With Speed and Swagger, Northug Anchors Norwegians to Gold

Nathaniel HerzMarch 4, 201123
Norway celebrates relay gold.

Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Eldar Roenning, the first two skiers for Norway’s 4x10km relay team sat in the Photo Press Center, eyes glued to one of the many television screens, watching the race unfold.

The tension was high – no laughing or joking, not even a smile. Tord Asle Gjerdalen was on track for Norway, and he, along with Sweden’s Anders Soedergren, had just been reeled in by the chase pack. The race was now wide open with any of six teams in line for three medal spots.

Twenty-six thousand Norwegian fans in the stadium, and an uncountable mass on the trails shared their nervousness. It may have been too much to hope for a clean break early, but one misstep at this point, and not just the gold, but silver and bronze could slip quickly away.

The race gets under way - heading up to Midstubakken.

Forty minutes later, the seats in front of the TV were empty, Johnsrud Sundby and Roenning now waiting in the finish area for anchor Petter Northug. The fears were for naught as the last ten kilometers of the race played out as though specifically choreographed for a Northug-led Norwegian victory.

In what is considered the most prestigious race at any Championship event, Northug threw down what has become his classic move – waiting until the last climb around the back of the stadium to hit the accelerator.

He attacked over the top, instantly opening a five meter gap on Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, and pulling away as he entered the homestretch, plenty of time to pull out a vintage 2007 Northug move, imitating Alex Harvey’s shushing of the crowd before stopping suddenly just before the line and waiting for Hellner, stepping over and claiming victory with the Swede just meters away.

Tobias Angerer brought home the German team in third, the first medal of the Championships for Deutschland, and something of an upset.

Rickardsson leads Vylegzhanin, and Johnsrud Sundby at 5.5km.

The early part of the race played out exactly as expected. Big Daniel Rickardsson (SWE) set the pace from the get go, pushing hard. Just eight minutes into the race, hairline fractures began to appear in the pack, small cracks that quickly widened to substantial fissures.

Halfway through the first leg, the big three of Sweden, Norway and Russia held a six second gap on the chasers, a margin that more than doubled on the climbs up the Midstubakken. The leaders looked strong and controlled, but the rest of the field had broken – faces twisted in pain, they struggled over the top of the climb.

The gap continued to widen clearing the 30 second mark. The crowd, however, was riveted on the front – Sundby had broken, and Rickardsson and Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin pulled away on the final climbs up above the stadium. First seven seconds, then 12 – by the first exchange Sundby was a full twenty-two seconds back, a mere six seconds ahead of the chasers.

“It was one Swede and one Russian who tried to kill me out there,” Sundby said of the hearty beating handed to him. “It was a tough race and I really had to try to do some damage control.”

Sundby said he felt great during the warm-up, but he lost his legs much earlier than expected. “It was awful for me today,” he said, noting that he had excellent skis and that a relay scramble leg hasn’t gone so badly in several years.

“I felt in control all the time,” Rickardsson said, though he couldn’t say as much for his ability to recall his race. He insisted that it was Roenning skiing for Norway, and claimed he put 20 seconds on the Russians as opposed to the Norwegians.

Roenning heads out on the hunt.

When the second-leg skiers took over, the big question was whether Eldar Roenning would be able to ski Norway back into the thick of things. And the answer was yes: while Johan Olsson of Sweden and Stanislav Volzhentsev skied fast, Roenning skied faster, and was able to catch onto them.

“I saw that he took in a lot of time just in the beginning, and then I held him off for a little while, but then he came and I needed a little bit of rest from my pace,” Olsson said. “So I tried to recover so I had some extra power when he tried to push at the end. It was a little bit tactical, which was a little bit unusual for the second leg.”

For his part, Roenning said that he knew he shouldn’t try to catch the leaders immediately.

“It was twenty seconds or something, and I was telling myself that I am in good shape and I would not take a chance to rush out and take in two kilometers,” he said in a press conference. “I wanted to use the first lap… [after I closed the gap] I didn’t know what would happen.”

Sundby was relieved when his teammate regained the lead, saying that he “could only hope that Eldar would have the best day of his life.”

