Prague, Czech Republic – Emil Joensson (SWE) bounced back from a crash in yesterday’s sprint that may have cost him the victory, to win the skate city sprint in downtown Prague.
The 1.2 km freestyle sprint marked the 4th race in 4 days for the Tour de Ski, and the flatter, faster course clearly favored the sprinters. Petter Northug (NOR) and Axel Teichmann (GER), first and second in the overall entering the day, did not qualify for the heats.
Soft snow made for challenging conditions, and the tight twisty course added an extra element of luck to the race. There were few opportunities to pass, and little in the way of terrain. But despite the sloppy conditions, racing was fast and furious.
Joensson was clearly on a mission from the get-go. He won qualifying for the second day in a row, this time by the smallest of margins – just .01 seconds ahead of Martin Koukal (CZE). Andy Newell (USA) and Devon Kershaw (CAN) both had excellent qualification rounds, placing 6th and 8th respectively.
Joensson took no chances in the heats, winning his quarterfinal and semifinal en route to the final.
Newell also won his quarterfinal and advanced out of the semis to the final. Kershaw was not able to match that performance, and was elminated in the quarterfinals when he broke a pole early in the heat.
“I am super frustrated and angry after qualifying so well,” said Kershaw. “I was feeling really good today in my qualifying and had bad luck breaking a pole. I have to put it behind me and get ready for the next race here.”
In the final, Joensson led early, setting a blistering pace. Dusan Kozisek (CZE) thrilled the hometown crowd by taking the lead midway through. But Joenson moved back in front and skied away on the gradual climb to the finish. The race ended up quite spread out, especially when considering the flat course. Marcus Hellner (SWE) crossed in 2nd, 1.4 seconds behind his teammate. Simen Oestensen (NOR) was 3rd, a full three seconds in back of Joensson. He also took a measure of revenge after crashing in the semi-finals in yesterday’s classic sprint.
“It was a great day for Sweden as we took two podium places,” said Joensson. “I like this sprint very much – the atmosphere was great and I couldn’t hear my coach because of the cheering crowd.”
Oestensen needed today’s result after a string of crashes – two in Saturday’s 15km classic, and then the race-ending fall yesterday.
“Simen is a great skier,” said Norwegian National team coach Morten Aa Djupvik. “He has tremendous capacity for all distances and in both styles. But the crashes have held him back. If he keeps himself on his feet, he has great potential.”
The soft snow provided a significant challenge. Said Joensson “It was difficult to go fast under the today’s soft conditions but at the end of the day I am happy and proved to myself that I can win in the deep snow.”
Newell spent most of the final at the back. He made several attempts to move up, but after four races in four days, he didn’t have enough left in the tank.
“To make it to the final and get wiped out was hard,” Newell said. “The conditions made it tough. It was easy to get tired because the snow was so deep in certain parts of the course.
“I didn’t make any tactical errors, I was just tired, which is frustrating.”
Despite the disappointing finish, this was Newell’s second sprint finals appearance of the season, and matched his top result. He leaves the Tour ranked 9th in the overall World Cup standings, and an impressive 3rd in the Sprint Cup. He is the only skier on the World Cup to score points in each sprint so far this season.
Joensson took over the top spot in the Tour, but despite the standings, and strong results in both the prologue and the 15km, the sprinter is withdrawing from the event, and passing the top spot to teammate Hellner.
“I think that Marcus can fight for overall victory, although Petter Northug is always dangerous,” predicted Joensson.
Alex Harvey (CAN) ended up as the top Canadian. He qualified 20th, and finished 19th. Harvey is now 23rd overall and Kershaw 11th.
“It was a good day because a city sprint is not usually my cup of tea,” said Harvey. “I skied really strong in my heat and was fighting for the top-three the whole way. I had great technique but just wasn’t strong enough coming down the finishing stretch.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.