GÄLLIVARE, Sweden – After a subpar performance in yesterday’s 15 k skate, Petter Northug bragged and predicted that he would outsprint Sweden’s Marcus Hellner for a win in the 4 x 7.5 k relay today.
“I’m looking forward to the relay tomorrow,” the Norwegian star had said after placing seventh.
But Northug, always the anchor for Norway, inherited a 17-second lead; he phoned it in on his relay leg, never appearing to labor. He was helped by the fact that the pack behind him was content to jockey for position and tactics to secure second place, rather than putting in any real charge for the lead. But as a result, Northug didn’t even have to turn in his signature sprint that, he is sure, would have vanquished Hellner.
Northug rubbed it in anyway, though, picking up a Swedish flag as he skated his way towards the finish. The stunt was pre-planned, he told NRK.
“I hope it makes it extra painful for them,” he said. “If the Swedes had won in Norway with a Norwegian flag, it would have burned very badly.”
Sweden still managed to secure second place in a sprint, just not the way they had hoped. The home team opened the relay with a strong leg by Emil Joensson, which put them in the lead. Johan Olsson, however – so strong a week ago in Bruksvallarna – struggled for the second day in a row, dropping the team to ninth position, twenty seconds back.
“It was horrible,” he told the Swedish press. “Much worse than [the traditional] 10 k.”
Third-leg skier Daniel Richardsson was unable to make up much ground, gaining a single position and tagging to Hellner 34 seconds back. At that point, Tim Tscharnke of Germany and Alexander Legkov of Russia were battling for second place.
Hellner quickly caught them, and a whole group of racers formed a pack which included Roman Furger of Switzerland and Alex Harvey of Canada, who was the recipient of hard work done by Devon Kershaw and Ivan Babikov on the second and third legs.
Along with Ilia Chernousov and Hannes Dotzler, who were anchoring for Russia and Germany, the five-man pack worked their way around three quick 2.5 k loops, pushing each other around corners and biding their time for a finishing sprint. Hellner led most of the way, with the rest of the group shifting behind him; Harvey sat on his shoulder for almost an entire lap, staying clear of some potential trouble on the twisting course.
Canada’s previous best relay finish, Harvey told FasterSkier, had been fifth place at World Championships in 2009. Since then, they had not matched that in regular World Cup action. The podium seemed within reach.
But he lost his focus at some point, and lost his place in the pack. After slipping to fourth in the five-man group, he was unable to respond when Hellner finally accelerated in the final few hundred meters.
“I’m really disappointed,” Harvey told FasterSkier after the race. “I felt good.”
Instead, Hellner battled Chernousov all the way to the line, ultimately besting the Russian by just under a second. Furger crossed the line next to hand Switzerland a fourth-place finish, and Harvey was close behind him in fifth. He was still happy, he said, to tie his team’s best relay performance, but he wants more.
To the winners, though, go the spoils, and for Norway they were considerable – not just for a grinning Northug, who had taken advantage of one more chance to prank his rivals, but for his teammates as well.
Sjur Røthe was actually the hero of the day, turning in the fastest third-leg time to give Northug that lead. In fact, the relay probably would have been more exciting if Northug hadn’t anchored – the team’s strength was well-distributed, and he was by no means the most important link.
Nevertheless, Northug said that he felt good and it boded well for next weekend’s races in Kuusamo, which he hopes will go better than Saturday’s 15 k.
“I felt refreshed today,” he said. “I had real punch in my legs.”
More Race Details (blog report)
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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.