As a classic specialist, Eldar Roenning (NOR) can oftentimes be overlooked when contemplating race favorites.
The stocky Norwegian does not race the World Cup regularly, generally only hitting the events that play to his strengths in the traditional style of skiing, but he reached the top of the ski world on Saturday when he took the victory in the famed Holmenkollen 50k, defeating World Cup leader Dario Cologna in a mad sprint to the line.
Fellow Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby finished third, sure to please the King of Norway in attendance in the royal box along the homestretch.
With temperatures failing to drop below freezing on Friday night, the tracks quickly disintegrated in the warm weather, and significant moisture built on the course.
US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier that the track was already gone in places before the race began and described the event as “a slog.”
Roenning did not seem fazed by the slow track or the warm weather, remaining patient toward the front of the pack, in position to respond to attacks, but not going out of his way to push the pace or fight for bonus seconds.
As is always the case in mass start 50k events, the race was wide open for until the last kilometer.
The Norwegian team engaged in some tactics early on, opting to switch skis at the first opportunity while the rest of the field skied through. At the next pitstop, 10k later the Norwegians passed by while the rest of the field pulled over and then had to work to catch up.
There were five opportunities to switch to new skis in the race, and athletes were allowed to take four.
The strategy served only to apply a bit of pressure, and set the tone for the day—a relatively relaxed pace with periodic pushes from one skier or another creating a bit of stress on the pack before settling.
Canadians Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey, both gunning for the podium described the overall pace as relatively easy throughout, and the main group remained large as it compressed on the long descent from the highpoint.
Earlier in the race both Swede Anders Soedergren and Petter Eliassen (NOR) spent significant time pulling. Both men entered the day on the outside of the top-50—the ranking needed to contest the World Cup Finals.
Soedergren especially is not a sprinter and would be well served by fracturing the pack as early as possible.
The efforts of both men, however, did no more than drop some stragglers. While Eliassen did open a 30-meter gap at one point, there was never any real chance of an individual getting away.
The race revolved more around the bonus sprints, especially early on, with a number of skiers looking for points in an effort to make the top-50 threshold. Sprinter Oystein Pettersen of Norway, Axel Tecihmann (GER), Ivan Babikov (CAN) and Calle Halfvarsson (SWE) all needed a solid bump to get in.
Teichmann took the first preem at 3k followed closely by teammate Tim Tscharnke and Canadian sprinter Lenny Valjas with Halfvarsson in the mix as well—points are awarded to the top-10.
Valjas was in the race, not to actually get points for himself, but to prevent others from doings so in an effort to help Babikov.
Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier that Valjas was also in need of a hard workout, so the plan worked well, though Babikov struggled and ended up dropping out.
The bubble skiers quickly faded back through the pack and the race settled into a more standard routine, with the sporadic surges stretching out the pack, only to have it all compress on the descents.
The course was the same as the World Championship 50k held just a year ago, with the series of grueling climbs up to Frognersettren and then the long winding decent back down.
The preem sat right up at this high point, and in a nice variation from other such intermediate sprints, it wasn’t right at the steepest point. Skiers approached up a tough pitch but then the course flattened to double pole terrain before one last rise to the line.
The five sprints lacked much drama with no one really willing to fully attack. Kershaw was one of three men to claim points all five times through, winning the final two to earn a total of 44 to go with his 10th place finish.
Only Soedergren did better with 49 points.
“I decided out there to just grab ones that wouldn’t take much out of me,” Kershaw told FasterSkier, adding that it was not his plan to chase the points.
Kershaw described the pace as “pretty mellow,” and said “I think the incredibly slow, slushy snow played into that. Nobody could go for a flier off the front, so we just all skied around together.”
The pace began to increase during the last 10k loop, with the Norwegians moving into position at the front. At one point the hosts held five of the ten positions in a sea of red suits.
Quietly present, as always, was Cologna, who, with the overall World Cup title wrapped up, had no need for bonus seconds.
He had one goal, to win, and stayed patiently in the mix, out of trouble toward the front, leading occasionally, but not pushing.
The pack strung out the final time up to the top, but closed up once again headed to the stadium.
The course looped through and headed out for one last short 3k trip with several smaller climbs before the finish.
Sundby and Roenning drove the pace at the front with Cologna and Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) right behind.
It quickly became clear that no one would break away before the final big hill, the gratishagen on the World Championship sprint course.
Roenning led into the hill, and responded when Vylegzhanin attempted to get by. The Norwegian didn’t break and led over the top.
The attack finally fractured the pack, and five men were left to fight for the win—Roenning, Sundby, Vylegzhanin, Cologna and Konstantin Glavatskikh (RUS).
Roenning led down the backstretch and into the final hill in the stadium and Cologna accelerated by a fading Vylegzhanin.
The two charged up the hill, running through the slush outside the tracks. Roenning led over the flat top and down into the homestretch. Cologna waited until the final flat before stepping out to make his move.
He initially started to pull in front gaining a few inches, but Roenning responded, flying up onto his toes with each pole. He crept back, but it appeared that Cologna had the edge.
And then, in a move that could have just as easily resulted in failure, Roenning switched to classic striding with just twenty meters to go. He immediately accelerated past, and by the time Cologna responded with a technique shift of his own, the race was over.
Roenning crossed the line, and immediately flopped straight forward, face-planting in the snow. Cologna glided by, giving his competitor a pat on the back before collapsing in his own pile.
While all eyes were focused on the top-two, Sundby, though no sprinter, overtook Vylegzhanin to claim bronze, a definite upset given the Russian’s strength in closing out longer events.
The Russians may have been kept off the podium, but they still had a strong day, claiming fourth through eighth.
After the race Roenning said he was surprised to win, but was happy to add a 50k victory to his resume.
“I don’t see myself as a sprinter, but as an all-round skier… it is great to be good in all disciplines,” Roenning said.
Cologna, who struggled with bad skis at the World Championships last year was pleased to get a measure of redemption.
“Today, I had good skis, and felt better and better every round,” Cologna said. “To be on the podium at Holmenkollen is something special.”
He said the race was “the longest 50k ever” that he had been part of and that “I think everybody is tired now and should be proud having completed the 50k.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.