The World Cup returned to Drammen on Wednesday, with the traditional men’s classic sprint through the packed streets of the Norwegian city, just south of Oslo. In typically misty weather, the course once again proved to pose a difficult question: use faster skate skis and double pole the whole course, or use classic skis with the advantage of striding straightaway to the uphill finish.
The first of the men’s quarterfinals began with a false start by Sebastian Eisenlauer of Germany. When the gun did go off, Eisenlauer led, trailed by Russian Alexander Panzhinskiy and Italy’s Maicol Rastelli. Calle Halfvarsson, opting to ski on skate equipment and double pole the whole course, managed to break a pole out of view of the cameras and trailed behind.
In the last few hundred meters, the course gradually steepens toward the finish line. The Russian skiers Anton Gafarov and Panzhinskiy led, double poling to the line, while Toni Ketelae of Finland challenged. For a moment it appeared that the Russians would take the heat but as the course steepened right before the line, a striding Rastelli breezed past the double poling efforts of the other three men to win the heat, with Panzhinskiy second, and Ketelae third.
The second quarterfinal saw Sweden’s Johan Edin stumble and flail a few meters out from the starting gates. He nearly toppled over, but managed to stay on his skis. Norwegian Ola Vigen Hattestad led the whole race from start to finish, with fellow teammate Pål Golberg right behind him, testing Hattestad in a close contest. Hattestad won the heat, but only .12 seconds ahead of Golberg.
The third quarterfinal had a revolving cast of leaders. Sondre Turvoll Fossli of Norway enthusiastically took the lead at first, before Sweden’s Teodor Peterson took over the front of the race. Peterson was caught on the downhill, and Finnish sprinter Matias Strandvall took the lead before the last corner into the final straightaway. Peterson and Strandvall were neck and neck, with Josef Wenzl of Germany edging closer and Fossli flying in on the inside. In the end it was Strandvall who reached the finish first, followed by Fossli, Wenzl, and Peterson.
Two young Norwegian skiers led the fourth quarterfinal out of the gates, Emil Nyeng and Vegard Bjerkreim Nilsen. Russia’s Anton Gafarov skied behind them, and the USA’s Andy Newell stayed behind the Russian, striding. Gafarov took over the lead on the downhill and led until the end, where Gafarov and his teammate Sergey Ustiugov dueled for first in an impressive display of double poling prowess that ultimately Ustiogov won, with Gafarov second.
The fifth quarterfinal saw a stacked field Alex Harvey of Canada, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, Norway’s Finn Haagen Krogh and Eirik Brandsdal, Sweden’s Emil Jönsson, and Russian double pole specialist, Nikita Kriukov.
Jönsson led from the gun, and clocked 51 kilometers-per-hour down the hill. In the final stretch Jönsson led, followed closely by the five others.
Of his quarterfinal, Harvey said, “I was really well positioned in the final stretch. I had my own lane and I was side by side with Jönsson, and in second place I guess, but then Kriukov was skiing in between lanes, between Jönsson and I, and he was kind of hitting my pole a bunch, so I decided to switch lanes and go left again, and that was what sunk me. That lane was wet, it wasn’t skied in enough, and I didn’t have enough power at the end.”
Harvey appeared to be on the verge of making the semifinals, but slowed on the short rise to the finish line. Jönsson won the heat followed by Krogh, Kriukov, Brandsdal, and Harvey. Both Kriukov and Brandsdal advanced as lucky losers.
Golberg made a move to the front of the heat in the first semifinal, before Rastelli took over at a breakneck pace. Hattestad took the lead from Rastelli before the downhill, and upon exiting the narrow confines of the Drammen streets for the finishing boulevard, only Hattestad and Golberg could keep up with each other, and unlike their quarterfinal, it was Golberg this time who took Hattestad by a toe. Rastelli was third, and Fossli fourth, with Rastelli’s time good enough for a lucky loser position.
The second semifinal got off to a dramatic start when, shortly after starting, Krogh lost his balance, and in an attempt to regain it, stumbled, sending his left ski sliding out from under him and into his teammate Brandsdal, and toppling both men into the snow and out of contention.
Ustiogov, seemingly aware of the crash, surged ahead in what looked like an effort to consolidate the advantage. Gafarov was in second and there was a sizeable gap to third and fourth placed Strandvall and Jönsson as they headed down the hill. On the descent, however, they caught the Russians.
At the finish it was between Jönsson and Strandvall, with Jönsson finishing a second ahead of the Finn and Gafarov taking third and a lucky loser position in the final despite falling just feet from the finish line.
It was a difficult day for both Krogh and Brandsdal. Speaking to NRK after their heat Krogh was apologetic and contrite for taking out Brandsdal. ”I’ll take the blame, and I would rather take someone else out than Eirik,” Krogh told NRK. Brandsdal started the day in the sprint leaders bib, but lost it to Hattestad. With only the Falun sprint remaining, worth half the points, Brandsdal has little opportunity to win back the crystal globe. He tried to put on a brave face while speaking with NRK, but he clearly felt the sting of his misfortune.
The final heat began with tense jockeying for the leading position. Golberg led breifly before Jönsson took over, who shortly thereafter was dethroned by Hattestad.
On the downhill, Jönsson, who had fallen back, glided his way to second behind Hattestad. Then, just as the course turned left out of the hill, Jönsson cut through on the inside to take the lead from Hattestad in a beautiful move. Jönsson’s finesse quickly ran out though, as he failed to round the full corner, crashing into the boards and out of contention for the win. It was another piece of bad luck for the Swede who has had a long string of sprinting mishaps this season.
In the final stretch it was once again Hattestad and Golberg going to toe to toe to the finish line as they had done in all the heats. Golberg initially looked the strongest, but it was Hattestad who had just a little extra power at the end to get him over the rise. Both Norwegians lunged for the line, falling backwards as they did so to crash at the finish line. Rastelli calmly strode around them to take third.
Hattestad won with a time of 2:47.08. Golberg was tantalizingly close, just seven hundreths of second out of first place, and Rastelli was two seconds behind.
Speaking to FIS after the race, Hattestad said, ”After the gold medal at the Olympics my focus switched to trying to win the sprint overall title. I am happy now to have the red bib for the final sprint of the year. My shape is really good right now so I am looking forward to defending the lead in Falun. It will be nice to see the new sprint course that we will race next year at the World Championships.”
Golberg told FIS, “I didn’t compete like I had hoped at the Olympics so it is nice to have strong results now. I am looking forward to the rest of the season. I will race Holmenkollen on Saturday. The 50 km is an event I am looking towards for the future.”
Rastelli, a fairly unknown skier, had a remarkable day. It was a breakthrough performance for the Italian, who was impressive in all of his heats. “I qualified for the first time ever and I landed on the podium for the first time,” he said. “Today has been just beautiful. I have been in a good shape and my skis were perfect.”
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.