When Britain’s Andrew Musgrave came through the stadium leading the first lap of the 15 k freestyle on Thursday, it was clear that it was going to be a good day for Anglophones at the U-23 Championships in Otepaa, Estonia—even if the Russian team ultimately swept the podium.
Musgrave lost his early lead, but still held on for sixth place, and was joined in the top 10 by Canadian Kevin Sandau and American Noah Hoffman in fifth and ninth, respectively. Russian Evgeniy Belov, a top-10 World Cup finisher, took the win convincingly, with his teammates Pavel Vikulin and Raul Shakirzianov completing the sweep.
But even the Russians had to take notice of Musgrave early in the race, when he went out like a bullet and led the entire field by 12 seconds after the first of four 3.75 k laps.
A 20-year-old Scot with two more years of U-23 Championships eligibility, Musgrave is currently living in Norway and training with a regional club team—the alumni of which include stars like Ola Vigen Hattestad and Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset.
After some muscular results in the fall, where he was competitive with some of Norway’s best juniors, and even some World Cup skiers, Musgrave was a known quantity on Thursday. But it was still a surprise to see the unfamiliar colors of the British suit keeping pace with the world’s best Germans and Russians through the snow-covered fields of Estonia. The country is no nordic skiing powerhouse—the three athletes it sent to the 2010 Vancouver Games were its first Olympians in the sport since 1994, according to the website of the British Olympic Association. (Musgrave was one of them.)
In Otepaa, his first lap was indeed explosive, and he already looked tired heading up the first big climb; it seemed impossible that he could sustain his pace. But in an interview after the race, Musgrave said that his fast start was a concerted effort—not youthful exuberance getting the better of him.
“I didn’t feel that good on the first lap—I felt quite stiff, so I just tried to go hard…and loosen up the legs,” he said. “I always open hard—that’s the way I race best. I know I’ve got to be in the lead on the first couple laps to be within a chance.”
On the second lap, though, the rest of the field was starting to reel him back in, with Belov taking the lead over Musgrave by four seconds at the halfway point.
By the time Musgrave entered the home stretch, it was clear that he had cracked a bit, if not entirely—the snap that other skiers brought to the finish line was lacking.
He was briefly the leader, but was quickly bumped down by Sandau, as well as Norwegian Thomas Vestboe—one of his club teammates—for a conclusion to a day that was simultaneously a thrill, and a little bit discouraging.
“If yesterday I’d have known I was going to come top six, I’d have been happy,” he said. “But today, losing out on the medal—it’s a bit disappointing.”
Sandau’s approach to the race was more measured—he never sat further than one place from his final position.
In his last year of U-23 eligibility, Sandau is 5’9”, but he skis like he’s shorter than that, with a fluid, compact technique. In
Thursday’s race, he caught his teammate Michael Somppi, who started a minute earlier, and the two skied together into the finish.
On his website, Sandau lists his goal for the 2010-2011 season as a top-five at U-23’s, and on Thursday, he got exactly what he came for—even if organizers had disappointed him by removing the biggest climb from the World Cup course that he had raced in Otepaa last weekend.
Mike Cavaliere, Sandau’s coach at the Alberta World Cup Academy, said that the fifth place was on par with expectations, given results from earlier in the year—including a second place in one of the country’s U-23 Championships qualifying races, where Sandau was just a few seconds behind World Cup veteran George Grey.
“He’s been extremely competitive with our seniors in Canada this year, and we know what they’re capable of doing,” Cavaliere said. “There were some signs…He’s just a great athlete—good, focused, committed, takes care of business.”
The efforts from Musgrave and Sandau overshadowed what would otherwise have been a heralded finish by American Noah Hoffman, who was ninth in what he called a “good result, for an average-to-good feeling day.”
“I don’t think it was my best,” he said. “It was decent.”
The course wasn’t exactly laid out for Hoffman, who thrives on big climbs, though he still said it was fun to ski.
The 3.75 k loop featured short, steep ascents rather than long, grinding ones—and plenty of transitions and technical skiing.
With 440 meters of total climbing over 15 k, the course was at the lower end of the range recommended by the International Ski Federation. But Hoffman still used it to race to his best-ever finish at U-23’s or World Juniors.
The Russians, though, demonstrated that they had truly mastered the trails in Otepaa—which makes sense, given that they use the facility as a site for summer training camps.
Belov had already raced to a 14th place in last weekend’s World Cup here, and with their sweep of the top three places on Thursday, he and his teammates showed that Otepaa was their second home.
With his 16-second victory, it’s clear Belov is the real deal—even if some of his fiercest competition is elsewhere. Belov’s teammate Petr Sedov, has better credentials, but he had to miss the U-23 Championships with heart problems, and a number of top Norwegians are back home competing for spots at the upcoming senior World Championships in Oslo later this season.
Still, in the press conference, Belov was unfazed.
“Last year, we raced against all those competitors, and I was on the podium several times,” he said through a translator. “So, who is there to be afraid of?”
The next U-23 race is Saturday’s classic sprint, but the top distance skiers in Otepaa are looking towards Monday’s 30 k pursuit.
Sandau’s best race at Canada’s U-23 qualifiers came in that format, and while Musgrave and Hoffman both tend to do better in freestyle, they could be in line for more good results if they can hold on in the classic leg. For Musgrave, according to British coach Roger Homyer, it’s clear that the potential is there.
“He’s got it in him—it’s just him getting it out of himself,” he said.
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.