When asked whom he designed the Oslo courses for, the renowned Hermod Björkestöl, responsible for the layouts at the last three Olympics, responded simply “for entertainment.”
And entertainment, in the form of drama and excitement, was provided in spades as Petter Northug (NOR) overcame a shocking early attack by Alex Harvey, and an impressive late challenge by the Russians to achieve his primary goal for the 2011 World Championships – an individual gold medal.
Northug took the win in the final 500 meters, besting the Russian duo of Maxim Vylegzhanin and Ilia Chernousov in the men’s 30km pursuit and claiming his fifth career World Championship medal.
Northug described the race as “my biggest chance to get an individual gold here in Oslo—maybe my biggest dream, and maybe my biggest achievement I can do as a skier in Norway.”
The excitement didn’t being until well into the race, when Harvey found himself at the front, and decided to go. Coming up the large climb featured on the sprint course, Harvey attacked, and quickly opened up a gap entering the stadium.
The move, at the 18 kilometer mark was unplanned, and in some respects, accidental.
“I felt really easy in the group and my skis were fast,” Harvey explained. “I didn’t really attack. Everyone switched to offset and I just kept one-skating not too hard, and then I had a gap so then I decided to try to go.”
Through the stadium Harvey’s teammate Ivan Babikov, skiing well toward the front already, took over and dropped the pace. “I tired to get him a couple more, maybe five seconds more—just go easy at the front, Babikov said.”
That strategy worked briefly, but the Russians were not going to let the gap grow too big. Vylegzhanin said they were “very concerned” about Harvey’s ability to get away, and expended the energy to minimize the damage.
The Russians were joined at the front by Italian Roland Clara, and the ever-present Dario Cologna (SUI). The gap reached nearly ten seconds, and the possibility of gold for the 22-year-old Canadian became a reality.
But the pack started closing just past the 20-kilometer mark, reducing the lead to under seven seconds. Harvey still looked strong, but the chase was moving faster, and with nearly ten kilometers ago, the attack appeared to have failed.
The next time check, however, proved otherwise. In the course of a kilometer-and-a-half, Harvey stretched the margin to 16 seconds and the game was on.
“I was just skiing my own pace at the front, opening the gap,” Harvey said. “I was going for the win.”
An early attack in a mass start is the ultimate gamble. If a skier gets clear, he can avoid the chaos of 15 men fighting for position heading into the final sprint, and more importantly, neutralize the finishing kick of Northug.
Johan Olsson tried such a strategy at the 2010 Olympics, breaking even earlier and gapping the field in the classic portion. He was eventually caught a kilometer before the finish and impressively held on for the bronze.
Harvey’s fate would not be so kind. His body betrayed him, his inner thighs inexplicably cramping.
“I stopped skiing basically, he said. It was so bad that he couldn’t ride a flat ski and struggled to keep his feet on the descent from the top of the course.
He still led coming back into the stadium, but the inevitable was clear. Norwegian Tord Asle Gjerdalen accelerated down the homestretch, Northug hot on his heels, and on the bridge headed back out for the final 3.75 kilometer loop, Harvey was absorbed.
The race was wide open again, and with trail running out, the last lap featured one attack after another. Devon Kershaw, coming off four podium appearances in the Tour de Ski, charged hard on the biggest climb, a move he later admitted came too early. He held the pace, but couldn’t get clear, and when the race hit the final large hill below the stadium, he was unable to hold on.
Italian distance specialist Giorgio DiCenta tried his luck next, but he too came up short.
All this time, Northug was lurking just behind the leaders. Content to sit back through the classic portion, conserving energy, he had been prepared to work to close the gap on Harvey on the fourth lap. It never came to that, and he was able to hold toward the front, relatively free of trouble, without driving the train.
Toward the top of the hill he finally went. “You don’t want to know what I’m saying to myself in my head—it’s not so kind words—I try to punish myself,” Northug said.
The last thing he remembers thinking as he attacked? That this may be his only chance at the individual gold.
He took the lead, but it was hardly vintage Northug. With three-quarters of a kilometer to go from the top of the hill, and the Russians and Marcus Hellner breathing down his neck, Northug had not yet put it away.
