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.
“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.”
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.
“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
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.