Blue skies, some uncountable number of ski fans estimated in excess of 105,000, the most prestigious individual ski race in the world, and all of it in Oslo, the self-anointed ski capital of the world. Such a day could end only one way: with Petter Northug once again accelerating away from his competition in the last 400 meters of the World Championship 50 k freestyle on his home turf.
A World Cup men’s 50 k takes somewhere in excess of two hours, and for the most part, the first hour and twenty minutes is a race of attrition. The hangers-on (those with sub-par skis and anyone with less than strong form) slowly slip off the back. Today, however, the pace was not much more than a crawl from the start. The pack still counted 39 skiers at the 30-kilometer mark, even after four times up the two-kilometer Styggedalen climb.
According to course designer Hermod Bjørkestøl, the loop was laid out to mirror the traditional elements of past Holmenkollen 50 k races. The version initially run in 1929 was a single 50 k and featured five hard climbs. When the course was switched to two 25 k loops, the climbs increased to six. Next came the 16.7 k circuit, used until 2009.
The new 8.6 k loop, created specifically for World Championships, also has those six ascents, albeit in a different form: six laps, six times up the Styggedalen to Frognersetren.
“It costs to go hard up to Frognersetren because… I think it is the hardest course on the circus of the World Cup,” said Tord Asle Gjerdalen, today’s bronze medal recipient.
Despite the abundance of opportunities to attack on this “hardest course,” there were nothing more than feints off the front, with the likes of Pietro Piller Cottrer of Italy, Maurice Manificat of France and Remo Fischer of Switzerland taking a turn pushing the pace a little. Until 27 kilometers, when Canada’s Ivan Babikov took the lead over the top of the course at Frognersetren, there was nothing that could squarely be termed an attack.
Even Babikov merely stepped up the pace a bit, and coming before the long, fast, descent, it wasn’t in a spot in the course
that could lead to a true breakaway.
“I was leading for a bit because I felt pretty good,” Babikov said simply after the race.
And so the race continued on its way, winding up from the stadium, past the Homenkollen chapel, around the sprint course and back to the stadium – ready to head back out toward the Styggedalen.
It seemed impossible, with the likes of Northug, Marcus Hellner, Maxim Vylegzhanin, Daniel Rickardsson and others still onboard and brutal climbs looming ahead, that there would not be a move of consequence. Could the famed Holmenkollen 50 k really be a repeat of the 50 k skate at the 2006 Olympics, when more than 20 skiers entered the stadium with a shot for the medals?
Hellner, however, was not interested in such an occurrence, and when the group hit the Styggedalen climb for the fifth time, the Swede took off, almost instantly shattering the pack. The gap was five meters, then ten, with only Piller Cottrer on Hellner’s heels.
Stadium announcer Kjell Erik Kristiansen was barely able to contain himself, yelling into his microphone “This is not bullshit! This is serious!”
Kristiansen was right, and his only error may have been understating the severity of Hellner’s punch. Piller Cottrer couldn’t hang, and quickly dropped back to the chasers. In his place Sjur Roethe, a 22-year-old Norwegian skiing in his first World Championships, put in the surge to try to close the gap.
Hellner wouldn’t be able to replicate Therese Johaug’s successful early attack in the women’s 30 k. Roethe brought the Swede most of the way back before letting his elders take over. Hitting the crest, Ilia Chernousov of Russia, Northug, Roland Clara of Italy, Dario Cologna of Switzerland, Tobias Angerer of Germany, and Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia had all regained contact, with Roethe left in no-man’s land a few seconds back.
They hammered into the descent, but by the time the stadium was in sight, the chase pack had closed, albeit at the expense of 17 skiers who were now strung out along the trail behind. The game was now afoot, and when the climbing started again on the shorter, steeper hills above the stadium, Hellner hit the accelerator again.
The top ten skiers opened a solid 20 meters on the remnants of the pack, but once again the drop back to the final lap brought them together. The pressure was certainly taking a toll: no longer was there a large group of skiers clumped at the front. Instead, the 22-skier group was now a snake, winding single file down the track. The skiers’ faces showed the strain
of high speed late in a long race.
“I tried to do something there the last laps,” Hellner told FasterSkier after the race. “But it was hard.”
The gold medalist in the Championships opening event, the freestyle sprint, Hellner hung tough but was eventually relegated to the back of the pack.
“I didn’t have my best day,” he said, but added that he was very pleased to leave with two medals and the experience of racing the Championships at Holmenkollen.
Gjerdalen, who kept a low profile most of the race, was always in the mix but rarely right at the front. He withstood Hellner’s first attack, but said that if someone else had made another move right over the top, he may not have been able to manage.
“It’s like this in these longer races – sometimes you are feeling good and suddenly you are feeling bad again,” Gjerdalen said. That tough fifth time up Styggedalen was one of the bad times, but when the finish rolled around, the tables had turned and he felt “very much stronger.”
Skiers were allowed to change skis up to four times at the lap, and nearly all of the leaders chose to do so with ten kilometers to go. Northug accelerated out of the feed zone at the high point of the stadium, getting a gap into the exchange.
Even when Lukas Bauer and ageless wonder Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus skied straight through, Northug was out right on their tails, forcing his competition to briefly surge to get back on board.
Rickardsson, the lengthy Swede who dominated the Drammen World Cup 15 k classic two weeks ago, took over at the front, continuing to push the pace, with Northug just behind. The suffering chasers gained a moment of respite when Rickardsson slowed almost to a stop on the flat at the high point of the course, looking for someone else to take over. There were no volunteers, and he took off again into the descent.
