Twenty-five days before the Olympics open in Sochi, Russia, Nikita Kriukov couldn’t have timed Sunday’s 6 x 1.6-kilometer team-classic sprint victory much better. The 28-year-old Russian’s execution was right up there as well.
Following Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal into the finish, the reigning sprint world champion left no doubt that he’s still in top form, and when it comes to classic sprinting, watch out.
With teammate Maxim Vylegzhanin, Kriukov anchored Russia I to a World Cup win in 22:03.89 in the final classic-sprint tuneup before the Olympics, To do so, he outsprinted not only Brandsdal of Norway I by 0.22 seconds, but outlasted Norway II’s Ola Vigen Hattestad, who took third 1.78 seconds back.
Almost as soon as he crossed the finish, Kriukov graciously bowed to the grandstand at Nové Mesto, Czech Republic. The Norwegians hung their heads, fully realizing what happened and the work they have cut out in the team classic sprint at the upcoming Winter Games.
“I followed the plan and hoped to avoid meeting Kriukov [in the finish],” Brandsdal, 27, told NRK, according to a translation.
Despite teammate Eldar Rønning giving him a 1.1-second head start out of the last exchange, Brandsdal ended up chasing Kriukov to the finish anyway.
“We have to hope for a step up in the Olympics, but we do not know if this is being made,” Rønning told NRK. “There is strong competition.”
But rehearsal is rehearsal and the show is the main attraction, the 31-year-old Rønning reasoned. Either way, the Russians made a point.
The Norwegians led out of the start with Norway II’s Pål Golberg, 23, leading through the first exchange, just 0.4 seconds ahead of Rønning. Sweden II (Marcus Hellner/Emil Jönsson) remained in the mix 0.9 seconds back with Germany I (Sebastian Eisenlauer/Josef Wenzl), and Vylegzhanin was just a second back in fifth. Switzerland I (Ueli Schnider/Gianluca Cologna) tagged sixth, a tenth of a second ahead of the Americans, with Simi Hamilton handing off to Andy Newell 1.4 seconds back from the leaders.
“We got off to a really good start,” Hamilton said on the phone, after the Americans qualified in second in their semifinal then placed fifth behind the Czech Republic (Martin Jaks/Ales Razym) in the final.
All 10 teams remained within 2 1/2 seconds of one another through the first four laps, before the three leaders — Rønning, Vylegzhanin and Golberg — broke away on the second-to-last leg.
Meanwhile, Hamilton put the U.S. in fourth, 4 1/2 seconds back. Newell had posted the fastest leg just before him to bring the team to third at the fourth exchange, tied with Russia.
“It was pretty tight the entire time with all ten teams and we lost a little bit of time in one of the tags because it was so tight with all ten teams within a couple seconds,” Hamilton explained.
After Newell’s first lap, Hamilton fell from sixth to ninth, 2.4 seconds behind the two Norwegian teams and Russia up front.
“We got a little scrapped up in one of the tags and lost a little time and came back thanks to Andy’s second leg,” Hamilton said. “When he tagged off to me on my last leg I just made it a goal to stay in contact with the top three teams. … I skied as hard as I could and lost a little bit of time but fought hard.”
After Newell received the tag in fourth, he led the chase pack as Russia, Norway I and Norway II continued to contend for the lead.
Norway II’s Hattestad fell off the pace on one of two climbs with what appeared to be less-than-ideal skis on the 36-degree Fahrenheit afternoon. Slipping up while herringboning outside the track, Hattestad initially lost contact with Kriukov and Brandsdal before putting on a last-ditch attempt to catch up.
Brandsdal took advantage of his superior glide on the descent as he drafted and passed Kriukov a few hundred meters before the finish. Heading down into the stadium, Brandsdal led while Kriukov followed closely, and Hattestad, who anchored Norway to a classic team sprint victory three weeks ago in Asiago, Italy, trailed a couple meters behind.
As Newell led the second group, including Czech Republic’s Razym and Germany’s Wenzl, into the stadium, Kriukov unleashed his well-known double pole, stepping around Brandsdal and definitively beating him to the finish.
“I felt much better than yesterday,” Kriukov told FIS after narrowly qualifying in 27th in Saturday’s classic sprint and placing 10th overall. “It was my first time skiing with Maxim. It gives us great confidence going to Sochi.”
