If Josef Wenzl wants to race at the 2011 World Ski Championships in Norway, he probably can do it without a bodyguard. But that’s only thanks to the last-minute heroics of the sprinter Anders Gloersen (NOR).
Wenzl, a German, squandered a sure podium finish for himself and the top Norwegian pair in Sunday’s team sprint in Dusseldorf, crashing out on the final corner and taking John Kristian Dahl along with him.
Gloersen ended up being the beneficiary, going from zero to hero as he passed Dahl and Wenzl and overtook Emil Jonsson (SWE) in a frantic finishing sprint for the win. The Italian team of David Hofer and Fabio Pasini was third, while no North American teams made it past the semifinals.
Had Wenzl’s blunder given the Swedes a victory at the expense of the Norwegians, their most hated rivals, it’s very possible that the German would have needed an armed escort through the streets of Oslo. As it was, Dahl was steaming, and he and Wenzl exchanged some heated words, finger-pointing, and bib-grabbing as they picked themselves up and skied into the finishing pen.
Both had good reason to be angry. With a mere two hundred meters to go in the men’s final, Dahl and Wenzl had chased down the Russian leader Nikolay Morilov, and they held a big lead over the chasing pack as they barreled into the final corner, a sharp righthander.
But instead of slotting in behind and waiting for the finishing stretch to unleash his sprint, Wenzl went for broke, staying abreast of Dahl and leaving the Norwegian little room to maneuver on the inside of the corner. Dahl tried to shove Wenzl away, but it was too late. Both of them crashed, allowing Jonsson and Gloersen to fly by.
“I don’t know what [Wenzl] was thinking. They had pulled away from the pack,” said U.S. sprinter Andy Newell. “They went two wide into that corner—you don’t ever want to do that at any time in a race, not to mention if you have the podium already wrapped up.”
The winning Norwegians will go home with $6,000 apiece, while Wenzl, Dahl, and their two teammates get nothing.
Ola Vigen Hattestad, the other half of Gloersen’s winning team, said that he felt sorry for Dahl, but he also said that “team sprint has its own rules.”
The two top North American teams—Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton for the U.S., and Stefan Kuhn and Len Valjas for the Canadians—surely left Dusseldorf with a greater understanding of those rules. Their races, like Dahl’s and Wenzl’s, were also undone by crashes.
Hamilton and Newell were skiing well together, according to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover. Both men, he said, had been holding position in the middle of the pack in their semifinal heat.
But with one lap to go before tagging off to Newell for the anchor leg, Hamilton crashed on the back side of the course’s one hill, courtesy of Sebastian Eisenlauer—Wenzl’s teammate.
“The German seemed to just cut over and get on top of his skis,” Grover said. “Simi went face down, and that was it—we were behind by a big margin when he tagged off to Andy. That was the end of the day.”
The crash was especially disappointing, Grover said, because the Americans’ semifinal heat was the fastest by a big margin. That meant that Newell and Hamilton could likely have advanced as lucky losers had they not managed to finish in the top three teams, which get automatic berths in the finals.
The experience, Newell said, was still valuable for both athletes—especially Hamilton, who got his first team sprint start on the World Cup. Smooth exchanges are key on the technical Dusseldorf course, where passing is difficult, and Newell said that his team had some “really good” tags.
“It was good practice, and we were having a great run,” Newell said. “We were running right in the front four or five for most of the entire race, and we were having a…pretty easy time getting around people.”
The story for the top Canadians was similar, with Kuhn crashing at a crucial moment in his semifinal. Kuhn’s team had three laps to go when a Norwegian fell in directly in front of him.
“It was a really critical spot,” said Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth. “[Valjas] did a good job to pass one or two teams after that, but it’s over by then.”
Unlike the Americans, though, Wadsworth’s team got both the long and short ends of the stick on Sunday, with the pain of the Kuhn’s crash assuaged somewhat by the podium finish of the Canadian women. The latter result was only made possible thanks to a last-minute faceplant by the Slovenian team, which had had third place under wraps.
“We benefited from one crash today, and we had another that kind of worked against us,” Wadsworth said. “That’s just team sprinting—it’s crazy out there.”
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.