The World Cup season got off to a blistering start on Saturday in the northern reaches of Finland with a 1.4-kilometer classic sprint. Eighty-seven men toed the line for the prologue on a gray day in Kuusamo, Finland.
Alexander Panzhinskiy of Russia put down the best qualifying time of 2:38.35, two-tenths of a second ahead of Norway’s Sondre Turvoll Fossli in second place and 5 1/2 seconds faster than the last man to make it to the heats, Martin Jaks of the Czech Republic.
Norway managed to put eight men into the heats with host nation, Finland, grabbing seven of the 30 qualifying slots. Three North Americans — Simi Hamilton (USA), Alex Harvey (CAN), and Andy Newell (USA) — qualified in 16th, 17th and 24th, respectively. Harvey went on to place 14th, Hamilton was 26th and Newell 28th after being eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Just-below-freezing variable conditions combined with the hilly course made for difficult waxing conditions, which were evident through the day as the skiers attacked each round.
When asked how the conditions affected wax choice on Saturday, U.S. Ski Team wax technician Gus Kaeding wrote, “Finding kick wasn’t a problem, managing icing with [a] mix of dry powder and ice was. It took a combination of wax, correct application, athletes skiing the conditions, and patience to pull off good skis.
“When everything comes together we see a career best! Congrats Ida!” he added, referring to American Ida Sargent’s career-best fifth-place finish in the women’s sprint.
Two memorable moments from the men’s race came from Fossli and Italy’s Federico Pellegrino in the quarterfinals. Fossli was leading the fourth quarterfinal coming into the last turn before the finishing straight, when it appeared that his pole or strap broke leaving him to cover the last few hundred meters with a single pole. Striding hard nonetheless, he watched his teammate Finn Hågen Krogh pass him, and Krogh seemed to consider, if only for a moment, letting Fossli win. Better safe than sorry, and he led Fossli into the finish in first and second, and the two moved on to the semifinals.
The second moment came with Pellegrino as his heat entered the final climb before the stadium. Sitting in sixth at the base of that hill, Pellegrino swung to the outside and put in some extremely fast and hard striding, opening up a sizable gap between himself and the rest of the field by the top. He was unable to repeat his performance in the semifinal and finished third in that heat for seventh overall.
The final turned out to be a battle between Norway and Russia with four Norwegians and two Russians in the mix. The finalists jumped out to a clean start with the Norwegians leading the Russians into the first corner. At the bottom of the first climb, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov put in a brief kick to attempt to take the lead, but settled into third at the crest.
Norway’s Petter Northug, whose technique and power had been less than stellar in his previous two heats, seemed to put it together on the final climb, looking strong and composed while powering from fourth to the front as the Russians faded.
Northug’s teammate, Eirik Brandsdal led Fossli, Ustiugov and Northug, the last two of which were side by side, in the flat before the climb, followed by Russia’s Alexey Petukhov and Krogh. Northug moved up at the base, passing Ustiugov and Fossli. Brandsdal remained in the lead and the Norwegians kept charging ahead while the Russians appeared to lose steam with a not as much kick.
Rising up and over the top, Northug inched ahead of Brandsdal, who slipped on his kick momentarily. Fossli moved to third ahead of Krogh. Around the last turn, Northug and Brandsdal skied alongside each other, and Brandsdal held stronger to the finish — winning in 2:34.84 by 0.47 seconds.
Norway swept the podium with Fossli placing third (+1.18), and Krogh took fourth (+1.69) ahead of Petukhov in fifth (+4.54) and Ustiugov in sixth (+14.63).
For the second-straight year, Brandsdal, 28, won the Kuusamo classic-sprint (last year beating Russia’s Anton Gafarov and Sweden’s Teodor Petterson, respectively). It was his sixth World Cup victory.
“I felt from the beginning it was my day,” he told FIS after the race. “I had also perfect skis. I struggled a little bit in the quarterfinal when I did not ski up the hill as I had planned, but the semifinal was much better. In the final I managed to keep calm and go for the victory. Sprint World Cup is one of my goals and it is great to start the season with the victory.”
Brandsdal won both his quarterfinal (by 0.5 seconds over Sweden’s Teodor Peterson) and semifinal (by nearly two seconds over Northug). And for now, he’s in the lead for the overall 2014/2015 World Cup.
“I saw the eyes of Peter. It will be tough next time,” Brandsdal told VG. “He is set on the [overall] yellow jersey.”
Northug was probably the most talked about athlete competing today. After a summer of legal battles and a 50-day jail sentence stemming from a drunk-driving incident in May, he stepped onto the course with intensity.
“It’s good to get a good start. I was only double poling in Beitostølen,” he said of his FIS classic-sprint win in Norway last week. “Today I was on grip wax and it is a tough course, and I am happy to be on the podium. On the last climb I did not have any power left. When Eirik attacked I could not react, but I am happy for the second place.”
Fossli, 21, was excited about a podium in his first World Cup final, and told FIS he felt strong all day.
“I was lucky in the quarterfinal to make it to the semifinal with one pole,” he said. “It feels great to be on the podium. I was second in Beitostølen and it is great to start the World Cup season with a podium.”
The World Cup continues Sunday in Ruka with a 10/15 k classic and then moves to Lillehammer, Norway, for a series of three races next weekend.
About the author: Tommy is a former Stratton Mountain School and Middlebury College skier. After college, he took a different route from skiing and spent nine years flying attack helicopters for the Marine Corps. After too many winters spent in hot dusty climates, he left the Marines and is back in Vermont where he couldn’t be happier.