Much to the Americans’ and Canadians’ chagrin, the men’s 4 x 10 k relay at World Championships on Friday did not unfold as it often does.
“At the start, they usually jockey for a bit,” Canadian leadoff skier Stefan Kuhn told FasterSkier. “But one Swede, Daniel Rickardsson, was thinking otherwise today, because he had two bad races. So he wanted to prove a point.”
Instead of a tactical first leg, where many of the teams ski together in a pack, the hammer was down from the get-go. Rickardsson, perhaps out for revenge after two straight races with terrible skis, attacked early on, and only one man was able to follow him: Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia. Neither the U.S. nor Canada was able to stay anywhere close to the speedy, lanky Swede.
Earlier this season, the U.S. had a promising relay result in Gallivare, Sweden. There, leadoff skier Andy Newell skied with the main pack for almost his entire 10 k leg, leaving Kris Freeman only a 15-second gap to close. Here in Oslo, the more intense pace did him in much earlier, and Freeman was faced with 14th place and a two-and-a-half minute deficit.
“Today was not a typical World Cup relay,” Newell said after the race.
Canada faced a similar situation. With neither Alex Harvey nor Devon Kershaw racing, Kuhn, who didn’t even know he was racing until this morning when Kershaw called in sick, scrambled.
“You could see the pack spread right away, after one kilometer,” he said. “It was a tough 10 k, that’s for sure. I wanted to move up, so I was in third or fourth…I skied for a while but then I was like, ‘I’m not going to win the relay leg.’ [Rickardsson] won the World Cup the week before by 30 seconds, so I just tailed off a little bit, and made it to the finish as best I could.”
Newell and Kuhn – two sprinters – skied together for part of the race, before Kuhn dropped his southern neighbor and tagged off in 13th place, 25 seconds ahead of Newell.
The American had other problems to deal with, besides the pace.
“I really couldn’t get any kick,” he said. “So that kind of sucked…On a good day, when I’m feeling good and I can kick my skis, being over two minutes back is kind of unacceptable.”
What happened next in the North American battle was not what most people would have expected. While Kuhn tagged off to Len Valjas, a young sprinter with only five distance starts this year and only one at the World Cup level – the 15 k at World Championships earlier this week, where he finished 48th – the U.S. cued up Kris Freeman, a veteran who has skied a number of strong relay legs in the past.
Freeman looked strong and in control, and caught Valjas six kilometers into their leg. Once he did, Valjas said that it was “a little bit tactical.”
“He tried to gap me up that one big hill there,” Valjas explained. “He put a little gap on me, but I closed it back over the top, on the flats, so I got back on him. We got down [before the next big uphill] and he just stood up and let me go by, and I thought, ‘okay, we’ll play some games here.’ So I went in front and took it easy, and then attacked up the sprint hill. I didn’t gap him, so for the last quarter, I just practically walked… and then, on the last climb, I just really opened it up.
“It was fun just to compete with him,” Valjas said.
Valjas ended up tagging off six seconds ahead of Freeman. While he was pleased to have come out on top in the tactical battle, he pointed out that since Freeman had to catch him first, his performance didn’t really count as much of a victory.
Freeman was a gracious competitor, calling the Canadian’s move “impressive.”
“I think Lenny skied pretty well,” Freeman said. “I hope he did, because if he didn’t, then I didn’t.”
After his initial move against the Canadian, Freeman said that he didn’t have anything else left, and that it was hard to gauge his effort given the lack of other athletes around him. And while his skis were good, he wasn’t surprised that Newell had stuggled to kick.
“I tested what Newell raced on and I said, ‘no way.’ I went something else,” he said.
The pair then tagged off to Ivan Babikov and Noah Hoffman, who finished 30th and 29th, respectively, in the 15 k classic earlier this week, separated by just a tenth of a second.
While both are known more for their skating, for Hoffman, it’s to a relative degree. For Babikov, it’s a little more serious: he has a handful of World Cup top-tens, all in skate races.
Hoffman set out in hot pursuit, and quickly closed the six-second gap to Babikov.
Without Harvey and Kershaw in the race, Babikov said he was just using his leg as preparation for Sunday’s 50 k. Skiing without any pressure, he said he was enjoying himself, and it showed in his split. At just 53 seconds off Finland’s Juha Lalluka, Babikov’s time was the sixth-fastest of the third leg—the best of any of the eight North American skiers on Sunday.
For Hoffman, two-thirds of the way through the leg, the pace proved too much. His initial push caught up with him, and he popped.
“I should have caught [Babikov], but maybe catching him in a k, or however long it took, was a little fast,” Hoffman said.
Since all the teams behind the U.S. and Canada were ultimately lapped, Hoffman said that he should have kept his sights on Babikov, with whom he was engaged in a “two-team battle.” But he acknowledged that perhaps he shouldn’t have chased quite as hard early, which left him hurting later on.
“To give up [44 seconds] is not the way to beat Canada,” Hoffman said. “I would have been better tagging off to [anchor] Tad [Elliott] 15 seconds down, not ever having seen Babikov.”
Hoffman’s leg left the U.S. 50 seconds off the Canadians, and Elliott didn’t do much to stop the bleeding. Feeding off the tens of thousands of fans in the stadium and lining the trails, he went out aggressively, in pursuit of Canadian anchor George Grey.
“I knew there wasn’t anybody behind us, really… I started off so hard—it’s so loud—and kind of exploded,” he said. “I think here, it’s hard to control your pace, because everyone’s cheering, and you want to catch some people.”
Elliott’s leg was a rough one—he ended up more than two minutes behind Petter Northug (NOR), who had the fastest split of the fourth leg—and with Grey having a decent day, the race for North American bragging rights ended decisively, with Canada on top by nearly two minutes.
While the U.S. placed last of the 14 teams that finished the race—Great Britain, Australia, and Denmark were lapped and pulled—Canada’s anchor leg was enough to bring the country up to 12th, thanks to a move Grey put on Kazakhstan’s Yevgeniy Velichko.
A member of the Canadian Olympic relay team last year, Grey hasn’t been at his best this season, and had actually lost his spot on the country’s squad to Valjas. But thanks to Harvey’s decision, he got a chance to start on Friday.
“I’m just happy as hell to be here,” he said. “Not the strongest team, but I think we’re all very proud to do it for Canada.”