In Las Vegas, the house always wins. And in Tuesday’s head-to-head rollerski race between Marcus Hellner and Petter Northug, Northug was the house.
On a course laid out by his Norwegian magazine sponsor—and modified at the last minute to give him a better shot at the win—Northug took the last two heats of a best-of-three series in the parking lot of the Palms Casino, evening the score with Hellner after losing to the Swede in a poker match earlier this week.
After attracting some attention from poker websites and even ESPN broadcasters at their appearance at the World Series of Poker tournament yesterday, it seemed like the race between Northug and Hellner had the potential to draw a decent crowd.
But at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, at a resort two miles from the strip, all Las Vegas could muster was a thirty-strong rabble of predominantly Norwegian fans, a few of whom waved 8.5 by 11 inch printouts of the country’s flag. They gave Northug a rousing cheer when he skied by on his warm up, while Hellner was met with a chorus of boos.
On the tight, twisting figure-eight loop around two traffic islands, the start made all the difference, as the first athlete to the first corner took the victory every time.
Organizers from Vi Menn, the Norwegian magazine, had Northug and Hellner throw dice for starting position. Hellner won, giving him the advantage in two out of the three heats.
After the first two rounds, it appeared that it would be the dice, not fitness, that would decide the outcome, because the man with the inside line to the first corner took each heat—Hellner the first and Northug the second.
But for the final heat, Vi Menn staff moved back the start line a few yards, giving Northug more time to overcome his unfavorable start spot on the outside. Using his trademark explosive speed, he won what was essentially a 50-meter drag race to the sharp, righthand turn around a traffic island housing a handful of palm trees and some forlorn desert shrubs, and never looked back. The whole thing was over in less than 45 seconds.
“They are all Norwegian guys in the jury—so they did something,” Hellner said, laughing. “It’s still fair, because I got the best start [position]. He’s a quicker
starter than me—that made all the difference.”
As the pair warmed up for the race, Northug seemed unhappy about the course, with all its tight corners, and after defeating Hellner, he looked more relieved than anything else.
“With the tough course, you had to be first out there,” he said. “In the first heat, Marcus was first out, and it’s difficult to pass him. But in the two last ones I was waking up, and was hearing the home crowd here…I took the start in the last heat, and that was important.”
After Northug’s win in the race and Hellner’s victory in their card game on Sunday, the battle between the two comes down to their placings in the World Series of Poker, which continues this coming weekend. Both Northug and Hellner have said that they will stay in town as long as they remain in the tournament, which could mean another full week in the city if the athletes play their cards right. (And if either makes it into the final nine, another visit to Las Vegas will be necessary in November.)
But the race was the highest-profile portion of the trip, and with it over, many of the dozen Scandinavian journalists that have been chronicling the athletes’ every move will now head back to their home countries. With the highest-profile part of the trip concluded, the Northug and Hellner will have a little more time to relax—as will Alex Oysta, the Vi Menn editor who orchestrated the trip.
More than anything, Oysta said he was thankful that no one got hurt. If one of the athletes had been injured in the race, he said, it would have been his own face on the pages of the newspapers—not Northug’s.
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.