Just seven months after knee surgery, Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal had no business gunning for the podium in a classic sprint in late January. But knees were all but unnecessary in Sunday’s race in Estonia, which saw every single one of the six men in the finals forgoing kick wax on a tame course.
Brandsdal rode his skate gear to third place in qualifying, two seconds behind his teammate Ola Vigen Hattestad, then just pipped Hattestad in the finals to take his first-ever World Cup win. Russia’s Nikita Kriukov was third.
All three overtook Sweden’s Emil Joensson, the Sprint Cup leader, in a marathon double pole drag race to the finish.
“I tried, in the end…to give everything from the last corner,” he said in an interview. “But like you saw, I was tired.”
The Norwegians took the initial gamble of using their skate skis in the qualifier; Brandsdal, Hattestad, Simen Oestensen, and Eldar Roenning all made the heats with their double pole power alone, along with Switzerland’s Christoph Eigenmann.
The move was not unprecedented—the Norwegians did the same thing in a World Cup in Canmore in 2008, and swept the top five spots. Since then, though, the International Ski Federation (FIS) has beefed up its courses, largely curtailing the practice.
“We also got a little bit defensive in this thinking,” Ulf Morten Aune, the Norwegian sprint coach, told FasterSkier. “I told the guys yesterday, ‘Hey—if this had been four or five years ago, we would for sure have been double poling. They agreed, so we tested it yesterday.’”
FIS Cross-Country Race Director Jurg Capol told FasterSkier that he was unconcerned with the development, especially given the difficulty of finding suitably challenging terrain in Otepaa. He added that he didn’t mind classic sprints devolving into double pole derbies “once in a while.”
In the prologue, it was clear that double poling was quicker, with Brandsdal and Hattestad taking two of the top three spots. But sticking with skate skis through the rounds—or switching to them—can be a tough call as fatigue starts to set in.
Brandsdal stuck to his guns, though, and a number of others swapped out kick wax for bare bases, including Sweden’s Jesper Modin and Norway’s Petter Northug.
Roenning, on the other hand, reverted to striding, and regretted it.
“I…should have stayed on the skating skis,” he said.
Many of the early heats were back-and-forth battles between those who were double-poling and those who were striding. Skate skis were slower on the few short climbs—especially on the larger one heading up to the course’s high point—but none were steep
enough to offset a major advantage on the ensuing descent and lengthy finishing straight.
“The end is too easy…It would have been great to have another hill,” said Joensson.
Striding is Joensson’s strength, he said, and as a result, he stuck to his classic gear through the quarters and semis.
But the writing was on the wall, as seven of 12 men in the semifinals used skate skis. By the finals, Joensson and the other five men were all relying on solely on upper body strength.
“It’s a decision [based on] what the other guys are doing. You do what you are good at,” he said. “I tried to avoid it as long as I could, but in the end, we saw that is was…the fastest way to go.”
Hattestad and Modin both led early in the heat, but on the tight, fast course, it all came down to the final stretch.
Joensson pulled a nifty maneuver to move into the lead around the last corner, but after battling illness for the last week, he said he just didn’t have enough left to hold off the impending onslaught of red suits. After a back-and-forth double-pole battle, Brandsdal bested Hattestad in a photo finish, with Kriukov just getting the better of Joensson.
“It was a fantastic race for me, perfect,” Brandsdal told FIS afterwards.
An unassuming, baby-faced 24-year-old, Brandsdal’s victory celebration was a sharp contrast to the display by Petra Majdic, who punctuated her win in the women’s race with jubilant screams, dancing, and celebratory poses. Even though he collected a winner’s purse of $15,000, Brandsdal appeared to have a tough time mustering the enthusiasm to mug for photographers at the finish.
“It will probably sink in a bit,” he told NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster. “It came as a surprise.”
Aune, too, said he was “amazed” to see Brandsdal winning after his knee surgery in the summer.
“It’s not an advantage to go like he did most of the summer,” he said.
Brandsdal told NRK that he rehabbed from his injury by aqua-jogging and kayaking, which was “not always as fun”—especially when his teammates were out rollerskiing.
“But the other guys had faith in me the whole way,” he said.
The depth of the Norwegian men’s sprint team is such that according to Aune, Brandsdal’s victory does not even guarantee him a start in the individual sprint at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo.
To be fair, that event is in skating—unlike on Sunday, without tracks—and, as Aune pointed out, a number of Norway’s top sprinters were missing in Otepaa, including Oeystein Pettersen, John Kristian Dahl, and Johan Kjoelstad.
As for North Americans, four Canadians contested the men’s race. Len Valjas, whose family has Estonian ties, led the contingent with a tantalizing 31st-place finish—two-hundreths of a second from qualifying for the heats. His teammates Jesse Cockney, Michael Somppi, and Graeme Killick were 61st, 66th, and 69th.
The classic sprint was the last of the weekend’s World Cup competitions in Otepaa, with a two-day hiatus from racing before the 2011 World Junior and U-23 Championships begin here. During that time, the avid Estonian fans will get to savor a strong day from their men, six of whom qualified for the finals. Kein Einaste was the only one to crack the semifinals, however, where he was undone by a broken pole.
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.