All 2012 FIS World Cup Finals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of Fischer Sports USA, proud sponsors of Kikkan Randall, 2012 overall Sprint Cup Champion.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Racing in the final sprint of the year, Eirik Brandsdal (NOR) held his own type of skiathlon, splitting his four times around the Royal Palace evenly between double pole and striding.
There are no medals awarded for such versatility, but Brandsdal left with all the hardware he needed, winning the classic sprint in front of the King of Sweden ahead of 2012 Sprint Cup Champion Teodor Peterson (SWE).
Lenny Valjas (CAN) used a technique switch of his own to move all the way from 30th following the qualifier to third, claiming his second podium in eight days.
Brandsdal, who accepted his medal from His Majesty King Carl the 16th Gustav, could be considered royalty in his own right—King of the City Sprint.
Brandsdal won three of five such competitions this season, with victories in Milan, Drammen and now Stockholm.
“It was a great day today,” Brandsdal told FasterSkier after the race. “I was feeling very strong.”
The Norwegian started the day double poling on skate gear, as did the majority of his teammates. He qualified a solid 7th and advanced out of the quarters, still double poling, when he placed second to the home-favorite Emil Joensson.
Joensson, famous for his high-tempo striding, chose the opposite tack, classic skiing from the get-go. He even forwent double pole on the last flat stretch to the finish in qualification, driving his kick all the way to the line.
In a fine illustration of the validity of both approaches, the two men easily outdistanced the rest of their quarterfinal, advancing to a rematch in the semis.
This is when Brandsdal made the switch, swapping his skate skis for classic with klister.
“I was tired in the arms,” Brandsdal said, adding that he could have continued double poling.
“I felt more confident doing it with the grip wax,” he explained. “I think that is my strength in classic races—fast uphill striding.”
Again, the contrast of styles was on display in the semifinals. This time around Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR) took the top spot—double poling— ahead of Brandsdal.
Both Lucky Losers came from this first semi, one of which was Valjas, who barely made the heats on skate gear, holding off Tim Tscharnke (GER) by a mere .03 seconds for the final spot.
Immediately after finishing qualification, Valjas was already planning the switch—if he advanced.
On classic skis in the quarterfinal he used his formidable stride to charge up the field on the final climb to place second to Hattestad.
After spending most of that heat toward the back, he opted to attack from the gun in the semi, leading up the first hill and into the descent.
This move was no accident. Valjas said he wanted to get out at the front to avoid any potential trouble on the two tough corners on the course—a 90 degree left off the start flat into the climb, and then a sweeping, banked 180 at the bottom of the descent.
While Hattestad and Brandsdal took over the lead, Valjas stayed close, and again used his kick to good effect at the end, staying well within the time needed for the Lucky Losers.
Meanwhile, Peterson was plowing his own path through the heats, winning his quarter and semi, and setting up the battle in the final.
With Charlotte Kalla (SWE) placing just off the podium in 4th in the women’s final, and Joensson knocked out in the semis, Peterson was the last hope for the host-nation.
The strapping Swede locked up the overall Sprint Cup last week and was the only man to score World Cup points in every sprint this season.
While it can be hard to bet against the likes of Hattestad and Brandsdal, on home snow the nod had to go to Peterson.
But pre-race predictions are meaningless once the start wands trip.
Peterson led out, skiing like the champion that he is. Headed into the first steep hill it was Peterson flanked by Valjas on the inside and Brandsdal on the outside.
The Canadian was employing the strategy that worked in the semis—get clear early to avoid trouble, and then wait for the last hill.
He was not able to execute as smoothly and swung around the hairpin in 4th, but with no issues. He tucked in behind the group riding the draft.
Still tightly packed the men swung onto the backstretch along the water, Hattestad with better glide on his skate skis moving up on the outside.
Around the final turn into the steep hill, Peterson held the lead with Hattestad just half a ski length back, still on the outside.
Brandsdal, seeing a hole, slipped through on the inside of the corner, pulling Alexei Poltaranin (KAZ) and Valjas behind.
Valjas, knowing he needed clear snow to makes his move came out of the turn a bit wider gaining an open track.
“That is a good feeling,” Valjas said of seeing the open line ahead. “I knew I had the speed to pass maybe one or two people.”
Coming into the hill, Brandsdal was not convinced he had the win, however.
Despite his confidence in his climbing, the last ascent did not go in the semis.
“I had some troubles with the feeling in the steepest part,” Brandsdal said, adding that the result was a lack of kick.
He attributed this to being “too stressed and then wanting to go too fast.”
He said he “couldn’t stay on the snow and really push hard.”
Redemption was quick however, and Brandsdal, showing why he has won more sprint races than any other man this season, dropped the hammer and never looked back.
Peterson stayed close, easily holding on for second as the fight escalated for third.
As the hill progressed, the long stride of Valjas methodically closed the gap on Hattestad, ultimately leading the tall Canadian past, and well clear before the final run to the line.
Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth wasn’t worried about Valjas’ chances despite the sprinter sitting in 5th with just several hundred meters to go.
He knew Valjas had been feeling good on the last stretch, but found himself holding his breath when Valjas “fell a little back on his heels and lost a little momentum” on the corner into the climb.
But Valjas came out just fine and gave the Canadians their tenth podium for the season—a milestone that means the team will travel to Hawaii for two weeks after the season.
“That was the deal, 10 podiums and we get to go to Hawaii,” Wadsworth said.
In both the semi and the final, Valjas said he was able to catch a little rest on the gradual descent.
“In the semi I had a little bit of a gap where I was able to rest and in the final I just drafted everyone,” Valjas said. “So the backstretch gave me a little rest and I could have a little better punch there at the end.”
While he wasn’t taking anything for granted, Wadsworth wasn’t surprised to see Valjas eat up Hattestad and spit him out, saying “With his stride, when he starts striding like that, he can cover so much ground.”
Despite losing out on the podium, Hattestad did not regret being the only skier to double pole every heat.
After he won the semifinal, Hattestad said he knew he would continue on skate skis in the final.
He said that after qualifying he considered switching, but opted against it once he saw who he was up against.
His quarterfinal included Devon Kershaw (CAN), Valjas, Mathias Strandvall (FIN), Fabio Pasini (ITA) and Josef Wenzl (GER).
“I knew those guys were strong in the last uphill, so I knew my chance was in the double pole,” Hattestad explained.
He did not believe he could compete in classic striding on the final hill, so hoped to get an edge by going with his strength.
In the final he was in good position and said he wasn’t too tired.
“But my last turn was really bad and on the skating skis you need to keep your speed in the corner,” Hattestad said.
At the end of the day none of the top-4 expressed any regret over their technique choices, and Valjas took some pleasure in coming back from 30th in qualification.
“I’m super excited to be back in the final and on the podium again,” Valjas said. “I think I found a better technique [after qualification]. Double poling was not for me today.”
While Valjas will continue with the World Cup Finals mini-tour, his international sprint season is over.
Going out with a bang, Valjas placed second in the Drammen city-sprint a week ago, and ends the year with three top-five results.
Wadsworth described Valjas’ success as “a little surprising,” but added that Valjas was able to handle similar training volumes to Kershaw and Alex Harvey at training camps, a sign of top fitness.
“He is skiing really well and is having fun,” Wadsworth said. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
After a day off on Thursday the World Cup Finals continue in Falun, Sweden with a 3.3k freestyle prologue.
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.