At the 2009 World Championships in the Czech Republic, Finland’s Matti Heikkinen combined a well-timed peak with a great pair of skis to take bronze in the 15 k classic, on a challenging wax day.
That medal was Heikkinen’s first time on the podium in an international race. Since then, he’d finished in the top three a few times more—twice on the World Cup, and also in a couple of stages of the Tour de Ski.
But coming into the 15 k classic at the 2011 World Championships, Heikkinen still was far from a favorite. Few people expected him to defend his medal from 2009. And even fewer expected him to win the race outright.
But on Tuesday in Oslo, Heikkinen did just that, topping Norwegians Eldar Roenning and Martin Johnsrud Sundby in tough conditions that took out several favorites.
“I started skiing when I was nine years old. I have had lots of bad days, and lots of good days, but this was the perfect day,” he said.
According to Heikkinen, both his body and his skis were flawless on Tuesday, but the same can’t be said for his competition.
After poor kick and glide took the Swedish men out of contention in Sunday’s 30 k pursuit, the team again suffered from a smørebom—Norwegian for “missed wax”—in Tuesday’s race.
Favorite Daniel Rickardsson (SWE), the winner of the World Championships tune-up 15 k in Drammen, was more than three minutes down on Heikkinen in Oslo, battling with Italian sprinters rather than the leaders, on his way to 42nd place.
“I know I am better than this,” Rickardsson said. “I showed it to the world just a week ago.”
Others contenders confounded by the conditions included Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who called the 15 k a “wax race,” as well as the Czech Republic’s Lukas Bauer, the defending silver medalist.
Both Bauer and Cologna told FasterSkier that they struggled with glide more than kick, and indeed, with temperatures a few degrees below freezing, American technician Randy Gibbs said that it wasn’t too difficult to get good grip in Oslo’s powdery tracks.
Tougher was finding an option that was also fast—especially with the 15-kilometer course tackling two different loops on separate parts of the hillside. Roenning said that he tested seven pairs of skis on Monday.
“You can have klister; you can have only hard wax; and you can have klister on the bottom, and hard wax on the top,” he said in a press conference after the race. “I was testing all the alternatives yesterday, and also today, and I think we made a really good choice—it was really difficult conditions.”
While the Finnish team struggled with their wax earlier in the championships, they’ve fared much better since then, with all four of their athletes cracking the top eight in Monday’s women’s race.
On Tuesday, it was again clear that they’d nailed it. Just as Heikkinen was starting, his teammate Ville Nousiainen was hitting the time check at the 2.2 kilometer mark with a huge lead over the first 50 starters; he ended up with the second-fastest opening split.
While Nousiainen ultimately faded to eighth, it was clear his skis weren’t holding him back. Neither did those of the Norwegians.
Roenning started fast, describing his approach as “offensive.” By the seven-kilometer mark, he had opened an eight-second lead on Heikkinen.
Sundby started just 30 seconds ahead of Roenning, and the eventual silver medalist could see him up ahead on the long, open Holmenkollen climbs. But by the time Roenning hit the 10-kilometer mark, he had slowed, and he and Heikkinen were in a dead heat.
“I was thinking if I could reach Martin, then maybe I would have a chance for the gold,” Roenning said. “When I was passing 10 k, and I was equal with Matti, I was thinking ‘this is going to be hard.’”
By the finish, Roenning had tired, and lost 13 seconds to Heikkinen. He did not feel a slower start would have made a difference, however; he said that there wasn’t much he could have done to make the gap at the finish any closer.
“Thirteen seconds was 13 seconds too much for me,” he said. “I gave all my power, and had nothing more.”
Sundby also got off to a fast start, but it wasn’t because he was in good form. He felt bad during his opening loop, and on the first hill, he said he was thinking, “‘Oh, man—this is going to be a tough race.’”
“I didn’t believe I could reach top-10 today in the first four kilometers. I really had to struggle with myself, and the tracks,” Sundby said.
But the hometown hero—his first race at Holmenkollen was when he was nine years old—was spurred on by the crowd, most importantly in the last few kilometers, when everything was “almost black.”
For Heikkinen, the crux came between seven and ten kilometers – where he made up those eight seconds on Roenning.
“You have to really find your limits, and know how fast you can start, and how fast you can ski after seven kilometers,” Heikkinen said. “Normally, for me, the most difficult period during the race is from seven to 10 k. On a bad day, there will be a big gap to the podium….When you have perfect day, then it is possible to push all the time.”
Crossing the line, Heikkinen was able to briefly raise his arms before collapsing forward onto the snow. He knelt for a minute, then started retching. Course officials rushed to his aid, but it was a few minutes before he could be escorted out of the finish pen—without any real salute or celebration.
“I think it was quite impossible,” Heikkinen said. “When I push myself really hard, it is a little bit [of a] bad feeling when I come to the finish line, and there is a black moment for some minutes.”
The 27-year-old Finn was still in shock at the press conference, telling assembled press that it would take some time for the reality of his accomplishment to set in.
Something of a specialist, all of Heikkinen’s top results, including each of his three previous podiums, have come in the 15 k distance.
At the 2010 Olympics, Heikkinen, like the rest of the Finnish team, came in flat, and never found his form. He pinned the challenging week of racing—during which he placed 39th in the 15 k, and did not finish the pursuit—on heavy training and racing leading into the Games.
“If you want to make [a] gold medal, you have to take some risks,” Heikkinen said. “Last year, we were competing and training quite a lot—more than ever. And if you make that kind of training and competing, there is a risk you may be dropping down.”
Heikkinen and his coach made adjustments based on what they learned in 2010 and, as he put it, “it is nice to see that the results will come back.”
Heikkinen’s gold was the first not to go to a Norwegian in the last four events in Oslo—which even the host country’s national team sports director, Vidar Løfshus, recognized wasn’t a bad thing.
“It’s good for the sport that it’s not just the Norwegians who win,” he said.
There’s a strong chance that the Norwegian men could be back on top in Wednesday’s team sprint, though—the country is defending champion, and will be represented by individual sprint medalists Ola Vigen Hattestad and Petter Northug.
But if the Norwegians are favored, they still have to contend with a strong Swedish team, whose waxers will no doubt be looking for a chance to redeem themselves.
Though the team sprint comes less than 24 hours after the 15 k, it still won’t be soon enough for the Swedes, who have now been outwaxed by the Norwegians in both men’s distance races here.
“We struggled a little bit with the conditions here in Holmenkollen. We are working as hard as we can as a team to get the right things for the waxing, and also keep the athletes so they can be positive in their mind, and really believe that they can manage to make good results in the races that are coming,” said Joakim Abrahamsson, the Swedish head coach. “We need to push the team, and work with them so we can hopefully move forward.”
While Abrahamsson would probably describe it in different terms, Sundby said he saw the challenge of waxing as “the charm of cross-country skiing.”
“Always, the waxing is difficult—you have to make the right choices,” he said. “For sure, I think [the others] had the same choices we did, and part of the game is choosing the right skis.”
–Inge Scheve contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.