Ulf Morten Aune, Norwegian sprint team coach, says the sprint podium on Thursday is wide open, and does not rule out Americans in contention for the medals.
“Andy Newell is an incredible skier. He is a true performer on skis, he corners like a god and maneuvers the equipment like child’s play. It’s fun to watch,” Aune said at the Norwegian team’s opening press conference.
“Newell has made the podium in a World Cup sprint before, and once you’ve been there, it’s always possible to repeat in the world championships,” Aune said, noting that Newell is a good fit for the challenging course in Holmenkollen.
“Newell is very nimble on skis and he handles the high speed well,” Aune said, explaining that the finishing stretch on the Holmenkollen sprint course will create some fast finishes.
As for the Canadians, Aune would also not be surprised if they finish high on the result lists.
“Devon Kershaw won the sprint in the Tour de Ski in Toblach, and that was impressive,” Aune said.
For Alex Harvey, Aune is concerned that the Holmenkollen course profile might be tough. Harvey pulled off a surprise podium finish at Konnerud/Drammen (NOR) last Sunday, the final World Cup sprint before the World Championships. However, Aune considers the Konnerud sprint course an entirely different animal than what the racers will face in Holmenkollen. But on the other side, Holmenkollen success might just be in Harvey’s DNA.
“Alex might have learned something from his father, Pierre Harvey, who won the 50K in Holmenkollen way back when,” Aune said. For the record, Pierre Harvey won the 50K in Holmenkollen in 1988.
Experience, confidence and respect
The Norwegian men’s sprint team consists of defending world champion Ola Vigen Hattestad, Anders Gloersen, Eirik Brandsdal, Øystein “Sausage” Pettersen and Petter Northug. All of them are men who have proven results in the sprint and have trained on the race course as much as anyone. But while they know the course, they also know what it takes to make it on the brutal course, and know they have hours of pain ahead of them.
“Everyone will open hard, and there will be fighting for positions the whole way, until someone takes a chance and surges, then everyone will try to follow. It will be brutal,” says Eirik Brandsdal, who won the sprint at the Norwegian nationals in January.
The team is optimistic in terms of their own chances, but also respectful of their competitors.
Ola Vigen Hattestad is the defending world champion, but he doesn’t let the pressure bother him.
“I don’t mind, I’d rather be the favorite than the outsider,” said Ola Vigen Hattestad, who pointed out that he felt more pressure leading up to the 2009 World Championships in Liberec (CZE). This season is coming along nicely and according to plan.
“Since Christmas all the signs are pointing in the right direction, I’ve gotten the feedback I need to feel confident. After all, the one who has a good day and everything falling into place will win,” Vigen Hattestad said.
Teammate Gloersen did have a good day in Holmenkollen last year at the pre-worlds, when he won both the qualifier and the sprint final.
“I skied well here at the pre-Worlds last year, and I like this course, but there are plenty of strong competitors, especially (Russian Alexei) Petukhov and (Swede Emil) Joensson,” Gloersen said.
Northug, who is one of the team members with the least sprint victories to point to, said his goal is to be in the final.
“I want to prove that I can be right up there among the best on a good day. But there are many strong skiers out there who can win a sprint,” Northug said, noting that the Oslo course suits him well with a long hill in the middle and a fast finish.
“With the fast finish, you need to be where you want to be before you get into that section. If you are too far back, it will be hard to gain on people on the final stretch. I’ll try to make a push on the long hill, especially in the semifinal and the final, to try get a gap on the field there that they can’t close,” he explained.
Home turf advantage
Coach Aune also points out that the course in Oslo is different than all other courses on the World Cup circuit. “We’ve used the opportunities to train on the course well, and figured out how to solve the technical and tactical challenges it presents. Ola is the defending champion, but I will not be surprised if any of these guys win,” Aune said.
Brandsdal, Gloersen and Pettersen are all from Oslo and grew up racing on the Holmenkollen trails. Racing in the World Championships on courses they know like their back pockets will be epic, they said.
“I definitely feel that this will be special. I have a lot of butterflies, but I think it’s good to be on fire like that. It keeps me focused,” Brandsdal said.
When asked if they are favorites to win, they try not to worry about it.
“I don’t really think about it too much. I have enough with thinking about the tasks and take care of my own things,” Gloersen said.
While the sprint course has been criticized by both racers and coaches on several occasions since the pre-Worlds in Holmenkollen last year, the Norwegians are content with the course now. Some thought the course is too narrow, some argued that the last turn is too steep and will cause crashes, and others were concerned about the downhill finish. And then some said fluke incidents will determine the race. Pettersen, who has trained on the course both before and after the adjustments, thinks the fastest skier will win. It’s all about positioning yourself right.
“It’s not luck that determines who’s in position when you get around that turn and into the final stretch. If that was the case, you might as well do a raffle to pick a winner. I don’t think luck determines who wins this sprint, even if a lot of people claim so,” Pettersen said.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.