Roenning thought that Olsson would make a move as the second lap came to a close. But instead, the two skied to the finish together, dropping Volzhentsev along the way. When asked whether he felt he was lucky that Olsson didn’t increase the speed, Roenning laughed.

“I don’t think I was lucky, I think I was better than them,” he said.

The gap is almost closed - Roenning made up the remaining distance over the next 300 meters.

By the time they reached the tag zone, the Russians, who had looked so strong just one leg earlier, were now only a few seconds ahead of the chase pack, which included Germany, Finland, Italy, and Japan.

Anders Soedergren of Sweden and Tord Asle Gjerdalen of Norway were the first skiers to embark on the third leg.

“[Gjerdalen] would not give a millimeter in the lead,” Soedergren said. “I knew I had to do the job by myself from the beginning.”

He didn’t seem pleased with Gjerdalen’s stinginess, but the Norwegian said he should have seen it coming.

“When you have [Petter Northug] on the last leg there is no need to keep up the speed,” Gjerdalen said in a press conference. “It is only to follow the other guys. It is quite an easy tactic.”

Perhaps partly because Gjerdalen refused to push the pace or help Soedergren, the pair was caught by a chase pack that included teams from Finland, Italy, Japan, Germany and, temporarily, Russia.

Alexander Legkov had quickly caught the leading Scandinavians, to nobody’s surprise. Legkov has had a stellar season so far; he has won the World Cup mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland, and stood on the podium a few more times, including as part of the Russians’ second-place relay teams in Gallivare, Sweden and La Clusaz, France.

Roenning leads Olsson and Volzhentsev in to the stadium 7.5km into the the second leg.

But after chasing hard, he imploded, losing over a minute and a half to the leaders and dealing his team, which had been favored for a medal, a blow from which they could not recover.

The pack back together on the third leg.

With two kilometers to go on the third leg, the least familiar face in the pack made a move. It was Juha Lallukka of Finland, who despite being 31 years old has entered just six Olympic and World Championships races in his career. Since his debut in 2002 he has 23 World Cup starts to his name, and attended only two weekends on the circuit this year.

“He’s a skating specialist who is only doing skating races,” Finnish head coach Magnar Dalen told FasterSkier. “He has had a very good season and his last entry for us was in La Clusaz, where he was in the relay and skied a very very good, very solid leg. I know that he is in shape, and that he can be very good on his best day. So it was not a very big surprise.”

Lallukka handed off to teammate Matti Heikkinen with a three second lead over Italy – Roland Clara having been the only one able to even stay close to the Finn – while favorites Norway and Sweden were more than ten seconds behind.

His move shattered the pack.

“It was really hard the last two kilometers,” said Franz Goering of Germany. “I really just hoped I could give [Tobias Angerer] a chance for the medals.”

Lallukka’s work turned out to be for naught. Heikkinen and Piller Cottrer went out together, but they weren’t away for long. Led by Hellner, the three chasers were quickly back in contact.

Heikkinen leads out at the start of the anchor leg.

None of the nations had any interest in doing any work for the first half of the leg. But with every kilometer the group traveled closer to the finish, the more the scales were tipping in favor of Northug and Hellner, the best sprinters in the field, who were lurking patiently at the back.

“Nobody wanted to go hard on the first kilometers—it was pretty easy,” Hellner said.

Finally, as the men headed out on their second of two five-kilometer loops, Piller Cottrer went to the front.

A 38-year-old veteran, Piller Cottrer is a multiple Olympic medalist, but his speed is no match for Hellner or Northug in the closing kilometers.

“I tried to push hard the whole 10 k, because I was the only one that wanted to stay alone in front, and not waiting [for] the finish line…I did everything I could,” he said. “Everyone was saving energy behind me, especially Angerer—hitting my skis and poles all the time.”

Heikkinen, the winner of the 15 k classic on Tuesday, also had an interest in pushing the relay pace in the closing kilometers, but he said afterwards that his legs weren’t as snappy as they were earlier in the week.

Hellner, Northug and Angerer set about tracking down the medals.

