Canmore, Alberta – Emil Joennson (SWE) showed he is in fine form to challenge for Olympic gold, skiing to a convincing win in the men’s classic sprint on a sunny Saturday.
John Kristian Dahl (NOR) took 2nd, but will now head home to Norway as he did not make the Norwegian Olympic team. Dario Cologna (SUI) capped a fine weekend with his 2nd podium, finishing 3rd.
Tough Course, Tough Heats
After a gruelling 15km on the famous Canmore 5k loop, skiers were given no respite. The sprint course was reconfigured, adding two significant climbs and half a kilometer. Joensson described it best saying “The course? Up, up, up, a little down, and up.”
Torin Koos (USA) dubbed the 1.7km loop a “strong-man’s course.” And with two large climbs, and a 200 meter gradual uphill finish, he was certainly correct.
After strong qualification, the US and Canada combined for 10 skiers in the heats, and most of the other top names in the field advanced. The US had a bit of luck, ending up with all 5 qualifiers in different heats.
Based on his top qualifying time Joensson lined up in the 1st quarterfinal along with Norwegian Erik Brandsdal, Andy Newell (USA) and Axel Teichmann (GER).
Teichamann is not a traditional sprinter in a speed sense, but he has had success in longer events, while any Norwegian is a threat in a classic sprint.
Joensson set a trend for the rest of the day, jumping out of the start and grabbing an early lead. He showed an amazing ability to get off the line. USST coach Pat Casey commented “I didn’t know anyone could get off the line faster than Newell, but Joensson just left him behind.”
“It is the little details that are important in sprint,” said Joensson when asked if he practiced his starts. “We train every little bit of the track, the s-turns, the corners, the start.”
Joensson led through the first hill out of the stadium and on the small descent was seen clearing snow out of his basket with his hand. It didn’t seem to bother him as he set the pace heading into the big hills. Teichmann fell off the pace while Newell and Brandsdal kept pace with the Swede.
As the pack swept under the bridge and down in the stadium, Newell was still in contention, tight in 3rd. But Teichmann, whom everyone, including Kjell Erik Kristiansen, the stadium announcer, had written off, came charging back on the double pole. Joensson held his position in front, and Teichmann completed yet another stunning comeback – this on the heels of an amazing final lap in the 15km. Newell faded in the final 100 meters, crossing the line 4th, behind Bransdal. He was left to hope for a Lucky Loser spot.
“This was obviously a bad race,” said Newell. “Historically this has been one of my worst venues. I always get worked on the long gradual downhill to the finish. I’m not really pushing enough weight on that hill. This altitude is always pretty tough for me.”
But ultimately the Olympics are the focus. “I don’t really care too much about today,” Newell concluded. “I’m looking forward to getting down from altitude to Whistler and get some conditions that suit me better.”
Stefan Kuhn, Canada’s top qualifier in 7th, lead fast out of the start. The Canadian men were aggressive all day in the heats – heading to the front early and setting a strong pace. Unfortunately the strategy did not pay off as none of the five men advanced out of the quarterfinals.
Kuhn held a 10-meter gap after the first corner, showing good form on the trackless turn. The field slowly crept back on the first climbs, and by the top of the course Anders Gloerrsen (NOR) and Cologna (SUI) had overtaken him. But Kuhn was not out, and he skied the big downhill corner with precision born of familiarity. He pulled back up and in position to advance as the pack sped toward the stadium. But at the end it appeared that being at the back was an advantage, Nikolay Chebotko (KAZ) and Nikolai Pankratov (RUS) stepped out of the draft on the straight away and took over the lead. Chebotko claimed the heat win, with Pankratov 2nd. Gloerssen and Cologna both posted fast times and took over the Lucky Loser spots finishing Newell’s day.
Kuhn ended up 5th in the heat and 22nd on the day.
Chris Cook, the American in heat 2 was off the back out of the start, and was never in position to challenge the leaders. He crossed the line 2.6 seconds behind Chebotko in what would be the fastest heat of the quarterfinals. The effort netted him 30th place.
Heat 3 featured defending Olympic sprint champion Bjorn Lind of Sweden. Lind, now 32, seems to have lost a step from his glory days, standing on the World Cup odium just once since 2006. He was not a shoo-in for the Swedish Olympic team, but strong performances in recent World Cups earned the veteran a spot. He qualified 6th today, and the long 200 meter homestretch favors his impressive double pole.
Norwegian Kent-Ove Clausen took the lead from the start. American Garrot Kuzzy mistimed the starters gun and was left flat-footed. off the line. He worked hard and was able to catch the back of the pack over the first hill, but couldn’t muster enough to move up further.
The pack stayed tight dropping down after the 1st big climb. Valerio Leccardi (SUI) tried to slip by Lind on the inside skiing across his skis, a move that did not please the Swede. Lind smacked Leccardi hard on the torso with his pole before getting back down to business. Despite the hard climbs and long course, the races had plenty of tactics and jockeying for position. In general, the athletes are too evenly matched for the race to be solely about fitness.
Kuzzy was unable to hold the pace and a group of five entered the stadium, closely packed. Not surprisingly it was Lind who emerged from the double pole scrum with the victory – displaying his trademark “jumping” double pole, to the delight of announcer Kjell Erik.
Loris Frasnelli (ITA) edged out Leccardi for the 2nd spot. Clausen slipped to 5th, overtaken by an impressive Brent McMurtry (CAN). McMurtry ended up as the top Canadian in 19th as his time was not good enough for a Lucky Loser spot. He apparently took issue with the tactics of Frasnelli – telling the Italian to “take it easy” as he left the finish corral.
