After 50 Long Kilometers on Skiing’s Hardest Course, Northug Outsprints Vylegzhanin Yet Again

Chelsea LittleMarch 6, 201122
Petter Northug bringing home the gold.

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.

Gjerdalen in the pack.

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

Maxim Vylegzhanin (L) with an Italian, and Alex Harvey in the background.

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!”

Marcus Hellner leading the men's pack.

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

Vylegzhanin, with Northug trailing.

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.

Belarus's Sergei Dolidovich.

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

Norwegian Sjur Roethe.

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.

Vylegzhanin after the race.

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

Northug after his fourth medal of the championships.

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 Norwegian fans near the high point of the course.

“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

Northug (R), with Lukas Bauer (L).

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.

Chelsea Little

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  • davord

    March 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Best. Recap. Ever. Seriously, you don’t even have to watch the race, you can just read about it!

  • aklaurag

    March 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    I think it’s time to bring back the individual start 50km. There is no tougher race– search for Smirnov in Lillehammer (1994), or Mogren in Val di Fiemme (1991) on youtube to see how it makes for a totally different race.

  • bill mckibben

    March 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    a remarkable account.
    and a remarkable champion. we’re lucky to be around at the moment he’s racing and get to watch–when i was a boy growing up in boston, bobby orr was at his peak and i remember thinking, ‘you’ll never see someone play quite like this.’ that’s how it feels with northug.

  • AudreyWeber

    March 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    That’s some fantastic writing Chels! Really fun to read. Hope your Norwegian experience is amazing. Say hi to Marit for me.

  • Lars

    March 6, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    I have been crtitical to the Norwegian team particularly the mens distance team since 2007 and i got to say this last 2 weeks they have been brilliant.

    I agree bring back the individual start 50k i have watched every race in these championship and this was the only one were i found myself so bored i went to do other things during parts of the race.

  • 80srule

    March 6, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    What happened to Hellner? One moment he’s at the front and the next he’s way back. Did he fall? Also, seemed the field did try to make Northug work for it, but nobody had strength it seemed to break away. Still, somebody should have tried something sneaky during the ski change or something. Also, why not limit them to one ski change only? Kinda lame I think to see all that ski changing going on, just my opinion as an armchair ski fan.

  • dsofield

    March 7, 2011 at 2:00 am

    Great Reporting, Thanks the coverage. I really enjoyed it.

  • BRB Skiing

    March 7, 2011 at 3:12 am

    Excellent recap! At this day and age most newssites goes all tabloid and hammer away at some narrow angle, barely mentioning the race/game/whatever it is their writing about. It is truely refreshing to read a detailed,well written article that respects the fact that we care about the sport. Thank you.

  • Nitram

    March 7, 2011 at 3:23 am

    I have a suggestion to make things a bit more interesting in a massstart 50k:

    Pay some rabbits!

    A pay-rate based on minutes up front and pace. There’s enough stats on finish-times for these courses, so the pay-rate could be adjusted for snow conditions.

    BTW Hellner didn’t fall. He bonked.

  • teamepokeedsbyn

    March 7, 2011 at 6:07 am

    do away with this mass start 50 (or make it a 60km or 70km). interval start much more exciting for the whole race – always will be. don’t know why this b.s. continues.

    Same reason “sprints” lame for spectators to watch, and same reason nobody gets excited about watching flat stages of Tour de France – boring except last 10 seconds.

  • davord

    March 7, 2011 at 7:37 am

    @teampokeedsbyn, That’s exactly what Juerg Capol wanted a few years ago. He was interviewed on Eurosport back in 2005 and he was talking about how they were planning a competition (TDS) that was very similar to the TDF. Somebody forgot to tell him that they are two different sports with different characteristics. As hard as it is to breakaway from the peloton in cycling races, it’s just as hard, if not harder, to do it in ski racing. Either change up the formats, with a 50/50 mix of interval/mass starts or guys like Bauer and Soedergren just have to annihilate the field right from the start, that way something happens before km 30 or 35. Perhaps we need to get Kenenisa Bekele or Samuel Wanjiru on skis.

  • RonBott

    March 7, 2011 at 9:28 am

    These mass start events are BORING! As are the sprint races and continuous pursuit. I used to enjoy watching xc ski races, now you need to just tune in for the last few minutes of a race. By trying to “dumb-down” the sport with these new formats and make it more popular to joe average TV viewer, they’ve actually made it so much less interesting. I really wish they would go back to more interval start racing and the two day pursuit events.

