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 – While most of the attention was rightfully focused on Len Valjas’ second podium finish in two races, he was only one of four North American men to qualify for the heats in Stockholm on Wednesday.
Andy Newell (USA) may not have matched Valjas’ impressive results in Drammen and Stockholm, but he wrapped up his 2012 World Cup sprint season on a strong note, placing 6th in Drammen and 7th in Stockholm.
Despite qualifying for the heats in every sprint start this season, Newell did not have the year he was hoping for. He only managed to make it out of the quarterfinals once in his first 10 races, before reversing that trend in the last two, showing the speed and power that led him to a fourth place ranking in the Sprint Cup two years ago.
In Stockholm he advanced to the heats after qualifying in 16th, opting to double pole on skate gear, a decision shared by approximately half the field.
Last year in Stockholm, Newell cracked the finals for the only time that season. The downtown course on the steps of the Royal Palace suits Newell’s strong double pole, and following a finals appearance in Drammen a week ago, he was hoping for a repeat.
He switched to classic skis for the quarterfinal after testing again and evaluating the competition.
“I knew I would have most, if not all striders, so it made the decision easy,” Newell said. “If I was in a heat with Hattestad or someone similar, I would have thought about double pole so that the two of us could maybe gap and move on.”
In the quarterfinals, Newell was pushed wide on the sweeping 180 turn coming off the first climb.
He ended up almost in the barrier, but recovered, and with the rest of the heat somewhat off-balance on the turn as well, Newell was able to come out in second.
He took over the lead entering the backstretch along the water, yielding to Rusiian Nikolay Morilov before the final turn into the climb up to the finish.
Newell had decided to switch to classic gear after the qualification and was in position to advance automatically.
Morilov pulled away in front however, and Alexey Poltaranin (KAZ) came up alongside.
The two charged to the line, with Poltaranin coming out ahead with a lunge.
In a fast heat Newell earned the second lucky loser spot, and a place in the semis.
In that heat he came into the last corner further back in 4th, but made a good move around the turn and immediately began making up ground.
Halfway up the hill he had closed on Morilov’s tails, and had to switch tracks to continue his attack.
“Having to change lanes midway up the hill was an issue,” Newell said afterward. “That’s a risk you have to take coming in fourth place to the hill. You may not get an open lane, but I was lucky that the lane was open and that I was able to switch to it.”
With Teodor Peterson (SWE) making his own comeback on the outside, and pulling away, the second spot in the finals came down to the American and Russian.
The line came too quickly for Newell, and he lost out in the lunge for the second time on the day.
“I tried to relax across the backstretch and save my energy for the last hill, and that worked great,” Newell told FasterSkier. “I did exactly what I wanted to do, but I think if I had two more meters I would have caught Morilov.”
With the first semi several seconds faster, Newell had no chance for the lucky loser, and was done.
He said he was feeling good, and was obviously disappointed to miss out on the finals.
At this point in the season, there are no secrets, Newell told FasterSkier. With 13 sprints on the schedule, all the top short-distance athletes have matched up head-to-head multiple times, allowing for strategy based on who is in your heat.
“In sprint racing you have to make tons of adjustments, especially in a city sprint like this,” Newell said. “You have to always be changing your tactics and game plan depending on who’s in your heat.”
Kershaw and Harvey Lose Out in Quarters, Gain Rest
Canadians Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw both advanced to the heats as well, double poling like Newell.
And also like Newell, they both traded skate skis for the classic variety once the heats rolled around.
“This race has never been won on skate skis,” Harvey told FasterSkier after being eliminated in the quarterfinals.
That was the case again this year when the top double poler was Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR), who finished fourth.
Harvey had some competition in his quarter with Sprint Cup Champion Peterson and the Russian Bear, Alexei Petukhov, but with distance skiers Martin Johnsrud Sundby (NOR) and Sergey Turyshev (RUS) as well as 20-year-old Hiroyuki Miyazawa (JPN) who placed no better than 20th at the U23 Championships in Turkey, the Canadian seemed to have a good chance of advancing.
The heat was tightly packed coming around into the backstretch, Harvey on the inside behind Peterson and Petukhov.
Miyazawa, however, made an aggressive move on the outside, and entered the flat in good position.
“The first hill we went really slow,” Harvey told FasterSkier. “I knew that it would come down to the last climb, so I tried to save energy for that.”
Peterson skied of the front as he has done many times this year, and the fight for second was between Petukhov, Harvey and Miyazawa.
Surprisingly it was the young Japanese skier who held off the big names to advance, and Harvey was done, finishing the day in 14th after beating Petukhov to the line.
“I felt good, really good [up the final climb],” Harvey said. “I thought I had a good position in the finish, but I just wasn’t fast enough I guess.”
Kershaw also failed to make it out of the quarters.
He led his heat early, over the “Lion hill,” so named for the large stone lions that frame the entrance to the palace.
He was pushed out wide on the 180 corner though, and lost his spot.
He described the pace in the heat as “pretty relaxed” and was still in position to make a move on the final hill, but could not muster sufficient speed.
“It was pretty bad,” Kershaw said of his quarterfinal race. “I didn’t have the power on the double poling and up the last hill I fought too hard instead of relaxing and trying to ski smooth.”
He said that double poling felt good in qualification, but for the head-to-head action he wanted to create opportunity on the climb, and hence the classic skis.
“I tried,” Kershaw said. “It just didn’t work that well. I’m disappointed.”
Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth was unconcerned, however, seeing a silver lining in the early exit of his top two all-around skiers.
“It’s pretty tough if you make it all the way to finals,” Wadsworth said. “Not that you wouldn’t want to do that, but what these are worth in the whole scheme of the mini-tour, it is ok.”
Wadsworth was referring to the impact the sprint has on the overall mini-tour standings, which is quite small relative to the remaining races.
He also added that the shorter day gave Harvey and Kershaw a bit more time to recover from a tough 50k last Saturday in Oslo.
Ellefson Double Poles, Soaks in Atmosphere
Sylvan Ellefson (USA), racing the World Cup Finals as the overall SuperTour leader, was happy just to be able to participate on Wednesday.
He described racing in the shadow of the Royal Palace as “unbelievable,” adding “I feel like I go week to week saying this is the coolest thing I have ever done. This may top things here.”
He placed 47th in the 51-man field, and like his fellow North Americans, opted to double pole.
“I decided to go double poling today, just to change it up,” Ellefson said. “My striding qualifiers have been pretty solid, but I have been having a little trouble with my balance.”
He felt good double poling the previous day so decided to give it a shot.
“I think I might have bogged down a little bit coming up this last hill,” he said. “Classic sprinting isn’t really my specialty, but it would be fun to make it [into the heats].”
With the sprint out of the way, Ellefson is looking ahead to the rest of the World Cup Finals, and is hoping for better results.
“I feel like I am finally coming into some of the events that I have done better at the rest of the season—what qualified me to come over here,” he said.
He added that he is still a bit fatigued form the 50k in Oslo, but with an off-day Thursday, should be ready to go in the prologue.
Kevin Sandau (CAN) was the final North American in the race, placing 50th.
Unlike his teammates and the Americans, Sandau chose to stride the qualifier.
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.