“My plan was to go, but I was not strong enough today,” he said. “The body was not working perfect, and that’s why I was not strong enough in the last one-and-a-half kilometers.”

After swinging back and forth around the stadium, the relay course’s closing kilometers sent the men in front of the crowd one last time, before dropping them down to the base of the Gratishaugen—the same hill where Hellner had launched his race-winning attack in the individual sprint earlier in the championships.

In fact, Hellner’s performance on the climb was so impressive that locals had renamed it the “Hellnerbakken”—Hellner’s hill.

He and Northug had pushed through the stadium and into the descent, and the two came into the climb side-by-side—a perfect time for Hellner to make another move. This time, though, Hellner said he was waiting.

“My tactic was not to go so hard in that hill, and instead wait a little bit longer until the last uphill before the finish,” he said. (Afterwards, Northug said that if Hellner really wanted the hill to keep its new name, “he’s going to have to attack harder than that.”)

Still, he and Northug were going hard—hard enough that only Angerer, the German, could stay with them. The three crested the Gratishaugen together; on the next flat stretch, Angerer put in a token attack, but nothing came of it.

Afterwards, Hellner said that he’d been “a little surprised” that none of the other men had made a move earlier, since “they know that Petter is the dangerous one—and maybe me also.”

But Piller Cottrer had already done his best, Heikkinen was having an off day, and Angerer said that he never had an opening—though he said afterward that he still didn’t think Northug is invincible.

Killer Piller leading the way with 5k to go.

“It’s difficult. But…Marcus beat him last week in the sprint, so it’s possible, and [Canadian Alex] Harvey did the same in Drammen two weeks ago,” Angerer said. “I wanted to go, but I was behind Petter and Marcus and had not a chance, and not a place to attack.”

Northug has lost in plenty of sprints, but the number of times he’s been beaten in a drag race at the end of a distance race can be counted on one hand. So long as he’s still in contact with the leaders in the closing kilometers, there’s no one better.

“When I have my tools and my skis with me, and it’s two kilometers left, I always have a good feeling,” he said.

With 26,000 fans cheering him on in the stadium, there was only one thing left for Northug to do: shift into the gear that makes him “the best man, the best skier in the world,” as Gjerdalen put it.

The acceleration, up the last small climb to a knoll running perpendicular to the homestretch, was textbook Northug: fluid and ferocious with crisp technique, each stride inching him away from the chasers.

Hellner had nothing, Angerer had even less, and by the time Northug took the righthand turn to descend the small hill into the homestretch, he’d opened a lead of 15 meters. It wasn’t enough of a gap to repeat Marit Bjoergen’s flag-waving heroics from Thursday, but it did give him time for a couple of gestures.

Piller Cottrer and Angerer setting the pace. Angerer is either trying to incite Petter with a monkey imitation, or he is adjusting his bib.

First, as he entered the home stretch, he raised a finger to his lips to quiet the crowd. And then, just before crossing the line, he snowplowed to a stop, sliding his skis parallel to the finish as Hellner approached, before finally pushing across, into the arms of his teammates.

Northug’s antics sent a predictable spasm through the journalists assembled at the finish—it seemed like every other finisher was polled on his response to the move. Heikkinen was diplomatic—“every person acts, and takes those results, [their] own way”—Soedergren was unperturbed—“he had a chance to do it in front of the home nation, and why not?”—and while Hellner was initially irritated, calling the move “typical of Petter—a little arrogant,” he said that he had bigger concerns than the gesture.

More aggravating, Hellner said, is “that I lost the battle, and I didn’t make the gold.”

“It doesn’t affect me what he is doing [at] the finish line,” he said. “We congratulated him that he was so good today, and we will go home and train and beat him next year.”


Northug shushes the crowd.
Petter slams on the brakes before crossing the line.

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • lucagelfi

    March 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    This is an amazing recounting of today’s action. You guys deserve a lot of credit for great reporting. Thanks. And keep it coming.

  • Tassava

    March 4, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Agreed – this is the single best race-recap you all have ever written.

