Out of 85 starters in the men’s 15-kilometer classic individual start in Lillehammer, Norway, 17 were Norwegian. More than half of that 20 percent included international household names, and the lesser-known few were also vying for Olympic team spots, making the stakes even higher.
Without even factoring in odds, there was a pretty good chance a Norwegian was going to win Saturday’s World Cup race.
As the skiers ticked off the laps – three times around Lillehammer’s hilly course – it became a question of who would take the big prize.
Initially, Russia appeared on top with Stanislav Volzhentsev, the sixth starter, logging the fastest time through 2.1 k. Thirty starters later, Sweden’s Johan Olsson bested Volzhentsev’s intermediate time by more than a second, and a few minutes later Norwegian Petter Northug came through even faster – by 3.2 seconds – in bib 46.
But it was only two kilometers into a 15 k race, and there were lot of dangerous starters remaining.
Pål Golberg started 64th and didn’t draw attention too early. With the seventh-fastest time two kilometers in, he was nearly nine seconds behind Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson (who had topped Northug’s time by six seconds).
At the 5 k mark, Halfvarsson was still the fastest, but Golberg — best known as a sprinter — was making up ground, cutting the deficit to 3.8 seconds. Northug remained in second, and appeared on par to put down one of his late-kicking, dominant performances.
Less than kilometer later, just a third of the way through the race, the 23-year-old Golberg took the lead. He led Halfvarsson by a second, as well as Norway’s Chris Andre Jespersen, Didrik Tønseth and Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who were all within two seconds of one another in third through fifth. Northug was 11 seconds out in 12th, and suddenly the race had started.
“I wanted to be patient in the first lap. I knew I could ski fast but I held back at the beginning,” Golberg told reporters after. “In the other two laps I felt like I could keep the pace up. The course seemed to be really hard during training, but today with the speed, it did not feel that tough.”
Golberg held on, just ahead of 22-year-old Tønseth and Halfvarsson, who trailed by about a second. Chasing him from behind, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner and Russia’s Alexander Legkov ranked third and fourth, respectively, just 3 ½ seconds back..
With 5 k to go, Golberg began his ascent toward the podium putting 8 seconds into Tønseth, 9.8 seconds into Olsson, and ultimately 10.3 seconds up on Legkov.
He finished in 35 minutes flat, knocking Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin from the leader’s chair by 14.2 seconds. Hovering around the top 10 for most of the race, Poltoranin came on strong late to edge Tønseth, the previous race leader who ended up third, by 1.3 seconds.
Sitting in the hot seat bundled up and appearing slightly nervous, Golberg watched as others pushed to beat his time. Hellner finished 20.2 seconds back in fourth, and Legkov double poled hard off the final descent into the stadium, ultimately finishing 22.2 seconds out in sixth. (Olsson ended up fifth, 21.4 seconds out of first.)
As Legkov crossed the line, Golberg smiled. Not long after, Sundby as the final starter finished 24.9 seconds back in seventh. Following in eighth was Jespersen (+31.8), Northug placed ninth (+40.7), and Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson took 10th (+42.3).
Immediately congratulated by his teammates on his first World Cup win, Golberg smiled even more. He had placed third in World Cup individual sprints and second in the 2013 World Cup Finals freestyle prologue, but never this. When he spoke to reporters, he wiped away tears.
“I’m a little shaky right now,” Golberg told NRK, according to a translation. “I cry both when things are going well and when things go bad.”
At the 2013 World Championships in February, Golberg collapsed in the team sprint, blacking out and taking him and his teammate, Northug, out of contention.
After Saturday’s race, Northug praised his teammate.
“He had a very good start to the season and … is a person who can do well at both distance and sprint,” Northug told NRK. “It’s that kind of [skiers] we need.”
Norway’s second man and third-place finisher, Tønseth impressed with his first World Cup podium – and he didn’t even realize he made it. He was late to the flower ceremony as a result.
“I had looked a bit on a TV, and realized that my time was good,” Tønseth told NRK. “But I did not think it would be so good.”
Regardless, Norwegian men’s coach Trond Nystad was pleased.
“It’s impressive and fun for them,” he said.
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.