The Norwegians took all the fun out of Monday’s women’s relay at the World Junior Championships, winning by a comfortable margin over the Russians. But no matter—their men created enough suspense for two races.
Trailing the Russians by 15 seconds heading into the final leg in Otepaa, Estonia, Norway’s Sindre Bjornestad Skar closed down the gap in the final kilometer, passing Denis Kataev in the stadium for a thrilling conclusion to the race, in what was the team’s second win of the day. Perttu Hyvarinen brought home Finland’s team in third.
After a back-and-forth battle over the second half of the race, the Canadians nipped the American team at the finish, with the two ending up ninth and 10th.
The Russians appeared to have the race in hand halfway through, at the 10-kilometer mark. Friday’s individual sprint champion, Sergey Ustiugov, had dropped Norway’s Erik Bergfall Brovold and Finland’s Iivo Niskanen on the second of four five-kilometer legs, and by the time he tagged off to Konstantin Kuleev, he had some 20 seconds on the chasers.
Kuleev did his job, with the Norwegians and Finns working together to claw back just five seconds.
But to win, the Russians would have to hold off the Norwegian anchor, Sindre Bjornestad Skar, who had convincingly won the men’s 10 k freestyle earlier this week.
The Russians put forth Kataev, who had finished a mere 11th in that race. But according to Slava Vedeneev, a member of the team’s support staff, Kataev was a good bet, having put in an excellent anchor leg on his team at the country’s national championships a year ago.
“That’s why our coaches had decided to run him on the last stage,” Vedeneev said.
Skar set out at a blazing pace.
“I went for gold—silver was not good enough. I just started [with] all I could,” he said. “My only goal was to take the Russian.
The men were skiing two loops of a 2.5-kilometer course—essentially an undulating, kilometer-long climb up an open field, and then a descent into the stadium. By the top of the climb the first time, Skar had cut his deficit in half—but he was already exhausted. As he came around for the lap, Skar said that he was almost ready to give up.
But going up the hill the second time, he saw that Kataev was dying, and dug deep enough to bridge the gap. He finally made contact as the two crested one of the hills on the way back down, and the two skied into the stadium together.
Given the effort Skar had made to catch Kataev, though, the race seemed like it could go either way in the sprint. But Skar put in one final surge just before the homestretch—directly in front of the 25 Norwegian flag-waving fans—and it was all over.
“To be honest, I didn’t have to sprint at all,” he said.
The Norwegians managed to win without Didrik Toenseth, one of the best juniors, who is struggling with knee problems. After watching their team’s women dominate all week, Skar said it was nice to show that there was some strength on the men’s side, as well.
“The Norwegian women…are almost winning all the time,” he said. “So it’s quite good that we can do that, also.”
Meanwhile, the two North American teams skied the second half of the race together, with Canada’s Andy Shields ending a tough week with a strong anchor leg, coming out just ahead of Erik Bjornsen in the final sprint.
“Going into the exchange, we were neck-and-neck. I started right behind Bjornsen, and was able to work the first hill with him a bit,” Shields said. “We had a good battle.”
While the Canucks came out on top, it was still an adequate performance from the Americans, who started Tyler Kornfield, Andrew Dougherty, Scott Patterson in addition to Bjornsen.
“I was pretty excited,” Kornfield said. The rivalry with Canada, he said, “goes back and forth, but they had a strong team this year…We’ll get ‘em next time.”
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.