FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – For Norway, Sunday’s men’s team sprint letdown at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships turned out to be a blessing. It was hard to see then, but Petter Northug not advancing to the finals with teammate Pål Golberg was a good thing.
While the 22-year-old Golberg recovered after blacking out, Northug slept off the frustrations and woke up Monday anxious to get back out there. That’s when it hit him: why not do the 15-kilometer individual start on Wednesday?
Sure, it wasn’t historically his best event. Heck, he hadn’t won a 15 k freestyle individual race on the World Cup before. But with seven World Championship golds behind him, Northug, 27, figured he didn’t have much to lose. And he had energy to spare.
The 89th of 95 starters, Northug went into Wednesday’s race with a specific plan: attack for gold. The first of three laps went exceptionally well as he clocked the fastest time through the 1.8 k checkpoint. The mass-start specialist held his high pace for the second 5 k loop, reaching 9.4 k faster than anyone else, and put his head down the third time around.
With race favorites Dario Cologna of Switzerland and Russia’s Alexander Legkov behind him, Northug knew he couldn’t let off and was most concerned with Sweden’s Johan Olsson in front of him. The last starter in soft, sluggish conditions with temperatures up around 8 degrees Celsius (46 Fahrenheit), Cologna struggled early, ranking eighth through 1.8 k at the high point of the course. At the tail end of the second lap, he was third fastest, but fell to fifth at 11.8 k.
“I heard the times of Dario so I knew that it’s going to be a fight between me and Johan Olsson,” Northug said at a post-race press conference. “When I was out on the second lap, then I just focused on the time of Johan.”
Losing some time on the third lap, he focused on staying upright for the long downhill back toward the stadium.
“I started to get a little bit worried, but I knew my plan the last two downs was more to stay on my legs and not to fall,” Northug said. “I knew I had the seconds to win.”
As Olsson, who started six minutes before Northug in bib 77, sat in the leader’s chair at the finish, Northug cruised down into the stadium with a 40-second lead. Looking exhausted, he mustered a final sprint and barely made it through before losing control and veering sharply to the left – almost into the boards.
His head then his back hit the ground, and he exhaled. A few moments later, Northug realized what he had done in winning his first title at this year’s World Championships in an event he didn’t typically dominate.
“When you’re so tired as I was today you don’t hear any crowds; it feels like you’re racing alone,” he said of coming into the stadium for the last time. “You just want to cross the finish line because you’re tired … and then you cross the line and you get a couple minutes to rest and you hear the crowd and you hear the speaker announce that you are world champion. That’s an amazing feeling.”
Northug took the individual crown with a time of 34:37.1. Olsson was second, 11.8 seconds behind, for his first individual silver medal at World Championships. Norway’s Tord Asle Gjerdalen earned his second individual bronze at worlds (+22.3) after placing third to Northug in the 50 k freestyle mass start two years ago in Oslo, Norway.
Ivan Babikov made history for Canada in fourth, 53.6 seconds behind Northug and 31.3 seconds off the podium, notching his nation’s best finish in a 15 k skate individual start since Pierre Harvey was 16th in 1982. Norway’s Sjur Røthe placed fifth (+1:03.0) and Cologna ended up eighth, 1:21.1 behind. Starting a minute in front of Cologna and skiing with him near the finish, Legkov ended up 25th (+2:28.7).
In a race that was by no measures easy with at least six steep climbs per lap, Northug attributed his success to being hungry for redemption and feeling in great shape after last week’s classic sprint (where he was second), Saturday’s skiathlon (where he was fourth) and Sunday’s team sprint (where he and Golberg placed 11th).
“Today is a day you dream of when you’re an athlete,” Northug said. “You wake up, you feel that you have a lot of power, you want to compete, you want to give your all and also when you then win, it’s amazing.”
Asked what his eighth World Championships gold meant to him compared to the rest, Northug said nothing could rival his 50 k victory in Olso. “To win a 50 k in a world championship is one of the biggest things I’ve done,” he said.
Even so, this individual win was pretty significant and counted just the same, he said.
His closest challenger on Wednesday, the 32-year-old Olsson knew what Northug was capable of. Early last season in Kuusamo, Finland, Northug romped the field in a World Cup 10 k freestyle by 23.8 seconds. A month later, he won a World Cup 30 k freestyle in Davos, Switzerland, by nearly a minute.
“I know when he’s at his best, no one can beat him,” Olsson said.
Aware of the splits throughout the race, with Olsson posting the fastest times through the 9.4 and 11.8 k checkpoints before Northug blew them away, he mostly focused on himself.
“If you should take a medal on the individual start, I think you cannot focus too much on the other competitors,” he said at the press conference. “My biggest enemy on the course is the voices that say, ‘Give up.’ But you have to fight all the time, that’s the way I ski.”
Olsson stole the spotlight and leader’s position from Gjerdalen, who started 71st and bested Babikov in bib 69 to reach the podium. Notably, the 29-year-old Norwegian senior team member didn’t know he was racing until Wednesday morning, when he received a text message that teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby was out sick, FIS tweeted.
“I knew it was my turn to go,” Gjerdalen said. “I must admit I wasn’t very happy because … it’s been four or five years since I’ve been fast in this individual start. I actually wanted to trade this race for the 50 k.”
Regardless, he gave it his all, attacking the course in his signature Aviator sunglasses. Starting 12 minutes before Cologna, Gjerdalen used the Swiss superstar as fuel when Cologna passed him on the second lap. Gjerdalen thanked him at the finish.
“He turned an individual start into a mass start for me so that’s perfect,” he said.
“Before I started, I knew the skis would get slower and slower so I was really surprised that I made the podium,” Gjerdalen said of the softening conditions. “When I realized that I knew I had a chance and the coaches were shouting, ‘A medal!” I thought, ‘What?’ That was incredible. It gave me speed.”
And the Aviators?
“I use them all the time; they’re fogging, I can’t see,” he joked. “No, they’re really good and it’s become an image for me. I have only one [pair] with me so I hope they don’t break or I lose them, then I have to go buy some new gear. But I suppose [Italy] is the right culture to buy them.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.