Petter Northug (NOR), famed for his unmatched finishing kick, fired up the afterburners once again, accelerating out of the final stadium hairpin and into the homestretch. The seconds ticked off the clock, and it seemed impossible that Northug would overtake his challenger.
But lifting off the snow with each stride, Northug ate up the final meters, lunging across the line before collapsing in a heap, just two tenths of a second ahead of Roland Clara (ITA)…for second.
Northug provided plenty of drama with a stunning finish, but his efforts would only be good for runner-up as Johan Olsson (SWE) outpaced the field by a substantial 31 seconds in the men’s 15km freestyle in Sjusjoen, Norway.
Olsson, starting relatively early at bib 41, set a standard that the rest of the field was forced to try and match. Some, notably Northug and Dario Cologna (SUI), succeeded for a time, but none could maintain the pace for the full 15,000 meters.
With one career victory under his belt, Olsson was hardly a favorite coming in. He had just three World Cup podiums to his name, all coming in 2009. Add to that a serious back injury that knocked him out of training for a good portion of the fall, and Olsson it is no surprise that Olsson said after the race “I absolutely did not believe I could win.”
In the finish corral he told FIS Media Coordinator Sandra Spitz that he attempted to ski the race like one of his “big idols,” famed Norwegian biathlete Ole-Einar Bjorndalen.
“I tried to ski my own race, like he did [in Bruksvalarna several years ago],” Olsson said.
He clearly succeeded, accelerating over the duration of the race, and ultimately leaving his competition in the proverbial dust. While none of the racers mentioned it, he may have been aided a little bit by warming temperatures and a softening course. As the day progressed the snow transitioned from the rock-hard track to a wetter, and in some cases, mushy consistency.
Northug, Cologna et al knew exactly what they needed to do. Cologna actually came through the half way mark a half second up on Olsson, but that was before the Swede surged. Four kilometers later and the defending overall World Cup Champion was twenty seconds down.
Northug, on the other hand, fell back by the halfway mark, and never closed back up. But while he couldn’t close on Olsson, he did move past everyone else, climbing from 5th at 7.5k to his ultimate second place.
“It was a tough race today,” Northug said at the post-race press conference. “In the last lap I heard it was pretty tight between the racers so I was fighting in every uphill and also on the easy terrain. I tried to give it all towards the end, and I’m happy to be second.”
It is hard to imagine Northug ever being truly satisfied with anything but the victory, but on this day there was no alternative. And his 2012 season is already off to a much better start than last year, when he missed the opening races due to illness and took nearly a month to round into form.
With Olsson’s striking performance, and Northug’s impressive surge to the line, it is easy to overlook Clara, who earned his first ever World Cup podium.
The 29-year-old Clara skied a consistent race, holding position throughout. He edged young Swede Calle Halfvarsson, at bib 19, the early leader, by 7.2 seconds.
“It was a perfect race,” Clara said. “I did not think I could make it to podium today, but when I started I heard it was going good and then I was waiting [at the finish].”
With 58 World Cup starts, Clara is hardly a newcomer. Halfvarsson, on the other hand, at just 22 years of age shows signs of breaking through this season. His previous best World Cup result was a ninth in a freestyle sprint event.
Halfvarsson edged out another young – but more established – name, Canadian Alex Harvey.
Coming off an impressive 2011 campaign that included World Championship gold, Harvey is looking to battle in the overall World Cup standings. Today he finished 5th, two seconds in back of Halfvarsson.
Harvey placed a solid 10th in last weekend’s FIS race in Sweden, but didn’t feel great out of the start in the first meaningful race of the season.
“I felt pretty tired warming up today,” Harvey told FasterSkier in an email. “It took me a while to get going, and still on the first lap, I wasn’t 100% yet, so I lost quite a bit of time there, coming into 34th place after 3.75km.”
But he was able to pick up the pace and finish strong. He was pleased with the result noting he had never cracked the top 30 in a 15km individual start race, though the performance was not completely unexpected.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised because I worked pretty hard this summer to improve my individual starts and skating up steep hills, “ he said. “I’m just happy that the hard work is starting to pay off.”
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth was pleased with his young star’s day. “Alex had a great race, really exciting to see him race well in what you’d call his weaker discipline [skate distance],” Wadsworth told FasterSkier in a phone interview from Norway.
“This shows how well rounded he is. We as a team worked hard on skating technique, which seems to be working well for him right now, so we’re excited,” Wadsworth continued.
Kris Freeman led the US men in 55th place. The rest of the squad was not far behind—Tad Elliott 60th, Andy Newell 63rd, and Lars Flora 65th , with the exception of Noah Hoffman, who struggled to 79th in the 92 skier field.
Simi Hamilton (USA), originally scheduled to start, was a last minute scratch when organizers realized the US had been allocated too many start slots.
Four other Canadians also competed. Devon Kershaw placed 37th, Ivan Babikov, just over from Canada, took 42nd, Len Valjas was 64th and Graham Nishikawa 71st.
More details on the Canadians’ race can be found here.
Much was made of the presence of many of the top Norwegian biathletes. Lars Berger, Emil Svendsen and Tarjei Boe make up a dream team on the biathlon circuit, but only Berger excelled, placing 8th, just two seconds behind Cologna.
Berger is plenty experienced on the cross-country side, racing for the silver medal winning relay team at the Vancouver Olympics.
Svendsen, known as one of the fastest skiers in biathlon was 15th, and overall biathlon World Cup Champion Boe placed 20th.
Another biathlete, Ronny Haafsas, who made some noise at the World Cup opener two years ago, winning this same event, placed 38th.
The World Cup opener often features highly variable results. With established stars like Sami Jauhojärvi (FIN), Axel Teichmann (GER), Tord Asle Gjerdalen (NOR) and John Kristian Dahl (NOR), among others finishing well off the pace, the race may not be the best indicator of the upcoming season.
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.