Behind Strong Swedish Effort, Hellner Sprints to 30k Gold

Nathaniel HerzFebruary 21, 201011
Marcus Hellner (SWE) at the finish of the men's 30k pursuit

With temperatures at Whistler Olympic Park over 50 degrees on Saturday, it was easily warm enough for a bike race. And that was basically what spectators got, as the racing, the strategy, and the cast of characters in the men’s 30 k pursuit could have been lifted straight out of a Tour de France stage.

On the shoulders of his Swedish teammates, Marcus Hellner played the role of Lance Armstrong, outkicking a four-strong bunch in the final sprint for gold. He took the win over Germany’s Tobias Angerer, with another Swede, Johan Olsson, taking bronze.

Hellner (l) and Tobias Angerer (GER, r) at the finish

“They played their cards perfectly,” said Canadian Alex Harvey, one of the victims of Hellner and Olsson’s tactical brilliance.

The pursuit features two successive 15 k legs—first classic, then freestyle technique. Today, it was only the freestyle that mattered.

Despite the best efforts of Lukas Bauer (CZE) to break things open in the classic leg, the first half of the race was typically tepid. The Czech athlete made a couple of efforts to get off the front, but a slippery pair of skis and an attentive pack held him back.

Not until after the gear exchange did things start to get interesting. After a pack of 25 skied in for the switch to skate equipment, Olsson seized an opportunity, attacking when he noticed he was the first man to ski out of the stadium.

While Olsson posed a serious threat, having collected three World Cup podiums over the last year, nobody bothered to respond to the move. With his Swedish teammates patrolling the front of the group behind, Olsson’s gap grew over the next few laps to as much as 25 seconds.

“When we saw that Johan was getting a gap…me and Anders [Soedergren] tried to keep the pace down a little bit,” Hellner said.

Of the skiers behind the wall of white suits, some, like Alexander Legkov (RUS), were stymied by the Swedish tactics. He complained that Hellner and Soedgergren cut him off as he tried to move up.

Others, like Harvey, were already stretched to the breaking point.

“Personally, I couldn’t do anything—I was on the limit,” he said. “I was not in a position to give chase today.”

With the kilometers to the finish ticking down and Olsson’s gap holding, Legkov tried to convince the rest of the group to work with him to wrest the race from the Swedes’ grasp. But he said afterwards that Bauer and the others wouldn’t cooperate.

A poor sprinter, Legkov was running out of time. With just a couple of kilometers left, the Russian decided that he could wait no longer, coming around the Swedes and upping the pace to a level only that only Hellner, Angerer, and Petter Northug (NOR) could match.

It seemed like things were unfolding for Northug to take a trademark sprint victory out of the small group. But with less than two kilometers to go, he tried to slot into position in front of Hellner, and inadvertently put himself where there was no room. The Norwegian emerged from the snarl with a broken pole, losing contact with the leaders. He faded and trailed in for 11th.

Hellner said that he tried to move out of Northug’s way, but that he was too tired to be able to react quickly enough to avoid a collision. Still, Hellner was surprised Northug was unable to recover from the incident, given that he got a new pole quickly and the pace “wasn’t so hard.”

Alexander Legkov (RUS) tries to close the gap to Johan Olsson

As Northug fell back, the chasers were eating into Olsson’s gap, thanks to the efforts of Legkov. But the Russian still had some baggage with him, in the form of Hellner and Angerer. As the trio began climbing their way up the last rise, they edged closer and closer to Olsson. Midway up, Legkov they finally pulled even.

“At first, I thought it was all over, because I didn’t know, really, what speed they would catch up,” Olsson said. “I realized as Legkov came up beside me that it wasn’t so bad.”

Knowing that it would be tough to hold off the chasers for the full 15 k skate leg, Olsson said he had been conscious to leave some gas for the sprint by backing off on the flat section before the final climb. So instead of dropping anchor when the three chasers finally reeled him in, Olsson was able to match the pace.

Johan Olsson (SWE) during his solo move

“I saved a little energy,” he said.

The four crested the hill as a group, but once they made it around the corner into the stadium, Hellner’s “lust for revenge”–which he said he’d felt after his bitter fourth place in Monday’s 15 k freestyle—finally took over. With clear track in front of him, he dropped the hammer, pulling away to take the win by a wide margin.

The rest of the podium was decided on the backstretch, as Angerer pulled ahead of Olsson, who in turn held off Legkov. The Russian just didn’t have the speed to be competitive in the sprint, and he said afterwards that he probably should have started the chase earlier, which would have given him more time to break the group apart before the finish.

Swedish Head Coach Joakim Abrahamsson told FasterSkier that he knew he had two chances for podiums today in Hellner and Olsson. With Soedergren in the mix as well, the team has cards to play when the pace is high from the gun, or when it comes down to a sprint finish.

“You have Anders and Johan who want to go to very hard for the whole time, and Marcus, who gladly can let it go a little bit softer in the classic style…and rely on his very high speed in the end,” Abrahamsson said.

He said that the team didn’t plan out any specific tactics before the race, but that they obviously cooperated once Olsson’s move started to play out.

“It was teamwork,” said Emil Jonsson, one of the Swedish sprinters, who watched the race from the sidelines. “It was a perfect race for Sweden.”

