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SOCHI, Russia – When 92 men head out on course at the Laura cross-country venue today, the most famous Norwegian skier will not be among them.
Petter Northug Jr., who won the 15 k freestyle at World Championships last season, will not be contesting the classic version of the event here at the Olympics. Northug, a gold medalist in both the 50 k and the team sprint at the last Olympics, has entered two racse here in Sochi so far. He finished 17th in the 30k skiathlon, almost a minute and a half behind gold medalist Dario Cologna of Switzerland. In the freestyle sprint, where he finished 10th after being bumped out in the semifinals.
Norwegian coach Vidar Lofshus told FasterSkier that Northug is sitting out the 15 k in an effort to get in better race form in time for Sunday’s 4 x 10 k relay, where Norway is a favorite to win.
“We’re hoping that he’ll feel better for the relay, so hopefully he’ll be in better shape,” Lofshus said. “He’s not definitely going to race it, but hopefully he is going to race it.”
This season, Northug has not been able to find his usual speed or fitness. He finished 6th in the 15 k classic World Cup before the Olympics in Toblach, Italy; at Norwegian national championships just before that, he was third in the 30 k skiathlon. His only victories have been in a stage of the Tour de Ski (where he finished fourth overall) and in the La Sgambeda ski marathon in Livigno, Italy.
“It’s hard to tell, but he had a really hard summer and fall with sickness,” Lofshus said of the cause of Northug’s struggles. “That’s the main reason. It’s not any harder to explain than that… He’s trying to rest now because he has been training a lot coming into the Olympics just trying to get into the level. We’ll see.”
As to the final decision of whether Northug will join the relay team or not, Lofshus said that was still undecided and to some extent up to Northug himself, or at least based on what Northug tells coaches about his fitness and feeling.
“It’s mostly his own feeling,” Lofshus said. “He won’t race if he’s not in top shape… I think he is, right now, he is having a good time I think. He is pretty sure of himself that he’s coming back.”
Another surprising name missing from Friday’s start list was Alexander Legkov, the Russian who won the 15 k classic race held in Italy just before the Olympics.
Legkov trains separately from the Russian national team; his coach, Reto Burgermeister, told FasterSkier on Thursday that Legkov’s absence was based on a decision by the Russian Ski Federation.
He wouldn’t directly answer a question about whether Legkov – currently ranked third in the overall World Cup standings and the top Russian – had wanted to compete in the Olympic 15 k, instead noting the strength of the other Russian men entered in the race.
Legkov was the third Russian in the 30 k skiathlon, finishing 11th overall and just 27 seconds behind the leader. Maxim Vylegzhanin placed fourth after getting possibly obstructed by Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby in the finishing lanes, and Ilia Chernousov was fifth, 13 seconds behind the lead pack of four men. Russia’s fourth starter, Evgeniy Belov, placed 19th.
Burgermeister acknowledged that the Russian cross-country team’s results at the Olympics so far – they haven’t won a single medal in cross country skiing – have been inadequate, and that they were under pressure to ski faster.
Belov is the only starter from the 30 k who was given the opportunity to compete in the 15 k. Vylegzhanin and Chernousov, the 8th- and 10th-ranked distance skiers in the world, were also cut. Replacing the three are Dmitry Japarov, ranked 15th in the distance standing; Stanislav Volzhentsev, ranked 22nd; and Alexander Bessmertnykh, ranked 31st. The trio have six World Cup top-10’s between them this season, half of which came in stages of mini-tours or the Tour de Ski.
Finally, also sitting out are: Johannes Duerr, the Austrian who is ranked seventh in distance skiing and sixth in the overall World Cup standings; Sjur Røthe, the Norwegian ranked 11th in distance skiing and ninth in the World Cup; and Maurice Manificat of France, who won a 15 k World Cup in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this season.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.