grey was 52nd, Alex Harvey 62nd, and Graham Nishikawa 66th in the 94-man field.
Kershaw looked slow and tired in television footage, lacking the snap that has made him a threat in any distance and discipline in recent years.
“Our skis were fine and we had good equipment, it was just a really tough week for us as a team,” said Wood,
Racing will continue next week in Düsseldorf with a an individual and team sprint. It is likely that some racers will skip this weekend and prepare for following week in Davos, Switzerland.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.