Kuzzy came across 6th in his heat, 3.8 seconds behind, good for 29th on the day.
Torin Koos lined up for the 4th quarterfinal after one of the best qualifying performances of his career, finishing just 1 second back of Joensson in 2nd. He was matched against young Swede Teodor Peterson, Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin, Fabio Pasini (ITA) and Candians Devon Kershaw and Sean Crooks.
Peterson is fast and Vylegzhanin an excellent distance skier. This was arguably the deepest heat of the round.
Koos headed out in 2nd with Crooks just behind. Crooks just missed making the Canadian Olympic team and clearly wanted to make the most of this World Cup opportunity. Peterson set the pace as the pack headed into the first big climb, Koos still in good position on the outside.
Through the big climb and over the top, all six men were right together, Peterson still in the lead and Vylegzhanin on his tails. As they flew out from under the bridge on the tough corner, Kjell Erik raised his voice in excitement – “One skier, no two, three skiers down!” The big crash took out both Canadians and Pasini. Koos safely through overtook Vylegzhanin in the final 100 meters to advance out of the heats for the first time this season.
According to Koos the corner was quite icy, and an aggressive move on the inside led to the crash.
“I tried to ski really relaxed in the quarterfinals. I thought Teodor Peterson would ski pretty smooth and smart so I thought I would just hop in behind him. So it worked out all right.”
Kershaw battled Pasini to the line, losing out for 4th in a photo finish. Crooks broke a pole and limped across in 6th, continuing a frustrating stretch in the heats for the Canadian.
The final quarterfinal featured Dahl, with a World Cup victory under his belt this season, but no ticket to Vancouver, as well as Renato Pasini, brother of Fabio from the previous heat.
Phil Widmer continued the trend of fast Canadian starts. He got out quickly and opened a 10 meter gap before the first big climb. While the strategy may have been rash, he held his position through all the hills, and led down under the bridge. But he could not shake the pack, and he was eaten up on the finish straight, finishing 5th. Dahl took 1st in a tight finish. Alxei Poltaranin (KAZ) edged out Pasini for the final spot in the semis in a photo finish.
Simi Hamilton (USA), just back from U23 Championships, was last in the heat, and while he battled gamely he was not in the race to advance.
Joensson led out the first semifinal setting an easy pace on the first climb. The pack remained bunched, with the exception of Teichmann, who looked spent.
This heat was a classic sprint to the finish. No one was able to get free and the top-5 came roaring into the homestretch. Teichmann, once again, came charging back, but this time was too late. Joensson crossed first edging Chebotko in a photo finish. Pankratov and Gloeersen, battling for lucky loser time, crossed together, with the Russian getting the nod in another photo finish. But the slow pace early cost them, and the heat was the slowest of the day. They would not advance.
This was the closest to losing that Joensson would be today.
Koos had his work cut out from him in the second semi, taking on Dahl, Cologna, Peterson, and Lind. The pace stayed relaxed after the first 100 meters. Koos looked good, relaxed and strong on the hills.
USST coach Pat Casey noted that the hilly terrain favors Koos, a runner who likes the climbs, and is used to the similar topography of Soldier Hollow. But he could not take advantage – the pack remained bunched into the descent and stadium. Koos was still in good position heading into the big corner, leading the race, but chose a wider, more conservative line after the big crash in his quarterfinal.
“It was definitely a faster line on the inside” he said afterward.
“Unfortunately that dropped me to out of the lead into 3rd or 4th. I couldn’t get into a draft – I was in my own lane – so I didn’t have the best speed coming into the stadium.”
Lind again demonstrated his jumping double pole, taking the photo finish over Dahl. Peterson and Cologna in 3rd and 4th advanced as Lucky Losers.
Cologna noted his good fortune, advancing twice as a Lucky Loser today. “This is the 5th or 6th time this season I was the lucky loser. I may not be so fast like other sprinters, but I always ski as hard as I can. Today I was lucky twice.”
Koos slipped back to last in the heat, but still had his best result of the season, ending the day in 11th.
“I was tiring at the end and didn’t quite have it – so that was the end of the day.”
“There was a lot of really good things that happened today. I’m in the mix. This year if you had asked me what the plan is, I would say it is to ski fast when it really counts, so I think it is coming at the right time.”
Added USST coach Justin Wadsworth, “His fitness is definitely there. He decided to play it really safe today on that corner, and that put him in a tough position at the end.”
US skier Reese Hanneman crashed on the same corner in qualifying and described it as a “washed-out off-camber glacier.”
“The only thing I have been concerned with recently is qualifying speed. His qualifying was one of the best he has ever had, and for me that is one of the best indicators,” concluded Wadsworth.
Unsurprisingly, Joensson was first off the line, but did not set a blistering pace. He sat toward the front, even with Dahl. On the 180 turn at the top of the first hill, he moved into the lead. He continued to ski relaxed until the final pitch of the steepest hill where he dropped the hammer with a devestating move. By the time he hit the long descent, the race was over with nearly 50 meters of daylight between him and the chasers.
He crossed the line a stunning 6.6 seconds in front Dahl. Cologna rounded out the podium, just ahead of Lind.
Said Joensson “I started the final slowly to see how my body responded. It was good and I could go hard. I has been a great day!”
Overall he put on a clinic, winning qualification and every heat.
—With reporting by Nat Herz.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.