Emil Joensson (SWE) reminded the ski world that despite recent strong distance results, he is still a sprinter first and foremost, outlunging Italian Fulvio Scola at the line to capture the victory in a frantic battle on the streets of Dusseldorf.
The 25-year-old defending Sprint Cup Champion added his seventh career World Cup victory, staging an impressive stretch run in the men’s final.
Joensson navigated the narrow twisty course with aplomb, not panicking as he rubbed elbows in the fight for position on the final lap.
Scola skied to the front early in the second lap, taking over from early leader Joensson. Trying to match the performance of teammate Arianna Follis, who just 10 minutes before, had won the women’s event, Scola led the pack down the final descent and into the finish stretch.
The World Cup sprint specialist had never finished on the podium, let alone climbed to the top spot. But with just 100 meters remaining, it was his race to lose.
Joensson held onto the second position, tight with eventual third-place finisher Oysten Pettersen (NOR) and Alexei Pethukov (RUS).
As the men charged toward the line, Joensson reeled in the Italian, and the only question would be whether there would be enough course left for him to take the win.
Both men drove a foot at the finish stripe, and despite his body remaining just behind Scola, Joensson had the reach by a mere four inches. Scola knew at once he wouldn’t be celebrating his first World Cup victory, raising his hands to his head in disappointment, before accepting congratulations from his coach and enjoying a still-groundbreaking day.
Seven years and nearly 40 individual World Cup starts later, he had his first podium, as well as a cool 10,000 Swiss Francs.
Joensson, who earned 15,000 Swiss Francs for his efforts, made his first finals appearance of the young season, despite having a sub-par qualification round.
For most people, placing 13th in qualification would be plenty good, but Joensson is often in the top spot, not seven seconds back.
“Qualification was really bad for me. In fact it was my worst qualifier ever,” Joensson said following the race. “But, then I felt better and better in every heat.”
He ultimately described the race as “pretty strange,” but was happy to walk away with the victory in just his second Dusseldorf city sprint.
Scola not only made the podium for the first time, he also was skiing in his first sprint final. Riding self-described “perfect” skis he did not worry about the likes of Joennson, Pettersen or Petuhkov, instead staying “focused only on myself.”
Pettersen staged a strong comeback in the final to take the third spot. Slow out of the start he was sitting toward the back of the pack for most of the first lap. Along with Petuhkov he clawed his way into contention and held of the Russian in the homestretch.
Scola, Pettersen and Petuhkov also matched up in the semis, with the Italian skiing the first half of the heat in last place. Sweden’s Jesper Modin led for two-thirds, closely followed by Renato Pasini (ITA).
Pettersen attacked into the second lap pulling Petuhkov with him, and the two overtook Modin while Scola snuck up on the inside of the lone climb.
“The Sausage,” as Pettersen is known, brought the race home with Petuhkov hot on his heels and Modin ran out of speed, but both he and Scola advanced as Lucky Losers.
Joensson beat out teammate Mats Larsson in the other semi, giving the Swedes half the A-final. John Kristian Dahl (NOR), the winner of the classic sprint in Kuusamo, finished his day just back of Larsson.
Andy Newell (USA), the lone North American qualifier in 3rd, drew an extremely tough assignment in the quarter finals, lining up with eventual winner Joensson, Olympic gold and silver medalists Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhhinskiy of Russia, as well as former Sprint Cup Champion Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR) and Mats Larsson (SWE).
According to US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, Newell skied an excellent tactical race.
Newell concurred telling FasterSkier in an interview, “Tactically I skied well, and despite the long travel day yesterday, I felt good.”
He started strong, holding position in second, skiing relaxed on Larsson’s tails. Joensson dropped the American to 3rd at the end of the lap, and when Hattestad made a strong move on the outside of the one wide corner early in the second loop to take over the lead, Newell found himself back in 4th.
But he stayed calm and followed Larsson back to the front getting by Hattestad on the inside of the last corner.
Newell was in excellent position as the pack dropped toward the finish stretch, but he opted to go wide for the kick, avoiding the inside right lane.
“I was right on Mats Larsson’s heels going into the final stretch,” said Newell. “Some lanes are often faster in Dusseldorf and it seems like the right lane that hugs the fence is always really fast, but you run a risk of getting pinched against the fence there if anybody sees you shooting for that lane right away.”
He hung back and opted to swing wide to the left around Larsson, still in 2nd. But that gave Joensson the short line along the fence, an advantage Newell couldn’t overcome.
The US Team watched video of past Dusseldorf races to identify the critical areas of the course. Grover points to the final corner as the crux, noting that if a skier can enter the curve in first or second, it is very difficult for anyone to get by.
Newell was where he needed to be at that point, but couldn’t match the Swedes’ closing speed.
“In terms of his fitness, I think he is feeling pretty confident,” said Grover, but pointed out that due to travel issues Newell did not arrive in Dusseldorf until 10:00pm Friday night. While both Newell and Grover agreed that the long travel day, which included ten hours in an airport, did not break Newell’s day, Grover did say that “it certainly did not help.”
Most of the North Americans were also missing gear. Though race skis arrived via van, Newell and teammate Kikkan Randall both raced the qualifier on old sets of poles borrowed from the Swedes.
With the airline strikes in Finland, US coaches told athletes to pack boots and racing clothes in their carryon a move that paid off, when their luggage did not arrive in time for the start.
The men’s course had been extended somewhat from previous years, with an additional 150 meters tacked on to make it one of the longest courses on the circuit. This, combined with all the corners, made for a controlled pace early, with hard bursts at critical points as athletes battled for position.
Both Grover and Newell did not feel that the extra distance had much impact on how the course skied, and despite the lack of significant climbs, there is no real rest making it a tough event.
While the Canadian men did not qualify anyone for the heats in the absence of Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey (both training in Italy), Stefan Kuhn and Len Valjas had solid days, just missing out on the heats in 33rd and 34th respectively.
For Valjas, this was his first World Cup skate sprint, and just his third start overall, while Kuhn had his best World Cup freestyle sprint finish outside the Tour de Ski, which prior to last year featured weaker sprint fields.
Phil Widmer (CAN), who has made the World Cup heats six times, did not have his best day placing 53rd. His teammate Brent McMurty rounded out the field for the Canadians in 56th.
Simi Hamilton was the second American in 51st.
According to Grover, Hamilton was not pleased with his result in his first Dusseldorf appearance. The US coach was sympathetic, but noted Hamilton’s lack of experience and is unconcerned.
“I know he wanted to a little bit better, but he is a young guy and he needs experience at this level,” Grover said. “This is just his second World Cup skate sprint…and people don’t usually do that great on these courses, against these fields the first time they ski them.”
Hamilton also missed several early races due to a strained knee, an injury that Grover says he is recovering from, but did leave him with some ground to make up.
Racing continue tomorrow in Dusseldorf with a team sprint. Hamilton will lead off for the first US team with Newell running second.
A US second team of Torin Koos and Chris Cook will also race. Both men did not ski well today, with Koos placing 63rd, and Cook 70th, avoiding last by .06 seconds.
Canada will also start two teams. Kuhn and Valjas will pair up for Canada I and Widmer and McMurtry represent as Canada II.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.