It’s hard to look manly when you’re hiding behind dividers to get out of the wind, but most of the finalists were doing so at the start of Wednesday’s World Cup Finals 1.1-kilometer classic sprint in Stockholm.
Petter Northug probably didn’t think much of it, nor the irony of seeking shelter behind an advertisement for a heating-systems manufacturer, Viessmann, also a World Cup sponsor.
Like his five competitors, with two Norwegian teammates, Northug was cold. It was a few degrees below freezing with a wind chill that made standing in downtown Stockholm almost unbearable. They had to race in it.
The six men, including Northug’s younger brother Tomas, teammate Eirik Brandsdal, Sweden’s Teodor Peterson and Russians Nikita Kriukov and Sergey Ustiugov, forged ahead into the blustery conditions just as they had done before. However, the wind had picked up and snow became more unsettled as the afternoon heats wore on.
With the tracks blowing away with it, it gave the top men even more of a reason to go on skate skis, as many in the 53-man field did.
Not caring much about the start, Northug let the others lead for the first half of the final. He stayed out of trouble in last on the first 180-degree turn at the bottom of a long descent. On the following gradual incline, Northug moved to third behind Kriukov and Peterson, who led from the start.
The group remained tight, with Tomas slightly off the back in sixth. Heading into the final corner, his big brother picked up the pace, building steam gradually before punching it on the last turn.
There, Peterson (who had been issued a warning after obstructing Petter Northug in the quarterfinals) held his ground in the middle, while the older Northug charged ahead.
It didn’t matter what Northug looked like in the minutes or even hours before – this was the man people remembered. Exploding upward with every double pole, the 27-year-old leaped off the ground and increasingly farther ahead of his competitors with the powerful balancing act.
Seemingly flying past the spectators on the last straightaway, Northug was accompanied by a string of fireworks on the other side of the track, which went off as he passed by. The Norwegian let them herald in his victory as he pushed to the line and pumped his arms at the finish.
Northug turned around and smiled. The men closest to him, like runner-up Brandsdal 0.74 seconds back and Kriukov 1.14 seconds behind in third – smiled back. Kriukov tapped Northug with his pole after as if to gesture, ‘Come on, it wasn’t that easy.’
But Northug had made it look that way, doing what he does best and winning in dominating fashion. Before the victory, his first in Stockholm, Northug had already moved to first in the overall World Cup standings; Russian Alexander Legkov in the leader’s bib and Swiss contender Dario Cologna set themselves back after failing to advance out of the quarterfinals.
Northug simply solidified the lead in his quest for the World Cup overall title, which he set out to capture after World Championships. Wednesday’s win put him 34 points ahead of Legkov (who was last in his quarterfinal for 27th) and 43 points up on Cologna (fifth in quarterfinal, 21st overall).
And keeping cool was his plan all along. Seventh in the qualifier behind teammate Eldar Rønning, Northug went on to win his quarterfinal and semifinal by nearly half a second, letting others break the wind ahead of him for most of the race.
In the quarterfinal, he came from behind to challenge Peterson in the last uphill stretch, and in the semi, he put himself in the top four around the final corner. Leading into the finish, he lunged casually for the win a sure-shot spot in the final.
“I was a little slow in the start of every heat so I just tried to find the best position,” Northug told FIS. “It was not as windy being behind at the back. My goal in every heat was to have a good position before the last hill.”
He executed as planned, while Peterson settled for fourth (+1:61) and Tomas Northug and Ustiugov duked it out for fifth. Tomas took it by 0.12 seconds and Ustiugov placed sixth, 2.68 seconds after Northug.
The Swedish king presented the podium awards, but Northug told Expressen he was hoping Princess Victoria would do the honors like she recently did at World Championships.
“It was a disappointment,” Northug said, according to a translation. “I’ll have a chat with her … Maybe she was a little nervous.”
Cockiness aside, the stage win gave Northug 50 World Cup points and 60 bonus seconds heading into Friday’s freestyle prologue, the second of the four-race Finals. The remaining events, including the prologue will take place Friday through Sunday in Falun, Sweden. Northug will have 5.5-second advantage on Brandsdal, who is second in the standings, and 7 seconds on Kriukov in third.
The top qualifier by 0.65 seconds over Kriukov, Rønning had a rough go in the quarterfinal after Russian Ilia Chernousov got caught up on the back of his skis on the first hill. Rønning couldn’t quite get back in the hunt and finished third, 1.26 seconds behind Tomas Northug and Andy Newell, respectively. He failed to advance and settled for 13th.
The third-fastest qualifier and World Cup sprint king, Sweden’s Emil Jönsson started strong in his semifinal but fell behind after misjudging the last corner. He was third in the heat, 2.03 seconds behind Brandsdal and Kriukov, respectively, for seventh overall.
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.