GÄLLIVARE, Sweden – When fans were predicting who might win this opening World Cup at Hellner Stadion, a lot of names came up. Surely it might be a Swede – Marcus Hellner, who trains here and gave his name to the stadium, or perhaps one of his teammates, like Johan Olsson or Daniel Richardsson.
Or what about “Super Dario” Cologna, the Swiss star who won last year’s World Cup overall title? Maybe Petter Northug of Norway? Alexander Legkov of Russia? Or what about Matti Heikkinen of Finland, the reigning World Champion in this format? The Canadians Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey?
Two names that never came up were Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Alexey Poltoranin of Kazahstan. Both have won World Cup races before, but neither had even been on the podium in a skate race. They were considered classic specialits – skiers who could do well in the opening 15 k freestyle, but were never going to win.
And yet one by one, the big names faltered, and were unable to knock down the standard set by Poltoranin in bib 61 and Sundby in bib 73. Although most the biggest names started later and there was always a chance that one could put on a late surge, as the kilometers went by it became clear that the likes of Hellner, Northug, and Cologna were not matching the classic specialists’ times at any of the intermediate checkpoints.
When the last racer crossed the finish line, Sundby was still in the leader’s chair, and earned himself the yellow bib for overall World Cup leader.
“I did not expect to be in the yellow bib after the first World Cup weekend,” he admitted in a press conference. “I hope I will perform well also in the next competitions.”
Sundby started out slowly, ranked fifth a 2.3 k before picking up speed. Because he started before the top-seeded racers, Sundby thought he was fighting with teammate Sjur Røthe for the lead, and was sure that others behind him would be faster.
“I didn’t have very good information,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
But the win was the result of a lot of very hard work. For the last two years, Sundby has been trying to become a better all-around skier, and it seems that he is succeeding just in time for the Sochi Olympics next season.
“It’s been a long road to improve in the free technique,” he said in the press conderence. “In Vancouver at the Olympics I did not ski well on the relay, and let down many people down with my free technique leg. I decided that spring that I could be a classic-only specialist, or I could work hard to improve my free technique, and it has happened.”
Poltoranin skied a more steady race, sitting in second or third for the entire race. He was just three seconds down to Sundby at the halfway point, but was unable to make up the gap and finished 8.9 seconds behind for second place. He attributed the result to a similar goal as Sundby’s: a lot of training to improve his skating.
“I have worked hard on my free technique and today’s result is good,” he said in the press conference. “But I did not expect to be on the podium today.”
Despite an abysmal performance in a 15 k freestyle FIS race in Bruksvallarna last weekend, Hellner managed to scrape together a decent race today and finish 11 seconds behind Sundby. The podium finishers were well ahead of the rest of the field; Heikkinen placed fourth, +30.2, and Røthe fifth, +31.1. 39-year-old Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus placed sixth, just a few more seconds back.
Although he still doesn’t feel like he’s in top shape – it was a “rubbish race,” he told the Swedish press – Hellner said that the home course advantage made a considerable difference in his result.
“My feeling was similar to last weekend at the national opening in Bruksvallarna,” Hellner said in the press conference. “Here, the snow was faster and the audience helped me lift myself to another level.”
As for the other men who were expected to win, they had varying excuses. Northug told NRK that he didn’t feel like he was in top form yet, and he could tell after the first lap that he wasn’t having a good race; he placed seventh. Earlier this fall he had claimed that he would win the races here in Gallivare just to rub it in the Swedes’ faces, but that work was left to Sundby today.
“I’m looking forward to the relay tomorrow,” said the redemption-seeking star. “I think we are strong; Sjur did well today, Martin is in great shape, and Eldar Rønning always charges up for the relays…. we’ll probably see a Hellner-Northug duel tomorrow. I’ll be glad if they put Hellner on the last leg.”
The Russian trio of Evgeniy Belov, Legkov, and Ilia Chernousov took spots eight through ten. Among the other big stars, Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic placed 13th and Cologna 19th.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.