QUEBEC CITY – How close was the finish of Friday’s World Cup team sprint?
Alexandr Batyaikin, Kazakhstan’s head coach, watched his anchor skier stretch for the line alongside Russia’s Alexey Petukhov.
He couldn’t tell who had won, and didn’t find out until he heard from his wife, who was following the race back home in Kazakhstan at 2 a.m.
“My wife called me and said: ‘You first!’” Batyaikin said.
By a manner of inches, the Kazakh pair of Denis Volotka and Nikolay Chebotko claimed their first-ever team podium on the World Cup, eking out a win over the Russians on Quebec City’s sinuous sprint course.
The result was not what the thousands of face-painted, flag-bearing local fans had shown up to see—they were here looking for a win from the Canadians, led by Alex Harvey, who grew up just down the St. Lawrence River in St.-Ferréol-les-Neiges.
But at the start of his last leg, Harvey stumbled over a fallen Swedish skier, taking the Canadians out of contention and leaving the door open for the rest of the lead group.
“I knew right there it was done,” Harvey said. “When your hand touches the snow in sprint racing, the gap is just too big to make up.”
After the Kazakhs and Russians, the Norwegians were relegated to third place, with Anders Gloërsen and Eirik Brandsdal a full second back.
While they still made the podium, the Norwegians are not used to seeing the backs of their Eastern European competitors, which perhaps explained the attitude of coach Ulf Morten Aune after the race.
“In a way, we’re pleased with this—we managed a podium. But we’re not completely satisfied,” Aune told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “There is a difference between third place and victory, and we had our sights on victory today.”
Kazakhstan is not new to cross-country success: seven-time Olympic medalist Vladimir Smirnov hails from there, and the nation has a budding star in 25-year-old Alexey Poltoranin. In the last decade, the country’s women threatened to crack several relay podiums, coming two seconds away in a team sprint in 2005.
“We have a good tradition in Kazakhstan, skiing,” Batyaikin said.
The Kazakh men, though, had never come close to a World Cup relay win. But their victory Friday did not shock U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, who had watched Poltoranin, Chebotko and Volotka sweep the podium at an early-season tune-up race in Finland in November in front of American Andy Newell.
“They’ve been on fire all year,” Grover said. “Those guys are incredible shape. Little bit surprised to see the whole program skiing so fast, but they’re good skiers.”
In a press conference, and in a rambling, broken-English interview after the race, Batyaikin credited his team’s rise to a new ski waxer, who hails from Russia, plus a longtime Kazakh coach, Vladimir Sachnov.
He said that Kazakh sports were on the rise after the London Olympic Games, where the country won seven gold medals.
Today’s result, he added, was “a very great podium.”
“I think in Kazakhstan, tomorrow, there will be a celebration,” Batyaikin said.
–Alex Matthews, Topher Sabot and Matthew Voisin contributed reporting
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.