Iivo Niskanen appeared itchy in the leader’s chair on Sunday, after finishing with the fastest time of the day through 46 racers in the men’s 15-kilometer classic sprint — the first distance race of the 2014/2015 season.
Itchy, anxious, whatever you want to call it, but happy.
The 22-year-old Finnish A-team member, defending U23 World Championships 15 k classic champion and younger brother of Kerttu Niskanen, had never been on a World Cup podium before.
He won gold in the 2014 Olympic classic team sprint with teammate Sami Jauhojärvi, but individually, this was a big deal.
Fourteen men raced for Finland on Sunday in front of Ruka’s packed stadium in Kuusamo, Finland, but the man of the hour was Niskanen. The 33-year-old veteran Jauhojärvi wasn’t far behind him — 12.5 seconds at the finish — and ended up on the podium, too, but Niskanen soaked up the most crowd love and blew the most kisses after the race was over.
Moments before he officially won it in 35:09.4 — by 10.3 seconds over Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby — Niskanen jumped out of the cushiony chair and got ready to run like crazy down the finishing stretch.
“It’s amazing that this [victory] came in front of a home audience,” Niskanen told the Ilta-Sanomat, according to a translation. “I just realized a little boy’s dream. Thanks to the military forces. We have two men on the podium; it is a fine specimen of a job well done.”
Niskanen started early in the seeded group, 46th of 96 men, and consistently clocked the fastest times through each passing checkpoint about every 1.5 kilometers. That’s impressive enough for a U23 in his first full-time World Cup season, but Niskanen’s times held up as more than 30 other races passed through.
By the time Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin in bib 82 hit the 1.4 k marker, Niskanen had his match. The 32-year-old Vylegzhanin came through the checkpoint 2 seconds faster than Niskanen, and by 3.1 k, he remained 1.5 seconds ahead.
A third of the way through at 5 k, Niskanen had the edge over the Russian by 4.3 seconds, followed by Jauhojärvi, Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson, Sundby, Sweden’s Lars Nelson, and Russia’s Sergey Turyshev, respectively.
By 6.4 k, Niskanen and Vylegzhanin were dead even, 8.8 seconds ahead of Jauhojärvi. One-and-a-half kilometers later, Niskanen had a 7.1-second cushion as Vylegzhanin began to fade.
Jauhojärvi was still third fastest through that checkpoint, 9.7 seconds back, and Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug was up to fourth after a conservative start.
Dyrhaug, who started 30th, took his position in the leader’s chair after finishing in 35:22, 28.5 seconds faster then previous leader Francesco De Fabiani of Italy. The Norwegian would stay there until Niskanen bested his time by 12.6 seconds.
At the 10 k mark, both Niskanen and Jauhojärvi were faster then Vylegzhanin, and it seemed first and second was possible for Finland. But there were still more competitive racers to come, including Sundby, the reigning overall World Cup champion.
Niskanen had nearly 15 seconds on Jauhojärvi at 11.4 k, and Vylegzhanin was 14.8 seconds back in third. The Russian slipped to eighth by 13.1 k, and Sundby slipped momentarily on what looked like slightly slick skis — or maybe he was just getting tired on Kuusamo’s relentless three-lap course.
With less than two kilometers to go, Sundby was up to second regardless, 14 seconds behind Niskanen. Jauhojärvi was another 1.5 seconds back in third.
Niskanen sat grinning from ear to ear under the lights in the Ruka stadium. As Sundby hoofed up the final climb, grimacing through a thick beard and big sunglasses, it was fairly evident he wasn’t going to touch the young Finn. Sundby put on a strong finishing kick around a Russian at the finish, and secured second, 2.2 seconds ahead of Jauhojärvi in third.
“It is lovely to get on the podium, although I wanted to win,” Sundby said to NRK, according to a translation. “I was basically shot against Iivo.”
While he said he was “not flying on skis yet,” he hoped it would come with time.
“My ultimate goal is to be in my best shape in Falun,” he told FIS.
Sundby bumped fellow Norwegian Dyrhaug to fourth, just one-tenth of a second off the podium. But he wasn’t too upset.
“I am very, very happy to be back in top form,” Dyrhaug told NRK. “I’ve had two tough years, so it’s good to know that the body is working again.”
Standing on the podium with him for the first time in a World Cup since 2010, Jauhojärvi said he felt like he skied smoothly, but he wasn’t completely satisfied.
“I heard from Norwegian split times that Niklas [Dyrhaug] was in the lead,” Jauhojärvi told FIS. “He was skiing behind me so I had to speed up in the last kilometers. I did not feel strong and fast today, but I had extremely good skis.”
Niskanen, who became Finland’s first male to win in Ruka in 19 races there, said both his grip and glide were perfect.
Walking through the mixed zone, Finnish coach Magnar Dalen yelled to journalists, “Watch out for that boy there! He is a cross-country Messi!” referring to the Argentine soccer great.
“I was an amazing day; I had to be smart,” Niskanen told NRK. “I have done many races here and knew I had to turn down the pace two notches on the hills and makes it up [on other parts of the course].
“It was really noisy along the course,” he said to FIS. “Before the race I thought I could be in top six. I tried to improve the summer training and I seem to have done a good job. It was pretty nice that my family could be here today with me.”
“It was impressive,” said Petter Northug, who placed 23rd and 1:02.7 back, to NRK. “Niskanen looks like he has risen.”
Vylegzhanin tied Didrik Tønseth for 11th, 37.5 seconds behind Niskanen. Russia’s top skier, Alexander Bessmertnykh finished fifth, Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden was sixth, Canada’s Alex Harvey seventh, Simen Håkon Østensen eighth, Pål Golberg ninth, and Finland’s Matti Heikkinen 10th.
Turyshev ended up 25th, four seconds behind Switzerland’s Dario Cologna in 24th (+1:05.2).
Note: Two men did not finish Sunday: American Noah Hoffman and Poland’s Maciej Starega, who stopped somewhere after 3.1 k. Hoffman crashed hard on an icy downhill about 1 k before the finish and was taken off the course in a stretcher.
According to U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb, Hoffman “sustained a lower left leg injury today and will be headed home to the US as soon as possible for further evaluation. He will fly home either Monday or Tuesday. The World Cup organizers and medical personnel in Kuusamo / Ruka, as well as our US Ski team medical staff member Peter Dickenson handled the situation very well.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.