  • nexer

    March 7, 2011 at 9:34 am

    I, for one, enjoyed yesterday’s event. I also enjoyed the women’s 30k event.

  • Erik Remsen

    March 7, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Premier League Soccer commentators are fond of saying “form is temporary, class is permanent.” Currently, Northug and some others on the men’s tour could do well to remember that.
    And in terms of what it means to have class, the men should simply look to the women. Witness Johaug’s exuberance at finishing third (not first) in the pursuit, Stiera and Kalla embracing after a tangle near the finish of the 30k, and Bjoergen’s obvious delight in Johaug’s 30k win, though it came at Bjoergen’s expense. No snowplowing or shushing the crowd, just class.

  • Magnus Bigelow

    March 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Northug has exactly what those commentators mean when they use the term “class,” whereas Harvey, for example, would be referred to as being “on form” currently.

  • skiar

    March 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    This isn’t just a scenario where everyone chills out until the final sprint, and Petter wins it. These guys are going hard the whole time. Skiers like Bauer and Hellner were Droppped because they couldn’t maintain the pace in the final 10k. Sure, Northug has an advantage in the last 200m, but he also has amazing fitness, equal to or better than Bauer’s.

  • swl

    March 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    After having lost the relay to Norway and Northug in the 09 championships, Axel Teichmann was asked why he didn’t go out harder earlier on to leave Northug behind. His response: “Warum?! Warum ist die Banane krumm?” (Why?! Why is a banana curved?) – i.e. “this is just the way it is, nothing anybody can do about it”.

    This time, Vylegzhanin was close, though. Northug said afterwards that his attack was insanely hard and he had trouble keeping up. He managed a final sprint despite his thighs starting to cramp.

  • donpollari

    March 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    I happened to catch the last kilometers live via the net. As swl, pointed out, Vylegzhanin’s attack up the last climb was incredible! It strung everyone out and Northug was the only one who could keep up without completely blowing up. Everyone knows that it’s useless to sprint against Northug with the finish in sight. Angerer tried going early in the pursuit and Vylegzhanin went for it in the 50k.

    To beat Northug will take bike racing tactics where racers take flyers relatively distant from the finish line and others skiers make Northug chase. When Northug works to bridge they must be fit enough to follow and counter attack.

    Northug has made it crystal clear that if you want to win you need to drop him before the finish. Trouble is, no one individual is fit enough to do that and team tactics aren’t as evolved as they are in bike racing. The other trouble is to win against Northug you have to risk losing.

  • Cloxxki

    March 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Indeed good recap.

    Also agree the 50km mass start is boring. I’ve been watching all the skiing I can, but I nodded off during this one. At least the ladies had me on the edge of my seat all the way through.
    As long as there’s one guy whose sprint cannot be matched, and no-one makes a real effort to get to the last km 20s before him , racing at this level will remain boring.

  • Cloxxki

    March 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    BTW, on the topic of 50, glad to see Vylegzhanin managed to nudge his HC under 50% for the big races. Or am I?

  • Jake

    March 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    I have to agree with @skiar – from where I’m sitting, the lack of a break in the group isn’t because everybody is sitting back waiting for the end. Its because the level is so high and the field is so deep, its just so difficult to get away. No doubt, the spread is less in a mass start than an individual start, but its not for lack of trying. Personally I thought this race was amazing to watch and that all sorts of people were trying to break the field apart, to no avail.

    I’m surprised that nobody has commented on the psychological aspect of Northug’s race. From about the mid-point on it seemed that he decided that he would win the race and that nobody was going to get in the way of that. Prior to every ski change he put in a small acceleration, apparently for some combination of demonstrating his control over the race, and to make sure that nobody could get away like they did in the women’s race.

    And up the last climb he did look vulnerable. Unlike some of his sit-back-then-pounce finishes, this one looked difficult, and he had no energy to celebrate at the finish line. This is the part about him that people don’t seem to talk about much – sure, he’s over the top when he wins easily, but when its hard, its hard, but more often than not, he still wins, because he’s made the decision that he’s going to and nobody is going to get in the way of that.

  • fxg

    March 7, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    I don’t agree with Jake and Skiar. When they are attacking it forms a line. They skied as a bunch until Helner attacked. I agree it was a very boring race, as are most of mass start races. Why not making these long races pursuits based on results of a 10k interval start, It would be very interesting to watch. I think

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