When Matti Heikkinen caught Kris Freeman just three kilometers into Tuesday’s 15 k classic race at World Championships, Freeman was surprised.
“I was thinking, holy God, what is going on,” Freeman told FasterSkier. “Turns out he was having the race of his life.”
The Finn has just one World Cup victory to his name this season, and came into the individual start race more favored than Freeman, but only barely. So when he had made up 30 seconds on the top U.S. skier in such a short amount of time, Freeman knew something was up.
Making the best of a tough situation, he tried to stay with Heikkinen. But it soon became clear that the Finn was doing something special out on the tracks, something that Freeman could not match. After skiing together for five kilometers, Heikkinen dropped him and went on to win the race, while Freeman struggled to 24th place.
“The difference was really just getting over the tops of the hills and he was just skiing beautifully today, and I was not,” Freeman said. “I blew up spectacularly, and seriously wondered how I was going to get to the finish at 11 k. I was actually pretty surprised that I was as good as I was at the finish because I just limped home the last six kilometers. I mean, I felt like I was barely making forward progress.
“[Heikkinen] was a little bit of a curse today, because I think I could have had a much better day had I skied my own race. But you can’t complain, I mean, I had the chance, if I could have stuck with him I would have been second today. But I didn’t have it in the tank.”
While there were high hopes of Freeman, who finished fourth at the same event in both 2009 and 2003, he isn’t in top form after getting sick earlier this winter. He had planned to up his intensity coming into the Championships, but the illness left him a week behind schedule. Considering that, Freeman was not totally despondent about his result today.
“[The skiing] was really solid until I was pushing 14 mL’s of lactate for the last six kilometers,” he said. “It’s another improvement. I was 29th [in the pursuit], and 24th this time, and it’s a heck of a lot better tha
n the 58th I was last week. I wish I could have come into this race in my best shape but I didn’t. I’m really curious to see how I’ll be skiing when the Worlds are over. Maybe I’ll be destroying it, which would be fun, but also a little bit like a slap in the face.”
With Canadians Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey sitting out in preparation for tomorrow’s team sprint, Freeman led the North American team despite his mid-race collapse. And he still beat other favorites like Dario Cologna of Switzerland and Marcus Hellner and Daniel Rickardsson of Sweden, who suffered through 15 k with bad skis.
Strong Finishes for Youngest Racers
Of the rest of the North Americans, two U23 racers had perhaps the best races compared to expectations. Noah Hoffman of the U.S., usually pigeonholed as a better skater, finished 29th – his best World Cup finish to date – and Len Valjas of Canada placed 48th in his first-ever World Cup distance race.
“I’ve always thought of myself as pretty much equal,” Hoffman said after the race. “For sure my results have been better in skate… but I’ve always felt that it was there, and I’m psyched that it’s coming around a little bit. If I want to be competitive and the best in the World I have to do both, so that’s what I’m working toward.”
While Hoffman was happy with his finish and what it represented, he didn’t view it as a perfect race. He acknowledged that he started out “maybe a little too fast”, and also that he has higher expectations of himself for the future.
“I’m getting caught by Jaak Mae at ten kilometers to go and he’s blowing by me, I have to be able to ski that pace, or ski faster than that. It’s a process and I feel like it’s moving in the right direction, absolutely, but [the destination] is a long ways off.”
Valjas, on the other hand, wasn’t even expecting to contest the individual-start race when he flew to Norway. A successful sprinter, he said that it was “maybe for the relay, and this was a bonus.” And, grinning from ear to ear, he could describe his distance debut only as “awesome”.
While Valjas covered the three different-length loops just over minute more slowly than his teammate Ivan Babikov, who placed 30th, he was ahead of Stefan Kuhn and George Grey, against whom he is fighting for a spot on Canada’s relay team.
“It’s an exciting race,” Valjas said. “With the different loops, you never do the same thing twice. It’s much more interesting than doing the same five kilometer loop over and over. I really like the format – it was super fun!”
Head Coach Justin Wadsworth will have the final say in selecting a relay team, but Valjas definitely has a shot – something few would have predicted for the 22-year-old at the beginning of this year.
Not Babikov’s “Favorite Stuff”; Veterans Generally Not Psyched
Grey, who finished 57th, described his race as “bad”, and when he suggested that Babikov might have done better, the ex-Russian responded that it wasn’t so good for him either.
While Babikov has a collection of World Cup podiums to his name, it was actually his first World Championships start in this format. Despite success in pursuits and marathons in previous years, he had never contested the shorter 15 k. And while his 30th-place finish was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, he wasn’t enthusiastic about the race.
“I felt okay, but it was really hard to adjust to the conditions, with a little powder in the track,” he said. “It’s not my favorite. I really like a hard track and easy kicking conditions, but this was really hard, and classic hasn’t been feeling great this season.”
But while he wasn’t ecstatic about his own race, Babikov was excited to see his teammates, Harvey and Kershaw, race in the team sprint tomorrow.
“Everything is open, everything is available there,” he said. “And they are in the best shape, Alex is in the best shape of his life, so, I hope for the best… the guys who raced today, I don’t think they have a chance tomorrow.”
For his part, Grey picked the wrong skis.
“It’s really greasy snow, so you have to do a good job on the wax,” he said. “It was partly my fault. I thought I could kick them but I couldn’t kick them.”
American Lars Flora finished 39th, an improvement over the pursuit but still not enough to be exciting. Flora said that he had been feeling flat coming into the Championships, although he was unsure why.
Two sprinters said that they felt great, although their results did not stack up well against the distance field.
Kuhn, who finished 52nd, was very pleased with his race, but it was unclear if his finish would be enough to get him onto the Canadian relay team however.
“I’d really like to do it,” Kuhn said. “I’m a fast-twitch sort of guy, so maybe a starting position. But we’ll see.”
Simi Hamilton was the last American starter, after Torin Koos was selected to ski the team sprint tomorrow. Hamilton said that he felt good in the 15 k, although he described pacing as “a guessing game.”
Other Anglophone Miscellany
Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain led the other English-speaking skiers, finishing 50th. After a stellar sprint to kick off World Championships, his race today was comparatively “blah.”
“I had slow skis, and I was tired from the pursuit,” he said. “I didn’t ski awful, but it definitely wasn’t my best.”
Ben Sim led the Australians by finishing 59th, while New Zealand’s Ben and Nils Koons – former and current Dartmouth College skiers – placed 68th and 69th, separated by 16 seconds. Neither felt they had a strong race.
“I could blame a couple of things,” Ben Koons told FasterSkier. “Usually classic is my go-to, compared to skating, but this year it’s not so great. This is my fifth classic race of the year, though, if you count the pursuit, so that’s something. And I’ve been skiing a lot in the back woods instead of training. I’ve been playing pond hockey and kite skiing on the lakes, and I try to ski on groomed trails three times per week. Last year I was taking training seriously, so this year there are fewer expectations.”
–Topher Sabot and Nathaniel Herz contributed reporting.