Swedish fans must have been crushed after Norway’s Marit Bjoergen knocked off their hometown hero Charlotte Kalla in the 10 k skate on Saturday morning in Gallivare. But they must have been equally thrilled in the afternoon, when Marcus Hellner (SWE) skied to an 11-second victory over Switzerland’s Dario Cologna—finishing in the stadium that was named for him after a double gold medal-winning performance at the 2010 Olympic Games.
“I felt like I had control today,” Hellner said afterwards. “It was really inspiring to race with all my best friends cheering out on the course, in my home town.”
Cologna took second, just over 10 seconds out of the lead, while Hellner’s teammate Daniel Rickardsson managed to lock the Norwegians out of the podium, just edging Chris Andre Jespersen (NOR) for third. Kris Freeman was the top North American in ninth, while Noah Hoffman (USA) and Alex Harvey (CAN) followed in 31st and 34th.
With last year’s World Cup overall champion Petter Northug missing the race after falling ill earlier this week, the Norwegians were looking to biathlon superstar Ole Einar Bjoerndalen to pick up the slack. But it was Jespersen who took the early lead, despite being seeded in the bottom third of all 104 starters.
The 27-year-old Jespersen is a former junior world champion—he won the 30 k freestyle in Solleftea, Sweden, in 2003—but with just two top-30 finishes on the World Cup, he had never established himself at the senior level before Saturday. (Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is that he dates Liv Miriam Nordtomme, the sister of Northug’s girlfriend.)
After he crossed the finish line, Jespersen’s time of 32:48 held up for nearly half an hour. For a while, it seemed that the World Cup opener would end with another Norwegian upset—biathlete Ronny Hafsas was the surprise winner in last year.
But Rickardsson—who said that he had worked on his skating all summer and full—quashed Jespersen’s hopes. He led the Norwegian by six seconds after the first of three five-kilometer laps, then held on, nipping Jespersen by just 1.9 seconds at the finish.
Cologna was the next to assume the lead, slotting in nine seconds in front of Rickardsson. That result was a big improvement on Cologna’s World Cup opener last year—he finished 20th in that race after sustaining a hamstring injury in late September of 2009.
But any hopes that Cologna had of holding the lead lasted exactly 18.6 seconds. With Hellner starting just one bib—30 seconds—behind Cologna, that’s how long the Swiss skier had after crossing the finish line before being knocked off the top of the podium.
“Marcus was too strong,” Cologna said. “He’s the right winner today.”
Hellner led wire to wire with some powerful skiing, but he still had enough energy at the finish to stay on his feet and salute the home crowd. With Northug out, and the Norwegian’s starts at next weekend’s races in Finland in jeopardy, the first few skate distance events of the season could be big opportunities for Hellner—even though he told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that he did not “think the result list would be different” if Northug had been racing.
“One of my best races ever,” he said. “I was never directly concerned or threatened.”
One other notable result was that of the 20-year-old Russian phenom Petr Sedov, who was fifth, just three seconds off Jespersen. Sedov, a multiple junior world champion, started slowly, finishing the first lap in 26th place, but put in a fierce second loop that was actually faster than Hellner’s. That left him just in front of his veteran teammate Alexander Legkov at the finish.
Reports on the Canadian and American teams to come!
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.