When the pack left the stadium for the last time with less than four kilometers to race, there were seventeen skiers who seemed to be in contention for the win. And it was an impressive group; only a few of the prerace favorites had fallen back. With just a few steep hills left, the skiers steeled themselves against the attacks that were bound to come.
And sure enough, Juha Lallukka, the practically unknown skier who ditched the field when he raced the third leg of Finland’s relay, pushed hard in an attempt to break up the pack. While Northug – the one everyone was worried about – didn’t drop, a number of others did, among them most of the Swedes and Babikov.
By the time the men, led by Vylegzhanin, were zooming down the hill towards the stadium – and the long, steep hill on the sprint
course, called the Gratishaugen – the pack was down to ten men. But even though quite a few athletes were still there, the climb had taken a serious toll on their legs, in ways that they couldn’t yet fully appreciate.
Dolidovich was the first to find out. At 38 years of age and with just one World Cup victory under his belt – a 60 k skate race in Kuopio, Finland, in 2001 – Dolidovich surprised the field by finishing fourth in the 30 k pursuit earlier this week. He was in second place behind Vylegzhanin coming down over the bridge next to the stadium, and while it seemed unlikely that he could beat Northug in a sprint finish, he might have been headed for his first World Championships medal. Then, unable to control his legs any longer, he caught an edge and crashed into the wall, breaking a pole.
The Norwegian fans held their breath: Northug was right behind the Belorussian.
“He was falling, he went to the left so I just jumped over his right ski,” Northug said in a press conference. “So I was lucky there.”
Just seconds later, a Norwegian in a white hat did the same thing going around the downhill corner. And again, the fans gasped.
But Northug was still safe at the front. The unlucky skier was Petter Eliassen, who dusted himself off as best he could, his hopes dashed.
Going up the Gratishaugen, Vylegzhanin put in a furious attack, which dropped all of the remaining skiers except for Northug and teammate Gjerdalen, who seemed able to follow but barely lost contact going over the top of the hill. The trio sprinted along the far side of the stadium, with the dramatic backdrop of the ski jump, trailed by five men: Rothe, Angerer, Alex Harvey of Canada, Rickardsson, and Lallukka.
If the Gratishaugen was renamed Hellnerbakken earlier this week, then the final hill in the stadium will have to be renamed Northugbakken. Just as he had in the relay, Northug put on his signature move as he began up the hill, passing Vylegzhanin by the time he got to the first corner. Going across the top, he accelerated again. While Vylegzhanin never trailed by much, the outcome of the race was not in question. Northug was headed for gold.
“It went as I expected, me and him fighting for the gold,” Northug said. “He beat me in La Clusaz so that was a big motivation for me. I think it was good that he beat me in December so I wanted to get my revenge on him. He’s a really good athlete, he’s really smart when he’s racing.”
Despite the World Cup victory earlier this year, it was a familiar, sinking feeling for Vylegzhanin, who finished 0.7 seconds
behind Northug in this event at the 2009 World Championships. And earlier this week, he lost to the Norwegian by the same margin in the 30 k pursuit.
“It is a stimulus for me, that I want to beat him next time,” the Russian said through an interpreter in the post-race press conference. “I have to be better at the finish.”
Not much better – Northug had neither the time nor the energy to do any celebrating or showboating as he crossed the line. And when Vylegzhanin had increased his pace to chase Northug, Gjerdalen had been dropped in a serious way. In fact, it wasn’t clear that he could be able to hold off the men who were charging behind him.
In the end, he did, and earned the first medal of his career.
Less than two seconds after Gjerdalen finished, his teammate Rothe, an even less-likely candidate for a top-five finish today, won a photo finish ahead of Harvey and Angerer, giving Norway three of the top four finishers.
When asked about the team’s plan for the race, Gjerdalen initially made a joke.
“The plan was for all five to just go hard, and maybe just get a gap like Therese did, work together and maybe win by two minutes, and split the gold,” he said. “That was the plan. But then how to complete the plan….”
On the serious side, though, he said that the World Championships had vindicated some of their weaker performances.
“This has been a great Championship for us,” he said. “Both for girls and boys. Especially for us boys we have had a long way back and haven’t had the best results early this season, but we don’t even think about that now because it’s the Championships that matters. When we sat down in the springtime and talked about it it was only the Championships that we would think about after this season. So I’m quite happy to succeed now at Holmenkollen. It’s big for us, for the whole team.”
As for Northug, today’s race proved once again that at the end of a distance race, nobody is better at moving fast.
“The most important thing for Petter is that he trains with his brother, who is probably a little bit faster than him when you go form zero to one hundred meters,” said Vidar Lofshus, the Norwegian national team sports director. “And sometimes when you do like a sprint when you are out training, Thomas will even beat him. But when they come to a sprint like this and they are both
tired, then Petter always beats him. But I think that’s most important. He’s always looking for how to improve his final sprint.”
Northug pushed himself to exhaustion and expected to have an early night tonight. “I was very tired,” he said. “If you are going to win the 50 k then you have to be.”
He said after his victory that he “has no wishes – I am happy,” and that the relay victory still meant more.
“As a team, the most important was to win the relay,” he explained. “Championships in Norway are really the most important because so many people feel like they are part of the team. All the whole of Norway feels that they are almost part of the team.
“Finally, now I can relax,” he said.
-Nathaniel Herz contributed reporting.