  • xcskifan123

    March 4, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    First off, great article and coverage of the world champs! Second, that was great that Northug insulted Harvey at the end of the finish. I have never witnessed a more disrespectful gesture in Nordic Skiing than what Harvey pulled in the team sprint. So you win one race and you think you can hush a home crowd who has cheered equally as hard for everyone. To shush a crowd that has come out by an unprecedented number to cheer on everyone in the race and then Harvey pulls that??!! Harvey made himself look very small after that move in my opinion. I am very surprised there was not more attention given to that move on fasterskier given how upset people in Norway are about it. Then to sit out the relay in order to be more prepared for the 50K and leave his team left with no chance. Northug shushing the crowd was a direct jab at Harvey, like you may have won 1 race, but I have been doing this all season. Im sure Northug will destroy Harvey in the 50K as well even with a day less of rest (cant wait for that celebration as well) Northug is a true champion and hopefully taught Harvey a little bit of a lesson today. Great job from fasterskier all around though!

  • fxg

    March 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    xcskifan, you are very hard on Alex. In a long interview on the French radio in Quebec, he explained that he was kissing his finger to celebrate the first ever win in a World Championship or Olympics for Canada. He had a very sincere tone. So we have to take his word for it. As for unrespectful gesture, Northug stop at the end of today’s relay is very hard to beat…

  • BRB Skiing

    March 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Actually, Norwegians weren’t upset about Harveys celebration. If anything people were somewhat bemused at first, are we supposed to be hushed by a whooping one gold medal? Then everyone was fine with Harveys explanation, that he celebrated Canadas first ever gold.
    As for Northugs finish today it as a joke to consider it disrespectful, It’s a spur of the moment thing. Daehlie can do a 360 spin no problem, Northug gets criticized for a 90 degree stop. Oh well… haters gonna hate.

    It was a great day at Holmenkollen.

  • Martin Hall

    March 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    First off Northug is spelled CHUMP!!! He mocked the Swedes to the point that they complained about it and the most I could make of Alex’s move was that he was holding up the international sign for 1st place—which I think they had just won for the 1st time in men’s skiing in Canadian history. We had two winners in that event and they deserved to be higher then kites in their celebration, but all we have is NA naysayers giving them mouth—get on the band wagon guys—this was monumental and the ride getting here has been a rocky road over the last 40 yrs. Cheer for these guy,s they’re working there butts off for you and their country—but all they get is criticism and bullsh_t from you guys.
    I can tell you many stories over the years of how the “squareheads” made us feel unwelcome at their races, would not even say hello or good morning or stone face you anytime you would see them during the day at races and even have a spitting incidence in a relay one time.
    They play the game hard–like you saw the CHUMP do today.

  • bill mckibben

    March 4, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    I suppose it’s wrong–but I found myself grinning ear to ear at both Harvey and Northug. Maybe because they seemed exuberant? You ever watch the early Cassius Clay toying with his foes, having fun?

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure that what really got Hellner mad was watching Northug open up that gap in about five seconds–what a move. And you have to admit, it sets up the 50k that much more!

    Great race story–great coverage all week. You guys are going in depth the way the best newspaper sports sections manage it the day after a big game (and you’re doing it fast!)

  • davord

    March 4, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    How to combat Kenyan like 5,000/10,000 meter track tactics on the ski trail? Run like the Ethiopians. It works quite well and quite often on the track, and it could work well on the ski trails as well. The only problem is, today, instead of attacking and/or setting a good, hard pace right from the start, Italy, Finland and Germany stopped working and Hellner was too busy marking Northug and spent way too much time at the back of the field, instead of running his own race, which he did so well in the sprint. I can’t believe these guys haven’t learned yet. As for his antics in the last 100m, it’s nothing new. Remember the 2007 and 2008 TDS’s?

  • xcskifan123

    March 4, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Oh come on!! you actually believe that Harvey was holding up the #1!?. he was blatantly hushing the crowd and Norway was very upset. you can see it clearly in the video. Anyway, I agree with Bill, this is only going to set up one awesome 50k. I cant wait. I think Hellner will have a point to prove and Northug will be looking forward to hushing harvey at the finish.

