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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.