With just the descent into the stadium and a relatively short homestretch, Andy Newell appeared to have fourth place locked up for the Americans in the classic team sprint on the 2014 Olympic Course in Sochi, Russia.
But sticky skis and a technical corner conspired against Newell. The veteran crashed on the last downhill, dropping the team back to seventh. Nonetheless both he and teammate Simi Hamilton were pleased with a day that saw the duo win the semi-final, and remain in contention for the podium throughout most of the final.
“I think we both skied smart,” Newell told FasterSkier in an interview. “If and when we got gaps a little, we were both able to ski up into the pack…It went well.”
The much-discussed Sochi sprint course is long and hilly. Each lap was a solid four minutes and featured two significant climbs, including the last ascent above the stadium that has been the deciding factor in most of the races over the weekend.
The race was unusual for a men’s team sprint and in sharp contrast to the last one several weeks ago in Liberec, Czech Republic. There was little action in that event with a big pack at slow speed for much of the race.
Today however, the Russian duo of Dmitry Japarov and Maxim Vylegzhanin, both accomplished distance skiers, made sure there would be no repeat.
The two men push right from the gun and built a shocking lead. The impact on the rest of the field was substantial, and the pack never truly clustered, at most forming a long single file line.
Newell and Hamilton were able to remain toward the front of the chase group, with Newell even working at one point to close the gap up on the leaders, to no avail.
Entering the final lap, the Germans, anchored by Tobias Angerer held a four second lead on Sweden’s Emil Jönsson and Newell.
Newell lost contact with the Swede on the first climb and appeared to be out of the running for the podium.
At that point, Newell told FasterSkier, he thought he would have to settle for fourth.
But on the final big climb he could see both men beginning to come back.
“I could see that both Tobi [Angerer] and Emil [Jönsson] were kind of struggling too. So I was just like ‘oh man I have a chance of catching those guys’,” Newell said. “I just put my head down and completely buried myself on that last hill.”
He closed within meters of Jönsson who had made his way up to Angerer’s tails, but no further. The gap widened over the top. Newell was out of gas, and had also opted to add more kick entering the final leg, slowing his skis.
“I wanted to be able to go up that last hill,” Newell said. “I iced a bit over the top,” he continued, but added that the effort of chasing had left him with legs so rubbery he could “barely stand up.”
The sticky skis and cooked legs were a bad combination heading into the big sweeping corner. A berm of loose snow grabbed at the klister, and Newell was unable to keep his feet under him.
“I could see the podium right there. I just had to put my head down and go,” Newell said of his attack, showing no regret for a move that may have cost the team fourth.
“That is what we do…we would rather go for it instead of skiing conservative and trying to maintain fourth place,” Newell said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
Jönsson threw down a furious charge over the top to gap Angerer and was uncontested on his way to second.
The German team, with Axel Teichmann joining Angerer, like the Russians, consisted of two distance skiers. And Jönsson, at this point in his career, is more than capable endurance-wise.
The length and vertical of the course did not faze Newell however.
“Courses like this that are really tough hurt more when it is over,” he explained. “But when you are actually racing, for me at least, I don’t notice that it is a really hard course or a long course…you are in the race zone. But when you are done you are like ‘holy crap that was hard’.”
On a day featuring warm temperatures and tricky waxing, Newell and Hamilton started well, winning their semi-final going away.
Newell said that both men’s skis were “much faster than other people’s,” giving the team a distinct advantage.
“We started pulling away and then I just tried to hammer up the last hill…and just cruise into the stadium a little bit,” he said of the semis.
In addition to a good day of racing, the experience of skiing on the Olympic courses has been valuable.
“It is good to take away, see the courses and see some ways we may need to tweak our training to race fast here,” he said.
Specifically Newell pointed to uphill skiing — V1 in the individual skate sprint, and classic striding for the team sprint. There is “almost no double pole compared to other courses,” he explained.
The other focus will be duration, preparing for a four-minute sprint as opposed to a three minute event.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.