  • zachhandler

    March 5, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Why are people making such a big deal about this shushing thing. Its not like he pulled his balls out and shook them at the crowd…

  • miked

    March 5, 2011 at 3:41 am

    Hmmm… I am not really OK with Northug’s antics at the finish lines. I realize the other x/c skiers are polite and “nice guys” and all, but still… I would be tempted to whack Northug with a pole, or punch him in the face, if I was Hellner or an elite skier beaten by him, and disrespected by him at the finish. I would love to see Northug be “taught a lesson” for his bravado, but I think his competitors are not “alpha” enough to do anything. Also, I suppose there would be some unpleasant consequences for punching Northug in the face that they would be wary of…
    but it would be great if one of them (Teichmann? Angerer? or both of them together?) could step up at kick Northug’s ass (literally) after the race is over. Teach that fucker to show some respect!

  • Lars

    March 5, 2011 at 3:50 am

    I think Rønning won the race for us today if he hadn`t closed the gap it would have been far to big for Northug to do anything by the time he start cause Gjerdalen is not good at skiing his own race he needs to be behind someone els and even there he didn`T preform very well.
    As for Northugs swagger i loved the Harvey like finger. But i wish he didn`T stop in from of the finish line that was going a bit to far.

    At first Harveys finger did kinda upset me, i mean attacking the crowds that help make this a great championship for everyone ? That seemed a little low and wile you can say many things about Northug he generally keeps his antics targeted at his competition not the fans.
    But after considering it i actually think Harveys finger gesture was great. Its the kinda swagger this sport needs and it could potentially build a new rivalry as i do believe Harvey will be one of the sports main men in not to long a time. I mean he can do both classic and skate and both sprint and distance as far as i am awer only Cologna and Northug have similar.
    Also crossing the finishline like he did had to feel awesome and well he did at lest to some degree silence the crowed due to his result so i can see why he might feel the gesture was fitting.

    Martin Hall who is the squareheads Norwegians ? Scandinavians ? and why do you refer to em as squareheads ? Not insulted just curious.

  • BRB Skiing

    March 5, 2011 at 3:57 am

    I don’t get why people are so upset about Northug. Skiing in front of a home crowd of thousands and thousands of fans under tremendous pressure, you’re allowed to blow a little steam when you succeed.

    Btw, obviously Harvey hushed the crowd and we all know it. But like I said before, it was not creating a big fuzz in Norway and they got cheered by the crowd for their great accomplishment. Who cares? I don’t think either Harvey or Northug think their actions through too much in that situation.

  • lucagelfi

    March 5, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Northug’s biggest problem appears to be an extreme lack of creativity. The slowing down move is old and lame. And quite embarrassing, especially in this case where he did not have all the time in the world to remain on the uncompleted side of the finish line. Sadly, he’s just taking his cues from the entire world of sports where humility and grace have been replaced ego-tripping and show-boating. An old coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Norm VanBrocklin used to tell his players: “When you get into the end zone, for Godsake’s have the dignity to act like you’ve been there before.” Northug would be a considerably more stunning athlete–and certainly winning by more–if he approached his races as “races” and not as the Petter Northug Show. As far as creativity goes, there probably is a limited number ways of to disrespectfully cross the finish line. And Northug has continued to set the bar very low for a collection of even more cringe-inducing copycats. Finally, and then I promise to shut up, I believe everyone who loves this incredible sport of ours has always felt part of its specialness was the great humility with which all x-c skier athletes submitted themselves to the difficulites of nature’s terrain and the merciless vagaries of winter weather. We’re better than one man’s inane gesture. Just ask Fridtjof Nansen.

  • BRB Skiing

    March 5, 2011 at 10:18 am

    That’s quite an impressive rant there luca. I for one loved the likes of Daehlie, Ulvang and Alsgaard. But also I love the fact that not every single skier chooses to step into the same robotic PC-act as everyone else. Thank god, 30 Ulvangs on the circuit would be boring as hell.

