The World Cup kicked off today in Kuusamo, Finland with the opening stage of the Ruka Triple mini-tour, a classic sprint race over an undulating 1.4 kilometer course in frigid conditions.
Eirik Brandsdal (NOR) edged out top-qualifier Anton Gafarov (RUS) and Swedish sprint specialist Teodor Peterson to claim first blood in the 2014 World Cup season.
The temperature at the start of the quarter final heats was 10 degrees Fahrenheit with many skiers bundled in balaclavas and Norwegian star Petter Northug bedecked with blue tape on his cheeks to prevent frostbite. The race unfolded rapidly in the fading light of northerly Kuusamo, just 60 kilometers south of the Arctic circle, helped in part by the fast-skiing course.
The one major climb, a steep pitch up to the stadium and into the backstretch, provided the crux of the day — those with power remaining could take advantage of this sole opportunity to open a gap before the frantic double pole to the finish.
Brandsdal advanced cleanly through the quarters, besting a trio of fellow Norwegians and Japan’s Yuichi Onda while taking Northug along with him to the semis. Paal Golberg (NOR) led early but crashed opening the door for his teammates.
The first semifinal brought together the eventual podium, with Gafarov taking the upper hand. Brandsdal was just behind and Peterson was fast enough to secure a lucky loser spot in the finals.
Former World Champion and all-around sprint dominator, Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR) showed early season strength after several years of up-and down performances. Qualifying 8th, he won his quarterfinal and the second semi ahead of reigning World Champion Nikita Kriukov (RUS) and Alexey Poltaranin (KAZ) setting up the usual stacked final.
Ultimately however, Hattestad and his second semifinal fellows were unable to break up the earlier advancing trio.
Brandsdal sat toward the back of the pack early in the heat, allowing Poltaranin, Gafarov and Kriukov to set the pace with Petersen never straying far from the front.
All six men were tightly packed coming into the big hill, Gafarov, Hatttestad and Petersen three abreast. The lanky Norwegian faltered half way up however, slipping hard several times just before the crest. In an instant he was out of the running, left to battle with Poltatanin and Kriukov, both of whom were missing the extra gear for the second half of the climb.
Around the final hairpin, Brandsdal was still in third, but throwing down a ferocious double pole he charged down the homestretch, overtaking Gafarov and Petersen with one final lunge at the line.
Brandsdal claimed his 5th career World Cup victory, and fourth in the classic technique.
The 27-year-old, third in the Sprint Cup in 2012, was shocked to end up on top of the podium.
“It was madness, I had no idea when I threw my boot over the finish line. I thought it was too far,” Brandsdal told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race.
Gafarov, a sprint specialist, will withdraw from the mini-tour despite leading the overall standings. Since bonus seconds are calculated based on qualifying, the Russian bypassed Brandsdal though he lost out on the race victory.
He made just his second World Cup podium appearance, besting a third place back in 2009 on home snow in Rybinsk, Russia.
Racing continues on Saturday with an individual 10k classic.
– Northug, despite advancing to the semis, told NRK that “his body feels terrible.”
– Norway and Russia, always sprint powerhouses placed two each in the finals, and three in the top-12.
– Norway had the edge in the top-30 with 7 skiers to Russia’s 5.
– Northug’s younger brother Tomas was 30th, while injured Dario Cologna’s sibling took 12th.
– 22-year-old Hiroyuki Miyazawa cracked the top-30 for the second time in his young World Cup career, giving Japan two in the top-30.
– Anssi Pentsinen was the top Finn in 11th, with another four teammates in the top-30, including veteran Sami Jauhojaervi in 17th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.