In Petter Northug’s absence, Marcus Hellner (SWE) took over the mantle as the dominant World Cup male, following up an impressive victory in Saturday’s 15km freestyle by leading the Swedish relay team to the top of the podium.
Hellner outsprinted Russia’s Alexander Legkov after the two teams broke away on the third leg.
Daniel Rickardsson (SWE) and young Petr Sedov (RUS) broke away from Norway’s Chris Andre Jespersen and Switzerland’s Remo Fischer during the first skate leg, giving the anchors a 16 second lead that they would extend to 48 by the end.
Norway took the final podium spot, unable to overcome the absence of Northug in the 4th spot.
Switzerland posted an impressive result, led by Dario Cologna, who closed the 30-second deficit he inherited on the second leg.
A group of four broke off the front on the scramble leg. Jauhojärvi (FIN), Sergey Cherepanov (KAZ), Eldar Roenning (NOR) and Emil Joennson (SWE) of Sweden II opened a gap of eight seconds on the field. But with the exception of Norway, the teams quickly dropped.
The US men had three quarters of a great relay, entering the anchor leg in a virtual tie for 5th.
But Chris Cook, clearly not internationally race ready, plummeted back through the field , losing almost three minutes to Hellner over the last 10k, and dropping the US to a final position of 17th.
The story of the day for the US, however, was continued strong performances from the rest of the athletes.
Andy Newell bounced back from Saturday’s 15 k with what had to be one of his best World Cup distance performances. Newell tagged Kris Freeman just 15.4 seconds off the pace in the main chase group.
“I was able to have a really good start, and was able to relax pretty well,” said Newell following the race. “Because of that I was able to ski with the pack the entire 10 k, and then bring it into the stadium close enough that Bird [Freeman] was able to get in a good pack of skiers and link up with the lead pack.”
Freeman continued his excellent start to the season, posting the 3rd fastest time on the second leg, bringing the US in 5th, just seconds out of the podium.
The US chose to mix up the running order, switching Newell and Freeman. In the past, Freeman has generally scrambled, but according to Newell, the move worked out well.
“The way we chose to run it today was a really smart idea — it put us in a really good position,” Newell said.
He also pointed out that his experience bumping elbows in sprints paid dividends in the chaos of a relay scramble.
The race moved to the skate technique, and Noah Hoffman took over for the US. Hoffman had a fine 2011 World Cup debut in the 15km, just missing out on the points. He stayed in high gear for the relay, holding position, despite losing time on the leaders.
Hoffman ranked 16th for his leg, but was just 48.9 seconds off the pace set by Norwegian biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjorndalen.
“We were stoked to see that if we all put together good 10 k’s…we can be in medal contention going into the third and fourth legs,” concluded Newell.
There were few expectations for the US team, especially with Cook not firing on all cylinders. But for this was not the case for the Canadians.
Running the same four that was a medal hopeful in Vancouver, the Canadian men struggled for the second consecutive day, placing 18th in the 23-team field.
With George Grey dropping over a minute on the first leg, and tagging Devon Kersahw in dead last, the Canucks were never in the running.
Kershaw managed the 9th fastest split on the second leg, but dropped another minute to the leaders, before giving Ivan Babikov his turn. Babikov fared no better, losing even more ground, and Alex Harvey, despite making up over two minutes on the US’s Cook, couldn’t move up.
Cook just held off a hard-charging Harvey by 3.9 seconds.
Newell pointed out that Cook is much stronger in a 10k classic, and that “having to skate that anchor leg was probably pretty tough for him… it’s probably not a good indication of the shape he’s in.”
The World Cup picks up on Friday with a mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.