The World Cup returned to Lahti, Finland, on Saturday with a fast 1.55-kilometer sprint course through soft, artificial snow. With little climbing and a course that took just over two and half minutes for the men to complete, it favored the true sprinters, and those that could stay on their skis.
In the first quarterfinal heat, Teodor Peterson of Sweden led the race from start to finish, wearing bib No. 1 as the fastest qualifier of the day, and never appeared to be under pressure. Behind him, and challenging for the second qualifying position, was Sergey Ustiugov of Russia who started intentionally slow but then quickly caught up. In the end, it was Germany’s Josef Wenzl who took second, with Estonia’s Peeter Kümmel in third.
The second quarterfinal heat was led by the tall Swedish skier Johan Edin, who stumbled briefly as he skied over a rise, allowing Alexey Petukhov of Russia and Alex Harvey of Canada to move past him and finish in that order.
The third quarterfinal heat saw Norway’s Sondre Turvoll Fossli push the pace for much of the race, no doubt trying to put distance between himself and sprint stars Ola Vigen Hattestad of Norway and Emil Jönsson of Sweden. Nevertheless, both Hattestad and Jönsson were faster than Fossli, who finished in third but was quick enough to earn a lucky loser place in the semifinals, along with Ristomatti Hakola of Finland.
Finland’s Martti Jylhä lead most of the fourth quarterfinal race, until the final few hundred meters when Norway’s Haavard Solaas Taugboel, the second fastest qualifier, took the lead and outsprinted the finish duo of Jylhä and Matias Strandvall, who finished in second. Germany’s Sebastian Eisenlauer fell coming into the stadium nearly taking out Simi Hamilton of the U.S., who stumbled but didn’t fall to finish fourth in his heat.
The fifth and final quarterfinal promised to be a battle between Andy Newell of the U.S., Nikita Kriukov of Russia, and a four-man Norwegian contingent of Pål Golberg, Eirik Brandsdal, Finn Hågen Krogh, and Sindre Bjørnestad Skar.
Trouble began, though, as soon as the gun went off. Kriukov, who was skiing to the left of Newell, took an early skating stride after leaving the double pole lane and his right ski went under Newell’s foot.
With Kriukov’s right ski caught, the Russian was yanked back, spinning him clockwise and bringing his left ski directly into the path of Newell who was still on his feet. Newell lept high to avoid Kriukov’s sweeping ski, an impressively agile move that would have worked had his right ski not fallen off. Forced to turn around and reattach his ski, Newell was way out of contention as was Kriukov who tried, but was unable to recover from his early fall. The rest of the heat was a purely Norwegian contest with Brandsdal leading and taking first and Golberg in second.
The first semifinal heat was led from the gun by Peterson, until just before the sharp left corner into the stadium where Petukhov cleverly cut into the lead. Behind the Russian were Peterson, Jönsson, and Harvey. Jönsson tried to move past Harvey on the inside lane and appeared to ski into the Canadian, sending Harvey wildly off balance and breaking Jönsson’s pole. Harvey regained himself, though not enough to advance to the finals. Petukhov won the heat and hurried off to prepare for the final, with Peterson finishing in second.
It was a disappointing day for Jönsson, who has won the World Cup sprint race held in Lahti for the past three years. Jönsson was also looking for the opportunity to make history at his best venue by setting a new record for the most freestyle sprint victories. Currently he is tied with Tor Arne Hetland’s old record of seven wins, but with no remaining freestyle sprints on the World Cup calendar, Jönsson must wait until next season to try and break the record. Jönsson acknowledged his string of bad luck lately with a translated Twitter post that read, “Last three World Cup races, I have fallen / broken rod, in the Olympics, I stood up. Maybe will try to continue with that tactic #wisely #GrattisPål”
The second semifinal heat was an all-Nordic affair, with four Norwegians and two Finns. Hattestad took early control of the heat, with Brandsdal and Golberg skiing alongside of him. Despite the Norwegians control of the race from the starting gun, the heat moved quite fast, with Hattestad and Brandsdal pushing the pace and finishing first and second, respectively. Behind them, Finland’s Strandvall closed his race with a strong burst of skiing after looking trapped behind the Norwegians for much of the race. Golberg finished fourth, but, like Strandvall, was fast enough for a lucky loser position.
The final heat was led out of the gates by Peterson, who jump skated up the first slushy hill, and cornered tightly, controlling the race and keeping the pace high. Behind him at first was Strandvall, who was quickly passed by Hattestad who skied patiently behind Peterson, waiting for his opportunity.
As the course gradually descended into the stadium through slushy snow, first Strandvall went down in the back of the pack, then an instant later, Hattestad fell skiing in second place. Both men appeared to fall simultaneously, and without cause or relation to each other. Brandsdal had to move out of the way of a falling Hattestad which put him slightly behind the now leading three of Peterson, Golberg, and Petukhov.
In the final few hundred meters, Golberg stormed past a tiring Peterson who’s early efforts seemed to catch up with him. Petukhov tried to challenge Golberg but didn’t quite have enough power to match the 23-year-old Norwegian, and finished in second. Brandsdal, too, had a late burst of energy left and he managed to just get ahead of a steadily fading Peterson to take third, with the Swede in fourth.
Strandvall applauded the Finnish fans in the stadium before shaking his head as he crossed the line in fifth. The good natured Hattestad smiled as he finished in fifth, looking a little amused and sheepish about his fall, and congratulated Golberg and Brandsdal on their results.
Golberg, for his part, appeared somewhat surprised at his victory and perhaps a little confused about how he should acknowledge it, as he skied a cool down lap in front of the stadium, stealing furtive glances at the crowd while the second place finisher Petukhov waved heroically to the crowd.
Golberg won with a time of 2:32.29, Petukhov was 0.55 seconds behind, and Brandsdal was 1.3 seconds slower than Golberg.
It was Golberg’s second career World Cup victory after winning Lillehammer’s 15 k classic race in December. Golberg told NRK after the race Saturday, “The way the victory came on today was probably a bit lucky, but such is skate sprinting, and today it was my turn.”
Golberg told FIS, “It’s been a while since I won in Lillehammer. I was sick afterwards and out for almost a month. The Games did now work out well so I am happy to be back on the top of the podium today. It was a crazy final with two falls. I was bit lucky I could avoid a crash, but luck belongs to sport. For tomorrow I do not know what to expect from myself as I have not raced 15 km free a while.”
Petukhov looked pleased with second place, and told FIS after the race, “Last two season have been quite difficult for me. Of course I am a bit disappointed I could not win but I am happy for the second place. The organizers did a great job with the course. It was quite soft but so it was also in other venues. I have to congratulate to Pål and Eirik. They are great athletes.”
Brandsdal took the sprint leader’s bib today from Wenzl, who trails by a mere four points. Hattestad sits in third in the World Cup sprint standings, thirty points behind. With just two sprint races left in the World Cup, both in classic technique, it will be a close contest to see who hoists the crystal globe in Falun, Sweden, in two weeks time.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.