Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov was 100 yards away and three minutes from the start of his own classic sprint final when his teammate Elena Soboleva crashed out of the front of the women’s race.
Rather than collecting a medal, Soboleva was last in the heat, leaving it up to Ustiugov to cash in. And cash in he did, overpowering Norway’s Sondre Fossli and his own teammate Gleb Retivykh on the homestretch to take World Junior Championships gold in Estonia.
After Soboleva’s crash, “we had to take the medal that belongs to us,” Ustiugov said through a translator.
Erik Bjornsen (USA) was the only North American to make to the heats, after Canada’s Andy Shields got stuck in 31st—just one spot away from advancing. There had also been high hopes on Bjornsen’s teammate Skyler Davis, who had taken third in the classic sprint at U.S. Nationals earlier this month. But Davis said he felt “flat” in qualifying – without the pop he’d had in training sessions earlier this week. He finished 35th, roughly a second away from the heats.
Bjornsen was eliminated in his quarterfinal, but was in it all the way, at the back of a tight pack led by Fossli until the homestretch. There, he moved up to fourth, then third when a finisher in front of him was disqualified.
Despite ending up a respectable 14th, he said that the snap he’d felt in the qualifier was gone in the heats.
“I just didn’t quite have it,” he said.
Unlike the women’s rounds, which were pinned from the gun, the men’s racing was tactical—Bjornsen said that he could have skied at the front early on, but chose not to.
“I was feeling comfortable. I just didn’t really want to go into the lead,” he said. As things picked up, “every chance I had to try to make a move, I was trying to—but everybody else is too. Everybody’s fighting for it.”
Initially, Bjornsen’s third place in the heat left him in the mix to advance as a lucky loser, but faster finishers in the later rounds pushed him out.
To get to the finals, Ustiugov had to battle his Russian teammates all the way there. In the quarters, he skied alongside Dmitriy Golub, who stubbornly double-poled his way all the way to the finals—the only man to try the maneuver—where he ended up fifth.
In the semis, Ustiugov and Golub were joined by Retivykh, and all three moved along to the finals, along with Fossli and two of his Norwegian teammates from the other heat. The stage was set for a battle between two of the world’s premier ski nations.
Ustiugov led from the start, with Fossli straining to keep up on the course’s two climbs. The pair came into the homestretch together, but with 25 meters to go, Fossli had to give up.
Ustiugov was jubilant—afterwards, he said it was the first time he had ever topped his teammate Retivykh. Along with Golub, the three had swept the classic sprint at the Russian Junior National Championships in Rybinsk earlier this month.
Still, though, even with the two medals from Friday’s race, the Russians’ six medals still trail the Norwegians in the standings by two.
And in Fossli, the Norwegians clearly have a deep reservoir of talent. He’s just 17, a year younger than Ustiugov and two younger than Retivykh, and he won the summer’s World Cup rollerskiing competition for juniors.
“He’s better in the classic sprint than skate sprint, but he’s a good skier, technically,” said Roar Hjelmeset, the team’s junior coach. “Three medals today—it’s very good.”
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.