In the first regular-season World Cup race of the New Year Teodor Peterson (SWE) was back on top on Saturday in the classic sprint in Liberec, Czech Republic. Peterson and teammate Emil Jönsson charged hard in the final straight to overtake Norway’s Pål Golberg and go one-two for Sweden in a photo finish, Peterson edging Jönsson by a few centimeters in the lunge to take the win. Golberg was third, just 0.6 seconds behind.
“I have had some good competitions this winter but no victory,” Peterson said. “I will try to keep the winning momentum for the rest of the season.”
Eirik Brandsdal (NOR) took fourth, 2.8 seconds behind Peterson. The top four created a significant gap on fifth and sixth by the end of the race; Tim Tscharnke (GER) was 12.2 seconds back in fifth, and Andy Newell (USA) took sixth (+20.7).
Though there were a few notable skiers that chose not to race and recover from the Tour de Ski, Peterson was not without tough competition in Liberec. Jönsson has had multiple sprint victories this year, World Champion Ole Vigen Hattestad (NOR) was on the start list for the first time all year and was, prior to Saturday, unbeaten at the venue.
Peterson himself has had consistent results near the top of the podium thus far but was unable to reach the level he attained last season. After Saturday, with his first win since last February in Moscow, Peterson has put himself back on the radar as the days until World Championships dwindle.
“The other two victories have felt differently,” Peterson told Sweski. “[Today] I was just tired and not even sure if I had won.”
The course in Liberec was modified due to limited natural snow cover leading up to the weekend. The men raced twice around an 800-meter loop that race organizers had covered with manmade snow. The women completed just one lap, and because the starters didn’t wait the usual five minutes before starting the men, recovery time in between heats was shorter than usual. Many of the men commented on feeling unusually tired after the race.
“They’d just run the men’s heat right after the women’s heat. Instead of maybe ten minutes of recovery we got maybe six minutes, which is kind of a big difference if you’re in that last quarterfinal,” Newell said.
The rounds leading up to the final also featured more carnage than there has been this season. Øystein Petterson (NOR) fell in qualifying and didn’t even make the heats. There were multiple crashes in the first semifinal; Alexander Panzhinskiy (RUS) fell mid-race, and Nikita Kriukov (RUS) also went down and took Hattestad with him. In the resulting confusion Mikhail Devjatiarov (RUS) interfered with Jönsson, for which Devjatiarov was penalized and relegated to sixth in the heat.
The high crash rate might have had something to do with the stress of looming World Championships team selections. Petterson, for instance, has likely ruined his Val di Fiemme chances. “I’m just really upset right now,” he told Norwegian broadcaster VG Nett. “I do not train twice a day to disappoint myself as I did today.”
But for all the early mishaps, the final went comparatively smoothly. The Scandinavians charged hard from the start and quickly created separation on Tscharnke and Newell.
“I still thought I had a good shot at the podium at least, but then when we started the final those guys took it out hot for sure,” Newell said. “Even on our first lap, it definitely took the wind out of myself and Tim. We were both struggling pretty bad in the final coming from the heat before.”
Golberg, Jönsson, Peterson and Brandsdal charged hard, vying for an advantageous position on around the corners. When Golberg began to create separation over the last hill before the stadium, Peterson thought for sure the race was over.
“I was a bit out on top and did not think I could come up with…Golberg again,” Peterson said to Sweski.com.
He and Jönsson would not give up, however, and the pair inched forward on either side of Golberg to finish within half a second of each other.
“It was nice to throw out a foot in front of Emil’s little foot,” Peterson joked in the press conference later.
Jönsson was disappointed to lose by such a small margin, but was good-natured about the loss. “Of course I’m not satisfied, I’m not even [the] best Swedish,” he said, laughing. “I am happy for [Peterson] to take his first victory of the season.”
Golberg, so close to earning his first World Cup gold at age 22, felt capable of winning on Saturday but just didn’t have the 100-meter closing speed.
“I felt very sharp today,” Golberg told the NRK. “The last 50 meters was a bit too long, unfortunately.”
Jönsson went home to Sweden on Saturday directly following the race, citing the need to rest and recover from a recent knee injury.
“The body is tired after the Tour de Ski and the stitches [are] still in my knee after I fell and then completed the race in Oberhof during the Tour,” he told Sweski. “There is no real harm, but it [hurts], especially when I go freestyle.”
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For Newell, who won his quarterfinal and advanced to the finals as a lucky loser in the semis, Saturday’s result proved his classic sprinting is on par with the skate results he’s produced this year. Sixth place was his best classic sprint result in three seasons.
“I’m happy to know that I can make the final in both skate and classic sprints this year, which is a good feeling,” Newell said.
To get there, he had to successfully navigate some aggressive skiing on the part of his competitors. Anssi Pentsinen (FIN) cut him off around a corner in the semis, and to avoid colliding with him Newell reached out and tapped him to keep their skis a safe distance apart.
“I was wondering if anyone saw that,” he laughed. “Yeah he totally squeezed in on me on the corner and I had to put a hand on him. I was hoping that the cameras didn’t catch it, because every time you do that you can definitely run the risk of getting disqualified.”
The move may have saved his race. Multiple crashes in the first quarterfinal meant that the lucky losers would likely come out of Newell’s heat, so he knew that a top-four would give him a good shot at moving on.
“We’d seen the heat before and knew they were a little bit slower because there were some tangle ups, so…we were just fighting for those top four spots.”
Racing resumes in Liberec on Sunday with a freestyle team sprint.
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.