It is difficult to pick a favorite in the men’s Olympic sprint, but Norwegian Ola Vigen Hattestad made a strong case for that designation, winning the final pre-Games tune-up in Toblach, Italy.
Teammate Eirik Brandsdal finished second and German Josef Wenzl rounded out the podium in third.
“I was told after Norwegian Championships that I wasn’t ready for Sochi but I think today I showed that I am,” Hattestad said after winning each of his heats in the skate event.
The 2009 World Champion in the skate sprint, Hattestad does not have an Olympic medal, placing ninth in 2006 and a heart-breaking fourth in 2010. He famously gave up his spot in the team sprint in 2010, missing another shot at Olympic hardware.
The Toblach course, with a one steep climb, specs out as relatively flat compared to Sochi, but Hattestad showed top form against a robust field that was missing only a handful of the World’s best sprinters.
Hattestad qualified in seventh, just over a second behind the fastest man, Jovian Hediger of Switzerland.
He then proceeded to execute flawlessly in the quarterfinals and semis, maintaining position toward the front while remaining patient, and taking advantage of the draft on a long gradual descent through the backstretch in the stadium.
In the quarters he waited until halfway down the stretch before stepping out from behind Roman Schaad of Switzlerand. Driving a strong no-pole skate, Hattestad blew by the leader to take the lead around the hairpin into the home straight to advance easily.
The semis played out in nearly identical fashion with merely a change of Swiss leader. This time it was Jovian Hediger who led Hattestad down the final descent. Once again the Norwegian stepped out, and once again he slingshotted into first, and skied away to a spot in the finals.
In both the quarters and semis, Wenzl followed Hattestad drafting his lanky competitor to set up a clear run to the line. In the first heat, Wenzl lost out to Schaad but advanced as a lucky loser, while in the semis he bested Brandsdal in a photo finish, leaving the Norwegian to wait for a lucky loser slot in the finals.
In the final, Hattestad gambled on his strength and shifted strategies, moving to the lead early. He held his position over the last climb and into the descent, a bold move given his own success following in earlier heats.
In the women’s race, completed just minutes earlier, American Kikkan Randall employed similar tactics with unfortunate results. Randall was swept up by the pack and pinched out around the last corner. It was Marit Bjørgen (NOR) and Denise Herrmann (GER) in the top two spots — women who were bringing up the rear entering the descent.
Hattestad, however, opted to be aggressive, and at the crux, did what he needed to do. Over the top of the final climb, he gained a small gap, just enough space to break the draft. He was first into a no-pole skate as the terrain flattened, and Brandsdal, leading the chasers, had no chance of closing.
Afterward Hattestad said that he executed as planned, knowing he was “strong enough to lead” in the finals.
Brandsdal and Wenzl duked it out for second, with Wenzl showing no disappointment in his third place result.
The German jumped across the line, letting out a yell that matched Hattestad’s finishing celebration.
“This was a really great result for me today,” Wenzl said at the post-race press-conference. “I have been quite strong this season and I am glad that it continues. Sochi will be difficult. It will be a much harder course than today so we will see what happens. But today was great.”
He earned his second podium of the season while making his third finals appearance — all in freestyle sprints.
Brandsdal was also pleased, seeing no shame in losing out to Hattestad.
“Ola was very strong but I did my best,” Brandsdal said. “I think my shape is where it should be and it feels good heading to Sochi.”
Brandsdal will be making his Olympic debut, while Wenzl will be looking to improve upon his thirty-first in the classic sprint at the 2010 Games.
– Just 4.01 seconds separated the first and thirtieth qualifiers.
– Great Brittain’s Andrew Musgrave was the first man out, missing the heats by .07 seconds.
– Musgrave was followed by Dario Cologna (SUI) who appears in good form after revering from an injury.
– Hediger crashed in the finals, tripping entering the last hill. It appeared to be an unforced error. Despite the crash, Hediger still set a personal best, placing sixth.
– Emil Joensson (SWE) crashed in the semis after qualifying second. A favorite in the 2010 Olympic sprint, Joennson failed to make the finals in Vancouver.
– Several Russian Olympic distance skiers, including Alexander Legkov and Illia Chernousov, started the sprint. Legkov was 58th and Chernousov 63rd.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.