Hellner of all people had no business being at the front. With the Swedish team missing the glide, he was unable to stay in contact on the classic portion of the race. At the transition, he was back in 29th, twenty seconds off the pace.
It took the fastest skate time of the day to regain contact and be in position to fight for the medals. But he paid a price, and his efforts on the back climb were not enough.
According to Swedish coach Rickard Grip, after battling to catch up, Hellner didn’t have quite enough to get by into the lead, and he also pointed out that Northug, among others, would be aware of Hellner’s tactic – attack early on that climb and hold to the finish.
It worked perfectly in the sprint, but said Grip, “it is hard to win with the same type of way – two times in a row… Northug knows that he really had to keep his eyes open for what Marcus was doing.”
Northug did just that, spotting Hellner amidst the fray. “I wasn’t worried, but for sure I have my thoughts in my head that he’s not going to beat me one more time here in front of the home crowd,” Northug said. He described such an outcome as “embarrassing,” and was actually happy to see his rival.
“It was good that Marcus was showing his face….on the last uphill…that helped for motivation,” said Northug.
His lack of concern for the Swede did not extend to Vylegzhanin. While the Russian is no sprinter—he made a rare sprint start in Drammen, placing 62nd—Northug knows firsthand that Vylegzhanin finishes well at the end of long races. In the La Clusaz 30k in December, Vylegzhanin outlunged Northug at the line for the victory.
“I saw Vylegzhanin looked stronger,” Northug said. “So I knew that maybe he would be the hardest one to fight with in the end.
“I have gone through this race in my head now for one year,” Northug continued. “I have been in the situation in training many times—I knew that in this track you have to stay in front, and the attack was also planned in my head.”
The race flowed along the front of the jumping bleachers, taking the hard 90-degree corner into the backstretch, Northug still leading, and the Norwegain crowd roaring their approval.
Vylegzhanin stayed strong, and Hellner held position in third. Up the last hill behind the cross-country stands, and around the back, Northug increased his speed again, and finally appeared to have the gap he needed. Hellner, finally spent, could do nothing when Chernousov sped by on the high flat, and limped across in sixth.
Northug never opened more than a few meters on Vylegzhanin, and had not time to celebrate across the line. He doubled over, skidding to a stop and collapsed in a corner of the finish pen, not to rise for some minutes.
The Russians meanwhile celebrated their first medals of Championships, Vylegzhanin matching his silver medal performance in the 50k in 2009. Chernousov, on the other hand, made just his second major Championship start, and has just one career World Cup victory to his name.
“We did our best to beat him,” Vylegzhanin said after the race. “We always try to have some power reserved in the finish in case we can beat him once.” He added with a smile “let’s see later in the Championship.”
“We know it’s hard to be as good or better as him,” Vylegzhanin said of Northug. “But we are on the case.”
In the sprint, Northug was polite after the race, congratulating his competitors, but never cracking even the semblance of a smile despite his silver medal. Today he was a different man, saluting the crowd, grinning broadly, as relieved as joyful.
For the flower ceremony he donned the gold team jacket that thus far only Marit Bjorergen has received.
“For me,” Northug said, “I knew if I won today it would be maybe easier for me to race the next week in the Championships because I have made my gold.”
Northug also mentioned that he would have preferred a small group in the skate race. He wasn’t the only one surprised by the large pack.
The classic portion of the race looped three times around the five-kilometer course, a route that features 200 meters of total climbing. Despite the large climb, the field did not break up as many expected.
Said Björkestöl “I was actually surprised. My guess was that on the final round at the top [of the classic course]…there would be 10-15, and there was double.”
The veteran trail designed speculated that the difficulty of the course may have actually been the issue, explaining, “If it is too tough, they do not dare to go.
Canadian Devon Kershaw described the classic pace as “dead easy,” and American Noah Hoffman, who spent the first two loops with the lead pack concurred.
“I think it was slower than the U-23 pursuit,” Hoffman said.
Kershaw ended the day in ninth, losing a photo finish with Tobias Angerer (GER). Harvey held on for 12th, and Babikov took 15th. Norway, Italy and Canada all finished with three skiers in the top-15.
“It was great to be a Norwegian today.,” said fifth place finisher Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR). “I haven’t seen such team effort in many years.”
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.