  • shreddir

    March 5, 2011 at 10:45 am

    lucagelfi sounds like some grumpy uptight ref at the BCF National Championship college football game who throws a flag for “celebration” when a wide receiver catches a 60 yard pass and starts “high stepping” just before crossing the goal line for the game winning touchdown and does the “Heisman pose”. Northug just makes me laugh out loud everytime I watch one of his victories on live broadcasts plus I’m not some young punk either. I started skiing as an adult back when pine tar, hickory bases with lignastone edges, and Tonkin cane poles were the norm for everybody! I think Petter has rejuvenated the sport. How many of you clones have actually watched and listened to extended live interviews and behind the scene documentary features of Northug? Nada. You’re just reacting to sound bites and scattered visual images. As Northug talked in english to FIS media girl Sandra earlier this season…”the press in Norway is always making drama about everything”..

  • hbxcskier

    March 5, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Great article! Loved the “Northug Show” at the end, it was the icing on the cake of an exciting relay on a beautiful day at Holmenkollen. Honestly, I was a little surprised that Heikkenen did try to go tough from the start, or that Hellner didn’t go hard earlier. Kind of unusual that there were five nations in contention on the last leg, made it a lot more interesting.

    Jeez Marty! What’s with the hate towards the Norwegians? Is that your thanks to them for holding a great World Champs and cheering on EVERY athlete to the finish?

    BTW, Northug is spelled “KING”!

  • campirecord

    March 5, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    xcskifan, you are out to lunch. If you ever knew Harvey, you would swallow your hate. This kid loves to ski and is 100% class. Now as far as just winning one race, please educate us on his failures in the last sprints world cup, tour de ski and mabe the ast 50 in Trondheim, oh wait there was the u23 world cup pursuit… You have one little understanding of the sport if you think this kid is less than a proven phenomenom and even maybe one of top 5 gliders in the world. Yes he may not have the volume capacity yet but that’s been nothing less than a perfct progression, year after year. So please spare us.

  • campirecord

    March 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Furthermore, to think that Pierre Harvey, an incredible welcoming and well behaved person would bring up a kid this way is further insult to my eyes.

  • Martin Hall

    March 5, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Lars—there is a story behind the squarehead term and it, the reference, is not meant to be derogatory at all.
    When I was in Norway as part of a US Army biathlon team in 1962-63 I was headed home early as I had a knee that needed an operation–medial cartilage. I got hung up in Oslo trying to get a military flight back to Germany. Being a lowly Private I was always low priority for the few extra seats on the planes. Almost was declared AWOL because I arrived in Anchorage way after my duty orders said I would get there.
    So, I had time to wander around Oslo after I would get bumped from the flight early every morning.
    One day when I was down at the docks in back of City Hall I was conversing with a fisherman and he told me about the pilings (trees driven into the ocean floor) that they built the docks with and how in Norway they are square on top rather then round like all other pilings used around the world. Therefore, Norwegians are nick named “squareheads”.
    If you ever get to Oslo—do not miss that area of the city and make sure you give yourself time to take in City Hall–it is so cool inside—the murals are blow aways—they were for me.

  • Lars

    March 6, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Ahh thanks for the explanation i actually work in an old dock area do i guess i shud check that out 🙂

    #I can tell you many stories over the years of how the “squareheads” made us feel unwelcome at their races, would not even say hello or good morning or stone face you anytime you would see them during the day at races and even have a spitting incidence in a relay one time.#

    Now pleas letme try to explain something to you, now spitting at another competitor just seem disgusting and i am ashamed if one of my country men did that to you or one of your teammates.

    But the other part about “squareheads” making you feel unwelcome by not talking might very well be a cultural difference. Norwegians generally are somewhat shy and will not talk to strangers. Particularly if that requires the use of a foreign language. Now that is true today and was even more so in the past.
    Now i got a lot of experience with this cause i live and have for far to many years been living in a student village with many foreign students. And to a man they all say it is difficult to get to know the locals and often i have been seen as unNorwegian due to my more social contact seeking behavior. So i think what you have experience is more shyness then hostility.
    Alldo i don`t know exactly what have happened to you so i could be wrong.

  • Lars

    March 6, 2011 at 8:59 am

    As for the murals i haven`t really spent much time in Oslo so never seen them in person but the nobels peace prize is handed out in that space so i have seen them on tv.

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