If he hadn’t been a Northug, one might have wondered what that 24-year-old Norwegian was doing.
Tomas Northug had already ditched his hat during the men’s 1.5-kilometer classic sprint on a snowy, just-above-freezing afternoon in Otepää, Estonia. And not long after the start of the final, he made it clear that he was going to drop everyone else if he could, too.
Commentators remarked that his surge early on the first of two climbs on the 1,500-meter course had been very Northug-like, referring to the gutsy performances often churned out by his older brother Petter.
But Petter wasn’t racing on Saturday — Tomas was — and he made his presence known after advancing from the semifinal in fourth as a lucky loser (who was luckily not taken out by Russian Sergey Ustiugov’s late, self-inflicted crash).
Out of the start in the final, Northug positioned himself in second, sitting on the heels of Norwegian teammate Finn Hågen Krogh, the Sprint World Cup leader who opted to double pole on skate skis for the final, while staying ahead of the final’s other Norwegian double-poler, Pål Golberg, in third.
At the base of the first climb, it became apparent that double poling was not the way to go in the slow-and-chewed-up snow, and Northug stepped right to get around Krogh and move to first. The double-polers hopped in behind him by the midway point of the climb, and from there, they started to lose Northug. He strode away while the three others on classic skis (Finland’s Toni Ketelae, and Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestad and Sondre Turvoll Fossli) lost contact in a one-track train behind Krogh and Golberg.
By the top, Northug heard he had a 50-meter gap from a Norwegian coach (arguably closer to 40 meters) and he took his word, refraining from looking back until several strides later as he began the tuck down the backside of the hill. Meanwhile, another up-and-comer seeing a World Cup breakthrough, Ketelae, 26, led the chase with Hattestad, both several seconds behind on the first descent.
“I feel there was room and I came up the uphill and I think about the race Bjørgen did many years ago,” Northug said in a post-race interview with FIS in broken English. “The coach [on] the uphill say I had fifty [meters] and say to go so I do it.”
In the second semifinal, Ketelae edged four Norwegians (Fossli, Eirik Brandsdal, Timo Andre Bakken, and Vegard Bjerkreim Nislen, respectively) and Russia’s Alexander Panzhinskiy for the win. With that confidence, he chased down Northug to the best of his ability in the final, but the young Norwegian was too far gone.
Northug ran with a narrow herringbone up the steepest of the two hills, getting more encouragement from Norwegian coaches, and Ketelae and Hattestad skied together some six seconds behind on the following downhill.
With 200 meters remaining, Northug double poled up and over the last rise, glanced back once more and realized the race was his. He nearly took himself out on the lefthand corner before the finishing straight, teetering for a moment on his inside ski in all his excitement, but picked the center lane and double poled like mad to the line. There, sealing the win in 3:50:59, he looked back, raised his arms to his chest and pumped them fiercely, gesturing that he, in fact, was the man.
Trailing Ketelae into the stadium, Hattestad jumped to a left lane to challenge the Finn for second. Hattestad outlunged Ketelae in such a close photo finish, time couldn’t even determine it, but a finish-line camera could. The two finished 1.57 seconds after Northug, with Ketelae placing third for his first World Cup top 10 and podium.
After holding his own in fourth for much of the final, Golberg placed fourth, 6.28 behind Northug, and Krogh finished about a second ahead of Fossli, who struggled to keep pace early on and finished 9.23 seconds back.
“It was not really plan to [go ahead] like that, but I felt very strong,” Northug told NRK, according to a translation. “There are some feelings, it is clear there. I have put an enormous amount of work, but not quite achieved what I want. And then came here today.”
Northug’s previous best was fifth in a classic-sprint final at 2013 World Cup Finals in Stockholm, Sweden. In the only other classic sprint before Saturday’s this season, he missed the final but placed eighth in Kuusamo, Finland, and was sixth in a freestyle sprint last month in Davos, Switzerland.
He qualified for the heats on Saturday in seventh, 4.4 seconds behind Golberg, who set the fastest qualifying time in 3:17.61. Times were notably slower as the day wore on, with the track breaking down amid wet-and-heavy snowfall and with each passing round of men’s and women’s heats. Fossli qualified second, 1.68 seconds back, and Brandsdal, in the hunt for the Sprint World Cup title, ranked third (+2.74).
The fourth-fastest qualifier, Sweden’s Emil Jönsson edged Northug in their quarterfinal by 0.06 seconds in 3:26.74, which ended up being the second-fastest men’s heat. The two advanced to the semifinals, where Northug got a boot out ahead of Jönsson, who was behind Ustiugov when the Russian poled between his legs and face planted in the finishing stretch. Ustiugov fell into Northug on his left, but Northug avoided escaped with a minor clip and strode a few steps toward the line with Jönsson charging on his right.
Northug nipped him by 0.16 seconds for the final lucky loser spot, despite finishing fourth in his heat (Jönsson was fifth and Ustiugov finished 14 seconds later in sixth).
Ketelae qualified in 12th and went on to win his quarterfinal, half a second ahead of Fossli, and his semifinal as well, by six-hundredths of a second over Fossli and nine-hundredths of a second ahead of Brandsdal. Right then and there, the Finn had already achieved a career-best day.
“It is amazing to finish third today,” Ketelae told FIS. “It was my first World Cup final and my first World Cup podium result. I felt very good since the prologue.”
Hattestad noted that the final was a gamble when it came to selecting skis.
“I was testing three pairs of skis before the final,” he told FIS. “I think it was the most crazy final I have ever skied. I did not catch Tomas, [he went] away and then the gap was too big.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.