Topher Sabot contributed reporting

The Swedes celebrating after Hellner's gold and Olsson's bronze

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • Sven

    February 21, 2010 at 2:23 am

    small typo: change photo caption to “Olsson’s bronze” instead of silver. This is big psychological momentum for the Swedes going into the team sprint and the relays. I expect Emil will want revenge after his performance in the individual sprint. Can I just say that the NBC commentators drive me crazy. I feel like putting the TV on mute sometimes. Will they please stop using the words “red army”? Seriously.

  • Lars

    February 21, 2010 at 2:32 am

    Hmm breaking other racers gear to win gold and pepole say Northug is a bad sportsman…

    Past that the other Norwegian`s results haven`t been worth the ticket to send the over for the Olympic`s. This is the second Olympic in a row were the Norwegian team fails. The only good thing is that this will hopefully force them to make the changes to rectify the current situation. Cause as things are now there performance is just shameful.

  • ColinD

    February 21, 2010 at 7:51 am

    At least the Norwegian curling team is holding it down. Go Norge!

  • Lars

    February 21, 2010 at 8:44 am

    lol yeah got to love the ugliest pants of the games.

  • OldManWinter

    February 21, 2010 at 9:20 am

    How poetic is it that the Swedes used time-honored bike racing tactics to take out the consumate wheel-sucker? Broken pole or no (and I want to believe that was a typical racing accident), I’m not convinced that Northug could have pulled it off anyway. I wish that I could feel more sorry for him than I do, but he has painted himself into the corner he is in. As others have pointed out in several forums, their is no one else on the men’s side stepping up to challenge. The relay promises to be a complete free-for-all, with several teams (excluding the Norwegian men but now including the Canadians) promising to be in the mix. It ought to be a ‘Great Race’…

  • Lars

    February 21, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Well the Swedes certanly used team tactic`s and there is nothing wrong with that. But that`s not what took out Northug. Hellner breaking his pole took out Northug. Now at the top of his form he could probably get back in the lead-group regardless but fact is that Northug was taken out by a competitor breaking his gear.

    And unless you see that as a time honored bike race tactic i would have to disagree with you. Also are you really saying you think he deserved to be sabotaged in that fashion cause you don`t like his use of race tactic`s ?
    Personally i think breaking one of your main competitors gears and then going on to take gold is at least eticaly dubious.

    The true disgrace is the performance of the rest of the Norwegian team who so far have not showed up to these Olympic`s but then they haven`t realy showed up in any of the world cup races the last few seasons either.
    Norway has many young talented skiers but the current coaching staff seem unable to create winners out of that raw material so it is pretty clear to me that we need a new regime to rectify the shameful status of the team.

  • kaiser

    February 21, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Northugs broken pole was nothing more than a race accident, and if it was not for the weak psychological state that northug was in after coming off such a depressing 15km he could have easily made up the gap. Not that he could have one, he was looking really sluggish through out the whole race but he probably could have held off for 4th or even a medal.

  • nordicmatt

    February 21, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    beyond the Swedes and the Canadians having a great day, i’m real happy for Angerer’s success as well. Gans gut! Toll!
    Matthew T. Pauli

  • cpella

    February 21, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    I think it’s just silly to suggest that Hellner deliberately broke Northug’s pole. Besides, Sara Renner broke a pole and skied to a silver medal in Torino and that was in a sprint relay, not a distance race. Frode Estil completely lost a ski in the Torino pursuit and came back to get a silver. Northug just gave up. End of story.
    Norwegians and Finns always like to slag the Swedes, it’s a national pastime. When I was working as a volunteer on the TV crew at the Silver Star world cup in 2005 the Finnish TV producer would start making negative comments every time a Swede took the lead. I don’t trust anything a Norwegian or Finn says vis-a-vis the Swedes.
    The Swedes were over here when we held the national championships studying the course closely, and doing their homework. The Norwegian team didn’t even bother showing up for the pre-Olympics world cup. Perhaps there is a bit of arrogance and feeling of entitlement?

  • OldManWinter

    February 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Lars – I’m on board w/ Kaiser…The pole was an accident. The timing of these things is never ideal, but it was particularly bad for Northug in this case as it happened at a point in the race when he would typically start to play his best card. However, he had a replacement almost immediately, and even Hellner himself has gone on record elsewhere as stating that he couldn’t understand why Northug couldn’t keep up because ‘…they weren’t going that fast…’ (his words, not mine). If PN had unleashed his famous sprinting ability, could he not have come in 4th or even challenged for a bronze? We will never know, because he chose to cruise home. He surely can’t be saving it for the relay, because from what I’ve seen so far he has no supporting players.

  • Lars

    February 21, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Sure if Northug was on the top of his form i think he would be able to make up the gap. And i don`t actually believe Hellner intended to break Northug`s pole but you never now.
    And cpella Swede`s like to slag Norwegian`s just as much as Norwegians like to slag Swedes.
    As for not turning up for the pre Olympic world cup that had nothing todo with arrogance and feeling of entitlement. The national championship was that weekend and participation is mandatory for the world cup skiers unless they have a very good reason why they shuden`t.
    4th of 40th dosen`t really matter in the Olympics only medals matter. And i totally agree oldmanwinter he got no supporting players and that is the true shame of the Norwegian team. There is no team and there hasn`T been the last 2 years. And instead of makeing the necessary changes the Norwegian coaching staff have been hiding behind Northug`s results.

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