One might say that a Swede winning a World Cup race on Norwegian soil would be reason for a national day of mourning. But despite Sweden getting the best in this stage of the great Nordic skiing rivalry, the unflagging good cheer of 15,000 Norwegian ski fans indicated otherwise.
Daniel Rickardsson (SWE) turned in a dominating performance before a boisterous crowd in the last distance World Cup race prior to the start of the World Championships. Rickardsson, know for his classic prowess, overtook Petter Northug from 30 seconds back and skied to a convincing 29-second victory over Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR). Northug placed third, exactly one second behind his teammate.
The challenging 5km loop in the hills above Drammen, Norway proved no match for the lanky Rickardsson. In claiming his first-ever World Cup victory, the Swede outpaced most of the world’s top skiers in the 15km classic event.
“It was a good race for me,” Rickardsson said. “From the start I felt in good shape and I just pushed it.”
The stadium was packed, and one major crossroads where racers passed three time per loop featured tents, campfires, and beer-drinking fans who arrived in plenty of time to excavate elaborate snow-seating.
“The crowd today was amazing. This was a perfect cross-country race – big crowd, perfect tracks, and I had a good race,” Johnsrud Sundby said.
Rickardsson now has four World Cup podiums to his name, and all have come this year – including three in the 15km classical event.
Northug battled to stay in contact with Rickardsson after the Swede caught him with over five kilometers to go. He was able to hang on, and even took over the lead on the last hill before the pair hammered down the finish stretch dead even.
Rickardsson posed briefly for the crowd before heading out to change and perform the requisite television interviews. Northug, meanwhile, lay collapsed just across the finish line, alone in the finish corral until the last two men, Lukas Bauer (CZE) and Dario Cologna (SUI) made their way across.
“I was a little tired at the start,” Northug said. “I didn’t have a good feeling, but Daniel [Rickardsson] raced really fast…I knew If I followed him to the finish line I would have a chance for the podium.”
Northug said he felt better on the last of three five-kilometer laps and with 3.3 k to go, he had closed from 13 seconds down on Sundby to eight. But he eventually ran out of real-estate, and had to settle for third.
Johnsrud Sundby, a key component of the Norwegian 4x10km relay team, showed good form from the start.
“I am satisfied to be on the podium again,” Johnsrud Sundby said. “The last time was two years ago – this is not a second too late [with World Championships coming up].
He found the new Drammen course to his liking, describing it as “one of the toughest courses we race.”
The plan, Johnsrud Sundby said, was to start conservatively. “I felt like I skied an even race, and had something left for the last five k’s,” he said at the post-race press conference.
The World Championship 4x10km relay is shaping up to be a battle between Norway and Sweden. With Rickardsson in top form, and Markus Hellner taking the day off to rest before sprinting on Sunday, the Swedes are in good position to defend their gold from the 2010 Olympics.
But the Norwegian men, who other than Northug, have taken some heat over the past several years, are skiing fast.
“The Swedish guys are our main concern,” Johnsrud Sundby said. “I feel like it will be a tough relay, but we are getting in good shape, and we could surprise.”
Rickardsson discounted the supposed pre-Championship curse described by NRK blogger Jann Post. According to Post, over the course of the last eight Championship events (Olympics and World Championships), only one man has won the final World Cup distance race prior to the big event, and gone on to take gold.
“I don’t care about that,” Rickardsson said. “This is my first World Cup victory and I am really happy…lots of thing can happen in the next week.”
Northug said he was pleased to be on the podium heading to Oslo, but when asked if he would rather have been first, he said “After we finish in Holmenkollen, nobody will remember who was on the podium in Konnerud.”
Overall World Cup leader Dario Cologna, skiing with his distinct smooth, flowing style, placed fourth, just 3.6 seconds behind Northug. Another pre-race favorite, Lukas Bauer (CZE) skied with great energy, but only managed a ninth place finish.
Of the podium finishers, only Northug will race Sunday’s sprint. Rickardsson is headed home to Sweden to rest for a few days, while Johnsrud Sundby plans on a few speed workouts to keep fresh prior to his first races at World Championships.
World Cup racing continues on Sunday with a 1.6km freestyle sprint.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.