Frenchman Maurice Manificat kicked of his 2012 season on the right foot, overcoming a loaded field of Swedes and Norwegians to take the victory in the 15km freestyle FIS race in Bruksvallarna, Sweden.
Manificat edged out Johan Olsson (SWE) by 5.1 seconds on the 6×2.5 kilometer course. Petter Northug (NOR) lead the race at the five kilometer mark, but was unable to hold on, slipping back to third, 17.9 seconds behind Manificat.
After Manificat, Sweden and Norway packed the result sheet, taking eight of the next nine spots, with the gangly Russian, Evgeniy Belov slipping into seventh place.
Canadian Alex Harvey took 10th +48.
With the annual Beitosprinten FIS event in Norway canceled due to lack of snow, the Norwegians crossed the border en force to get some racing in before next week’s World Cup opener, originally scheduled for Beitostolen, and now shifted north to Sjusjoen.
With the expected strong local Swedish presence and the top Russians, French and Canadians, the field was not too far off World Cup caliber and depth.
But while the the French team was pleased with their performance – in addition to Manificat, two other skiers cracked the top-15 (Bastien Poirrier in 13th and Jean Marc Gaillard in 14th), there is no pretense that nothing really counts until next week.
Manificat told the website SkiChrono “It was a test run today where the goal was to get some benchmarks. I’m quite happy but the most important race is next weekend.”
Northug, who had a slow start to the 2011 season due to illness is in a much better place as the 2012 opener approaches.
“I know I need some competitions to get started,” Northug said after the race, unconcerned by his fade. “The body is where it should be fitness-wise, but for me it tends to go a little heavy in the first races. It is a good sign that it was not easy in the first race.”
World Champion Marcus Hellner (SWE) , often portrayed in the media as Northug’s primary rival, finished a pedestrian ninth, just ahead of Harvey.
A World Champion in his own right, Harvey had a similar perspective to Northug.
“It was an okay start, but I was looking for a little more today,” said Harvey. “I started sixth last, and that many guys racing around the same 2.5 kilometre loop for 15 kilometres beats it down pretty good, and some of the hills were quite icy. I started picking it up on the last four laps so it was okay today. It was good to have this race to test your body and dial in your technique before the World Cup.”
Following Harvey across the line for the Canucks was young sprinter Len Valjas, who turned in one of the top distance results of his career. Valjas placed 18th, just three seconds behind Russian Petr Sedov, and a place ahead of Sur Roethe (NOR).
Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth described the day as “solid,” pointing to Valjas’ performance as the highlight.
Devon Kershaw (CAN), Harvey’s partner in the gold medal team sprint last season, struggled, placing 28th, +1:23. On Twitter Kershaw described his race as his “career worst start,” but after excelling in the FIS warm-up races last season before bombing out in the World Cup opener, he is hoping for a reversal of fortunes this time around.
Graham Nishikawa (CAN) finished a solid 45th, with up-and-comer Kevin Sandau 10 seconds back in 52nd.
Drew Goldsack rounded out the Canadian squad, placing 82nd in the 164 skier field.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.