Whistler, British Columbia – With five k to go before the finish of the men’s 50 k classic Sunday morning, the front of the pack looked remarkably similar to the way it did five k from the start.
Dario Cologna (SUI), Petter Northug, (NOR), Alexander Legkov (RUS)—all the heavy hitters were there.
It wasn’t until 400 meters to go that things really started heating up, when Germany’s Axel Teichmann threw down a hard attack, stringing out the field over the last climb. But as Teichmann knows well, there’s one thing you can always count on at the end of a mass start race: Petter Northug.
With his trademark sprint and flawless double pole, Northug brought Teichmann back in the stadium, then edged him by a meter for his first-ever individual Olympic gold. The victory capped a tactically sound race and an impressive Games for the Norwegian, who will travel back home with four medals: two golds, a silver, and a bronze.
Northug had made the Olympic 50 k a goal from the beginning of the season, adjusting his technique and training to help him excel at the distance. He said after the race that his plan was to go into it relaxed, and stay out of trouble until the end.
“I just tried to stay calm in the field and wait for my goal. I knew that with three kilometers left I had to stay in the lead group. So that was my tactic. I didn’t want to make a move [earlier]. I wanted to sprint.”
Over the first few five k laps, Northug did just that. The pace looked relatively placid, with only the occasional straggler being shed from the back of the pack.
Yesterday’s rain had frozen into the snow overnight, making for a dicey, icey trail surface. Those involved in crashes included Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA), Lukas Bauer (CZE), and Andrus Veerpalu (EST). All escaped relatively unscathed, though the sliding around fast corners scraped some of the klister off athletes’ skis.
Both James Southam (USA) and Kris Freeman (USA) remained with the leaders through 15 k. But by the end of his next five k lap, Freeman knew he wasn’t having a good day, and decided to shut things down, opting instead to try to stay fresh for his upcoming trip to Europe for the spring World Cups.
“My coaches said if I was out of it early, they wanted me to stop. I think they have the rest of my season in mind and they don’t want me to hurt myself.”
Southam hung tough all the way through 35 k, until an ill-timed ski change left him off the back of the leaders. He still held on for 28th—his best-ever international finish—ahead of Canadians Ivan Babikov and Alex Harvey, who were popped at 27 and 30 k, respectively.
“It was comfortable up in that front group, and I was feeling good,” said Southam. But after the last ski change I just couldn’t fight my way back to the group.”
While Southam’s result was a solid one, the Canadians had much higher expectations for the day. After top-ten finishes throughout the Games, both
Harvey and Babikov had hoped to be contending for medals on Sunday—not battling each other for 32nd and 33rd as their teammates Devon Kershaw and George Grey mixed it up the front.
Until the last two laps, the only real action at the front came when Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby attacked coming through the stadium at 20 k. Seeing many of the favorites, like Baur and Cologna, stop to change their skis, Sundby said that he had hoped to string things out and make them work to catch up. But nobody went with him, and he was swallowed up after a lap.
“I had a strategy there,” Sundby told FasterSkier. “But it didn’t work. I saw both Lukas Bauer and Dario Cologna change skis and my thought was to move up the speed so they would have a hard time catching up…and use a lot of energy. But nobody else wanted to go with me so the strategy flunked.”
After Sundby’s gambit, it was another 45 minutes before someone was willing to risk another move, at 40 k. This time, it was Alexander Legkov, the lanky Russian who had been stymied in his bid for a medal in the pursuit, finishing 4th, 1.2 seconds off the podium.
For a full lap, he hammered at the front with some strong striding and snappy kick-double pole. While he forced the rest to work to keep him under wraps, Legkov never managed to take more than a couple of seconds from the leaders. With Bauer doing the bulk of the chasing, the Russian was back in the fold by the 45 k mark. And though Legkov didn’t figure into the finale, he may have taken the punch from Bauer’s legs.
“I was together with the leading pack in the last uphill, but they were stronger,” said a philosophical Bauer. “It is not a medal, but I am quite satisfied. I was not bad, but they were better.”
Through the stadium at 45 k, the front group was all together, 15 skiers strong. Nobody opted to change their skis—the race was too close and the pace too high to risk it.
Over the final lap, the lead bounced back and forth: Vincent Vittoz (FRA), Northug, Cologna, Andrus Veerpalu (EST) all took turns. But the pace wasn’t high.
Teichmann had been hurt by some slow skis in the middle of the race, and by the time he left the exchange with a better pair at 40 k, he was thirty seconds from the front. With nothing to do but chase, he sliced a few seconds off the leaders at every time check, finally getting contact with just two k to go.
“I had to close a gap of 15-20 seconds to the leading group in the last 10 kilometers and I finally made it at the last 3km,” said Teichmann. “Then I had to make my way through this group.”
Focused on closing the gap, Teichmann said that he hadn’t thought through his tactics for the finish. And given that this was only his 4th 50 k, he didn’t anticipate being in the mix. (His expectations for the day were so low, he said, that he didn’t even bring a change of clothes for the flower ceremony for the top three.)
But since the final climb suits his long, strong legs, the “German Diesel” figured he’d give it a go. Chugging over the top into the descent towards the stadium, he had a few meters on Northug and the rest.
“I tried on the last uphill with everything I could,” Teichmann explained. “I tried to take the advantage of my strong legs.”
Northug had been at the front for most of the last lap, following his race plan and showing that he can handle sticking his nose in the wind on occasion.
He wasn’t quite on Teichmann’s tails over the top of the hill, but he was close enough that everyone in the stadium knew he still had a good shot.
Taking a more aggressive inside line through the downhill corner, he used his strong double pole to close in on Teichmann, drawing even just before the curve into the homestretch. Slowly but surely, he inched past Teichmann, taking the victory by a few feet and blowing a kiss to the crowd before crumpling to the ground.
It wasn’t the same kind of domination he displayed when he crushed Martin Koukal (CZE) and Emmanuel Jonnier (FRA) for silver in the relay, but it was enough.
Cologna was a few meters behind Northug going around that last curve into the homestretch, and saw his hopes for a third medal slip through his fingers when he got a little too far back on his skis and crashed.
Johan Olsson (SWE) was the beneficiary, shooting past Cologna to claim the bronze. He said that last corner was tricky—hard-packed and icy.
“I knew I had a good chance for the bronze medal [after Cologna’s fall], but of course I just kept looking to the right to see if anyone was matching me. But I have a pretty good final sprint, so in the final 20 meters I felt pretty secure.”
Just feet behind Olsson came Devon Kershaw, who lost out on a photo finish with Germany’s Tobias Angerer to end up fifth. It was a career best for the Canadian in an individual event at the Olympics, but to judge by the look on his face afterwards, being so close to a medal after such a long race was more bitter than sweet.
“I’m extremely proud of the race I had,” Kershaw said immediately after the finish.
“When I lunged I didn’t know what place it was for, and then I looked at the board. Of course this is the best 50k of my life. But at the same time it is really difficult to place 5th – in any sport, to race that long and only be 1.5 seconds back.”
Kershaw’s performance capped a record setting Olympics for the Canadian men’s cross-country team. Today he matched Ivan Babikov’s performance in the pursuit for the best individual Olympic finish ever by a male Canadian cross-country skier.
“Deep down we though we could medal and we were so close on many occasions,” Kershaw added.
Angerer was also hoping for better than 4th. “In the end it was a little bit unlucky…It is the worst place of the 50km. My goal was to win a medal today, and I didn’t do it, so I am a little bit disappointed.”
At the end of the day, it was an ecstatic Northug on top, grinning like a little boy and gracious in victory as teammates and opponents alike congratulated him.
Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
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.