“A few centimeters were missing on Kriukov,” Brandsdal told FIS. “I do not like losing in the finish. Nikita was very strong. It was cool to have such [a] tight fight.”
Newell successfully dropped Switzerland’s Cologna and bested Wenzel, but failed to match Razym, who used the home-crowd advantage to edge him by 0.54 seconds for fourth.
The Americans placed fifth, 14.28 seconds behind the Russian winners, and held off Germany by seventh-hundredths of a second. Switzerland placed seventh, another 6 1/2 seconds back, France was eighth (+22.08), Italy ninth (+26.47), and Sweden 10th (+50.32).
After Jönsson’s second leg, Sweden dropped from seventh to 10th with Hellner, leading him to rethink whether he’ll sprint at the Olympics after failing to qualify on Saturday.
“It would not be fun to go and feel like this in the Olympics,” he told aftonbladet.se, according to a translation.
“Right now I am pensive on sprint,” Hellner told Radio Sport. “But who knows, maybe it will be better and better. Nothing is certain in any case.”
Jönsson was back in action after sitting out Saturday’s sprint because of a troublesome right knee.
“I could list 3,000 things we could have done differently, but I’ve got three good races, have a knee … and Marcus holding up and moving well, so there is probably some bright spots,” Jönsson said.
Newell said that he and Hamilton, who won the Tour de Ski freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, on New Year’s Eve, relied on smart yet aggressive skiing and not being afraid to take chances.
“We were right in there for a while,” Newell said on the phone. “Whenever I do a sprint relay it’s just kind of my goal to stay up front and keep us in a good position and save as much energy as I can for the end because that’s when it’s really going to matter.”
At least 20 meters behind the top three on the last lap, he realized the podium was likely out of reach.
“We tagged in fourth for my last lap, but even then we weren’t in medal contention,” Newell said. “In a sprint relay even 20 meters is too much to make up on the best skiers in the world. If we’re going to be in medal contention, we need to be up in the front for the last tag, which is the only thing holding us back for being a contender. It’s looking good leading into Sochi for sure.”
While fifth remains the best U.S. men’s team sprint result in recent memory, another highlight of the day was Hamilton and Newell automatically qualifying in second in their semifinal, 0.82 seconds behind Norway I’s Rønning and Brandsdal.
“We had a really good day with Andy and Simi qualifying outright, being second in their semifinals and were strong all day,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “I don’t think the guys have been as high as fifth for a few years now so that was really cool.”
Racing against 15 other teams in the second semifinal, Grover pointed out that they needed to place in the top two to guarantee themselves a spot in the final. Ultimately, Germany I, Sweden II and Italy I (David Hofer/Federico Pellegrino), ended up advancing with them as lucky losers.
“Andy and Simi’s semifinal was running slightly slower than the first semifinal which is somewhat typical in warmer conditions were the track is actually slowing down,” he said. “They would have been fine if they had been in the top four as it worked out, but you have to play it safe. Beyond that, we just try and get in the finals, and once you’re in the finals the tactic is just to rest when you can and be as strong as you can on the last two and half to three legs when people take off and really start hammering.”
“We were able to save our energy when we needed to and stay on our feet and that’s all you can hope for, just staying out of trouble and staying up with the leaders,” Newell said. “We don’t want to be trying to break off the front. You only have to ski as fast as the people around you.
“That’s what were trying to do in these relays: keep up with the leaders, stay out of trouble, and it always just comes down to last lap or two,” he added. “In Sochi it’s going to be a harder course, but I think were both in good enough shape so that when it comes down to our last laps we need to be up there with the best. I think we can do that for sure.”
“It’s obviously a very different course than what we’re going to find at Sochi, but last year we skied really well at the team sprint day there,” Hamilton said, after he and Newell placed seventh in the World Cup classic team sprint in Sochi last February. “We both like that course there. I think it speaks to our fitness right now. We are both on a really good trajectory in terms of where our fitness is and our speed is. We’re encouraged and we’ll see what happens, but we’re psyched for sure. Today it would have been great to be on the podium but I think we’re encouraged with how everything went.”
The Americans will continue training in Nové Mesto before the next World Cup in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, with an individual skate sprint and 10/15 k classic mass start on Saturday and Sunday.
After that, they’ll head to Europe’s largest high-altitude meadow at Seiser Alm, Italy, for a training block before the last World Cup before the Olympics in Toblach, Italy.
— Lander Karath and Pasha Kahn contributed reporting
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.