The way things were shaping up in the men’s 6 x 1.65-kilometer classic team sprint final at the World Cup in Asiago, Italy, it could’ve been anybody’s race.
Yes, Norway’s Eldar Rønning and Ola Vigen Hattestad were generally leading the 10-team pack on Sunday, and yes, the top-four combination was often something like Norway, Russia, Norway, Russia (with each nation having two teams in the final), but you couldn’t count teams like Sweden and Kazakhstan out.
While Sweden’s first starter, Teodor Peterson clocked the fastest leg in each of his rounds, his teammate Simon Persson repeatedly dropped several places after every exchange. Without their original starter in Emil Jönsson, who had to scratch because of a sore back on Sunday morning, Sweden slipped from first to sixth, second to sixth, and finally third to fifth.
They weren’t a threat to Norway’s first team of Rønning and Hattestad, which won the first semifinal over Russia’s Alexander Panzhinskiy and Nikita Kriukov, but the Kazakhs were.
Second in their semifinal after Norway II’s Øystein Pettersen and Eirik Brandsdal, Kazakhstan’s Nikolay Chebotko and Alexey Poltoranin sat patiently around fourth early in the final, then rose to second by the fourth of five exchanges.
Just 0.6 seconds behind Rønning at the start of his last lap, Chebotko held his position until planting his pole between his legs and toppling over. Kazakhstan dropped from second to sixth, and it seemed their hope for a podium was slipping as the rest of the leaders skied into the exchange zone.
Podium? The thought probably never crossed Poltoranin’s mind as he waited for the tag just a couple hundred meters later. He was going for the win. Norway’s Hattestad would have to try to stop him.
After getting the tag in fifth, Poltoranin made up nearly 5 seconds on the leaders, including Hattestad up front, followed by Kriukov, Persson and Brandsdal.
Maxim Vylegzhanin lifted Russia II into the top four, but he and teammate Dmitriy Japarov were later disqualified for a “violation of classical technique rules,” likely skating on the mostly double-pole course. At least half the men’s field raced on skate skis, including most of the top men’s finalists.
Coming out of a sharp corner on a long descent, Kriukov’s pole strap broke, but he quickly got a replacement and resumed his spot amongst the top five with Norway I, Russia II, Norway II, Russia I, and Kazakhstan.
With 800 meters remaining, Poltoranin took a shortcut to second, cutting in on the inside lane around a tight turn. Most everyone had to snowplow on the final corner to avoid crashing in the sugary, melting snow, but Poltoranin remained in position to challenge Hattestad – who was still leading – to the finish.
Hattestad didn’t have to look back. He needed to go hard the last 100 meters to the finish. Committed to a central lane, the Norwegian double poled like mad while Poltoranin jumped into the left lane behind him, which was considered one of the fastest in the homestretch.
It may have been faster as Poltoranin came within centimeters of Hattestad, but the Norwegian held him off, throwing his leg across the line and winning in a photo finish in 24:47.4.
“I did not know we had won until I saw Eldar come running towards me,” Hattestad told VG Nett, according to a translation.
“It’s fun to win with only five centimeters,” said Rønning, who initially put Norway I in third, just 0.7 seconds behind Russia II up front.
After the first tag, Hattestad brought the team to first, where they remained fractions of a second ahead of anyone else for the rest of the race.
Norway II finished third, 2.17 seconds after Kazakhstan in second, but dropped as far back as seventh during the second leg, when Japarov fell on one of the last downhills and took out Pettersen. Brandsdal lifted them back to third with the fastest-course time for that leg, and Pettersen tagged him in fourth for the final lap.
“Good day: back on the podium in WC, argue with a good Russian (became friends again), Christmas holidays and given away flowers to a little girl,” Pettersen tweeted after the race, according to a translation.
“It is the best result of the season and I am very happy for that,” Pettersen told FIS. “Luckily we could get back. Team sprints are never easy.”
They are especially tough one day after an individual classic sprint on the same soupy course in similarly warm (41-degree) temperatures. Poltoranin, who was just short of a victory behind Kriukov on Saturday, said he recovered well with some physio work.
“Ola Vigen Hattestad is a very strong sprinter, but I think if we were not double poling in the finals, I would have had a chance to beat him,” said Poltoranin, who has placed second in his last three World Cup races.
While he sat out the Davos World Cup last weekend, Poltoranin was second to Norway’s Pål Golberg in the 15 k classic on Dec. 7 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Last season at the pre-Olympic World Cup classic sprint in Sochi, the Russians won on their home turf with Japarov and Vylegzhanin. Sweden’s Peterson and Jönsson placed second and Germany was third with Axel Teichmann and Tobias Angerer.
(Teichmann teamed up with Tim Tscharnke for Germany I on Saturday, placing fourth in their semi and narrowly missing the final for 10th overall. Germany II’s Angerer and Alexander Wolz finished 12th of 15 teams in the first semifinal.)
Russia’s No. 2 team of Alexey Petukov and Kriukov notched fourth last winter in Sochi, Norway’s Pettersen and Petter Northug placed fifth, and Kazakhstan’s Chebotko and Poltoranin finished sixth.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.