Heading into Saturday’s 15 k classic race, it had been more than four years since Eldar Roenning won a World Cup distance race. But even before he left the starting gate in Otepaa, Estonia, the Norwegian knew that it was going to be a solid day.
“I had a good feeling—I was feeling that I was good enough for the podium,” he said.
Roenning wasn’t just good enough for the podium—he was good enough for the win. On an unyielding course in Otepaa, the classic specialist skied to a convincing 15-second victory over Sweden’s Daniel Rickardsson.
Estonian legend Andrus Veerpalu did everything he could to please Otepaa’s rabid crowd with a fast final lap, but in the end, he finished fifth, with seven seconds separating him from the podium. Russia’s Maxim Vyleghzhanin was third, with Sweden’s Marcus Hellner in fourth.
While Veerpalu couldn’t deliver the goods, it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of support from the Estonian fans.
The blue-and-white-clad faithful had turned out for the women’s race in the morning, but not in nearly in as many numbers as for the men’s, which began at two o’clock in the afternoon.
Flying paper flags and plied with beer and samples of Jagermeister, the Estonians were especially boisterous for their countrymen, blowing airhorns and noisemakers for all 14 of them that started the men’s race. They also mustered their enthusiasm for the rest of the international field, lining some of the most distant uphills on the five-kilometer loop—some of which were as far as a 10-minute walk from the stadium.
There didn’t appear to be the 15,000 fans that organizers claimed would show up, but what they lacked in numbers, they made up in volume.
“They cheer pretty much for everybody,” said Norwegian Tord-Asle Gjerdalen, who finished 22nd. “The best is that they cheer you by name. They know your name, and they go for it—they go, ‘Gjerdalen, Gjerdalen!’”
The athletes needed all the help they could get on Otepaa’s five-kilometer loop, which included several big, steady climbs—some of which led into short ramps that seemed near-vertical. You know a course is tough when it forces the World Cup men into a herringbone, which happened in multiple places on Saturday.
Both Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) and his teammate Petter Northug started quickly, setting the first- and second-fastest times,
respectively, at the five-kilometer mark. But both saw their hopes swallowed up by Otepaa’s ascents, as Sundby lost 51 seconds and Northug lost 38 in the last 10 kilometers.
“I felt like I had it in my pocket, but I stiffened up,” Northug told NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster. “I paid for it.”
Roenning, though, was ready to step up where his teammates left off, moving up from third at the five-kilometer mark. Aside from Northug, he is the only Norwegian to win a distance race in the last two years, according to NRK.
Roenning is a much stronger classic skier—some three-quarters of his individual World Cup podiums have come in the discipline—but according to Gjerdalen, Roenning likes double-poling, not climbing. Nonetheless, Roenning’s striding skills were apparent, as he was one of few men who didn’t have to go to herringbone on one particularly steep section near Otepaa’s jumping hill.
Roenning may also have been helped by the fact that he was fresh, having skipped the 2011 edition of the Tour de Ski. Rickardsson and Hellner were the only men coming off the Tour to crack the top five; Veerpalu eschewed the eight-stage race,
while Vylegzhanin was forced to miss it when his pre-race hemoglobin levels tested too high.
Vylegzhanin had been “sad and upset” to be held out of the start of the Tour, but on Saturday, he said he was mainly curious to compare himself to the other men, since he hadn’t raced in an international field since competing in La Clusaz, France, in mid-December.
He just managed to eke out the final spot on the podium in Otepaa, topping Hellner by less than a second.
Rickardsson, in second, had been sick in the days following the Tour de Ski, spending the first five days of an altitude camp in Italy in bed. Saturday’s 15 k was his first race back, and he used deliberate pacing to move up from seventh after one lap to second at the finish.
Rickardsson said that the 15 k will likely be his best event at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, but with a month still to go, the men weren’t taking anything for granted.
Roenning acknowledged that he’s among the contenders, but he also maintained that there were “10 or 15 skiers” who can challenge for the win in Norway.
“Today is a good test,” he said.
Roenning will start Sunday’s classic sprint, and he said in the press conference that it will serve as an important qualifier for the Norwegian team sprint team for Oslo.
With a victory in the same event in Otepaa in 2008, Roenning will certainly be a threat to win. But while the men’s distance field was missing favorites like Swiss World Cup leader Dario Cologna and Russian strongman Alexander Legkov, the start list for Sunday includes Emil Joensson (SWE), the current leader of the sprint standings. Northug will also be in attendance, along with his 20-year-old younger brother Tomas, the reigning world junior sprint champion.
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.