Andy Newell saved the best for last.
After a season in which he had failed to crack the top five a single time on the World Cup, the American did just that in his final sprint of the season, finishing fifth on a tight circuit around the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday.
The result wasn’t quite as good as Newell’s best in 2010, when he was third in another city sprint in Norway. But the effort, which saw him enter the homestretch in third place, was a bit of a silver lining in what has otherwise been a frustrating year—especially after a relegation last weekend robbed him of a berth in the semifinals.
“[I] definitely wanted to prove that I was still feeling good, and good enough to make the final. Last week, it was frustrating to go from the semis to being in 29th,” Newell said. “I was feeling pretty strong all day—it’s good to be back in the top five.”
Newell was the only North American man to make it past the quarterfinals. Both Alex Harvey (CAN) and Devon Kershaw (CAN) cracked the rounds, but stuck in the same heat with kick wax on their skis, neither could keep up with Eldar Roenning (NOR) and Dario Cologna (SUI), who elected to double-pole the tight Stockholm loop.
With just two small climbs and one long downhill on the one-kilometer course, the skate-classic dilemma was the defining element of the race for many competitors. For most, double-poling was faster, but not for all: Emil Jönsson (SWE) won the race by striding up the last hill.
Newell ended up on skate skis through all three of his heats, but in qualifying, he opted for klister, which he said was to save his arms. It worked: he ended up ninth.
“With Andy, we just said, ‘it doesn’t really matter what you decide to do—for qualifying, you’re going to make it in whether you stride or whether you double pole,’” said Chris Grover, the U.S. Ski Team’s head coach.
Once into the quarters, though, it was clear that double-poling was faster for just about everyone—Jönsson was the only one who was able to win on classic skis.
Newell took second place in his quarterfinal, outgunning Norwegian Eirik Brandsdal on the uphill homestretch to finish just behind Petter Northug (NOR).
In his semifinal, Newell had to face Northug again, as well as eventual fourth-place finisher Jesper Modin (SWE). Both of those men were too strong for Newell on the last hill, but he held on to stay ahead of Roenning and Matias Strandvall, the Finn with whom Newell had tangled last weekend, causing the relegation.
Skate skis had worked well enough for Newell in his own semifinal, but after watching Jönsson blow by a double-poling Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR) on the homestretch of the other semi, the American said that he was “on the fence” for the finals.
“That last hill we knew would be the crux,” Grover said. “There were lots of parts of the course where being on
skate gear was really advantageous.”
With just a few minutes between the semis and the finals, Newell didn’t have much time. Ultimately, the Americans opted for skate skis again for a couple of reasons, according to Grover. First, the transition from double-poling to striding at the bottom of the homestretch can be tricky for Newell, especially when he’s tired, Grover said. And, at that point, his arms weren’t totally blown out.
Through the first three-quarters of the final, it looked like Newell had made the right call. He took a good line around the technical corner at the bottom of the course, caught a couple of drafts, and arrived at the base of the last climb in third place behind Modin and Jönsson—right where he wanted to be. Except at that point, he could have used some kick wax, since both Northug and Hattestad gobbled him up on the hill.
“I felt I faded a little bit with the double-pole,” Newell said. “On this course, you’ve got to be really strong…in the last hundred meters, if you want to be on the podium.”
The result for Newell was still his best of the season—only the second time that he had skied all the way through to the finals. He said that he had been feeling stronger in the two weeks following the World Ski Championships in Oslo, which is typical for him at this time of year.
“I usually have some of my best races after the championships,” he said.
But, Newell added, one solid day doesn’t outweigh the rest of the season, which on balance didn’t meet his expectations. The few sprints in which he excelled—in Stockholm, and early in the year in Finland—were both in mini-tours, which only gave him half points in the Sprint Cup standings. (He ended up eighth, four spots lower than last year.) And fifth and sixth place, his two best results, weren’t enough, he said.
In the next few weeks, Newell said he will sit down with Grover to deconstruct the year’s training, to “see what things we did right, and what things we think hurt us.”
Even though his results didn’t improve over last season’s, Newell said that he had still put in some solid training—which should help in the years to come.
“It’s not always a straight line to the top. A lot of times, it feels like you’re climbing stairs,” he said. “I for sure wanted more this year.”
Two other Americans started the Stockholm sprint in Kris Freeman and Lars Flora. They finished 37th and 46, respectively. (Canadians Graham Nishikawa and Ivan Babikov ended up 38th and 48th.)
“I don’t think any of them were satisfied with the day,” Grover said, also referring to Holly Brooks, who missed the women’s heats. “For those guys that don’t do a ton of sprints on the World Cup level, it’s a hard thing to figure out—how to even qualify in classic. On a one-kilometer sprint that’s only taking two minutes, it’s a real challenge to figure out, ‘how do you go fast and still have complete motions, and not rush it?’ It’s really hard to find that balance.”
As the first event in the World Cup Finals, a four-stage mini-tour, the Stockholm sprint set the stage for a 3.3-kilometer classic prologue for the men in Falun, a three-hour bus ride to the northeast. After his fifth place on Wednesday, Newell is in good position, but it remains to be seen how well he can hold on through three remaining stages, which are longer.
Newell has struggled with distance racing this season, but with his fitness coming around in the last two weeks, he said that he’s looking for more in Falun.
“Hopefully, the distance races will be better,” he said.
With the major championships concluded, and just three competitions remaining in the season, the Americans said that things are a little more relaxed for the last week of World Cup circuit—at least until the racing starts. Athletes are still looking for the last remaining points in various overall competitions, and nobody is giving an inch.
“People will go out to the bar and hang out,” Newell said. “But when it comes race day, it’s still the same fierceness as ever.”
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.