Under snowy skies and on Norwegian terrain, Maxim Vylegzhanin and the Russian relay team seized victory in the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay Sunday in Lillehammer, greatly raising their team’s expectations ahead of the Sochi Winter Games.
As the lone relay ahead of the much-anticipated Olympic contest, the event was an important test of the teams’ relative strengths, and an opportunity to try out relay orders. If Lillehammer made anything clear, it’s that the men’s relay is now dominated by a new Norway/Russia rivalry.
The race began at noon with heavily falling snow, the tracks set deep in the powder and the steeper hills rutted and choppy enough to force the athletes into a wide, loping herringbone. Eldar Rønning, skiing for Norway’s second of four teams, took the lead early and set a fast pace aimed at breaking up the pack. In the heavy snow it didn’t take long to break apart the field.
Norway I nearly fell off the back early on when Pål Golberg became tangled with another skier on a descent, knocking him off balance and forcing him to ski on only his left foot for much of the way down the powdery slope. Somehow, though, he managed to stay on his feet. This impressive bit of skiing allowed Golberg, Saturday’s 15 k classic winner, to chase his way back up to the lead group.
Coming through the stadium on the first of two 3.75-k laps, Russia I, led by Dmitriy Japarov, took the lead from Norway II’s Rønning and continued to push the pace. By 4.9 k the lead group was made up of Japarov, Rønning, Daniel Richardsson of Sweden, Jean Marc Gaillard of France, Stanislav Volzhentsev of Russia II, Tim Tscharnke of Germany, and Norway I, III, and IV.
At the end of the first leg, Rønning charged into the stadium to hand off first to Chris Andre Jespersen, who was closely followed by Russia I and II, with Alexander Bessmertynkh and Alexander Utkin respectively. With Jespersen leading, the Norwegian teams would prove their classic skiing chops and their first three teams moved to the top of the field, only Bessmertynkh could hold the collective pace of Jespersen, Tønseth (NOR I), and Simen Haakon Oestensen (NOR III).
At the handoff of the third leg and transition into skating, Tønseth tagged Martin Sundby first for Norway I, Alexander Legkov took over for Russia I just 0.2 seconds back in second, and Jespersen came through in third to send Sjur Røthe off for Norway II.
After hungrily looking at the stadium screen as he watched his teammate Bessmertnkh approaching, Legkov took the lead from Sundby up the first climb, and wasted no time in trying to put the rest of the field under pressure.
Legkov finally began to slow at the end of the first lap, and he relinquished the lead to Sundby as they passed through the stadium. Legkov did not spend long resting behind him, however. As soon as the skiers left the stadium and began to climb up Lillehammer’s long hills, the Russian retook the lead and dialed up the pace once more. This time, only Sundby and Røthe could stay with him; the rest of the field began to lose time to the Russian’s aggressive skiing.
On the final leg, Finn Haagen Krogh of Norway II, Vylegzhanin of Russia I, and the ever-confident Petter Northug of Norway I left the stadium together. By default, Krogh was left to lead the three. Vylegzhanin skied comfortably behind him in second and Northug stayed carefully behind the Russian. For the first 6 k, Krogh’s lead was never challenged by either skier, and no one seemed to have any trouble keeping up with his steady tempo.
The leader’s lack of swiftness was evident by a steadily encroaching field behind them, led by a hard-charging Tord Asle Gjerdalen of Norway III. Eighteen seconds behind Krogh at the start, Gjerdalen set off immediately on his leg to rejoin them, and in the last lap found himself back in the fold behind Northug. Marcus Hellner also could be seen taking a hard turn for Sweden in a bid to catch up. At 6 k, he was only 8 seconds behind Vylegzhanin, who had now taken over the lead.
The Russian had plans for an early burst of speed and leading 1.5 k from the finish, Vylegzhanin took the leaders down a slope, already charging into the final hill before the long entrance into the stadium. He quickly secured a sizeable gap on the Norwegians who appeared unprepared for Vylegzhanin’s early move. Northug, in particular, looked sluggish as he tried to respond to Vylegzhanin’s break.
With Northug battling to catch up and Krogh hanging with him, Vylegzhanin’s sprint never wavered as he came barreling into the finish. Finally, at the end when Northug saw it was beyond him to win the day, he stood up, allowing Krogh’s lunging foot to take second for Norway II.
Northug, who has been sick this fall, told NRK that today he “had no punch.”
“In Russia we take them,” he added, according to a translation. “Clearly, it is one of the great dreams, to beat Russia at home. Then we rub it in.”
Northug chose to downplay the importance of this race. “It is more important with the Olympic relay,” he said. “It is what the people will remember for years here, not how the Lillehammer relay went.”
Norwegian National Team Coach Trond Nystad was more circumspect in his comments. “Today we lost to a better team,” he told NRK. “With an optimal team settup I think we should cope with Russia in the Olympics.”
To Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, Nystad conceded that his skiers had made some missteps in their strategy.
“At the end we are a little inexperienced—we let him go on top there, and [were] unable to slide him [Northug] in at the end. We must take [that] with us.”
The Russian team was quite excited with their victory. Legkov in particular looked very pleased, triumphantly pointing his finger up to indicate No. 1.
“It is a great day and great victory for us,” Legkov told FIS. “This season is the most important and I am happy we showed such a great performance in the relay today. Maxim did a great move towards the end. I hope in Sochi we will perform in the same way.”
The race demonstrated the strength of the Russian team, as well as the depth of the Norwegian team, which went second, third, fourth, and eighth on Sunday.
Some Norwegian skiers were more philosophical about the relay.
“The race showed that everything has to work out for the team to win and anything can happen, even with Petter Northug on the team,” Golberg said.
“We had good fun to challenge Norway I!” Røthe added. “The Russian team was very strong and showed that they’ll be tough to beat on the home snow!”
The Canadian and the U.S. men’s teams had a difficult day, finishing 14th and 17th respectively. Canada finished 3:02 behind Russia and the U.S. was 3:48 out of first.
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Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.