FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — All of Calle Halfvarsson’s trash talking gave Petter Northug something to get fired up about in the last couple hundred meters of the men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay at FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on Friday.
Trailing Halfvarsson down into the stadium and leading up to the final rise before the finish, Northug rode on the tails of the Swede and blew past him on the climb, before giving him the ultimate run on the descent toward the finish.
There, Northug, who had already racked up two golds at these championships (in the classic sprint and freestyle team sprint), V2-ed like a madman to keep the slightest edge on Halfvarsson over the finishing flat. The Norwegian did so, and Halfvarsson let up about 20 meters before the line to accept his defeat.
It’s a lesson as old as time: talk smack and be ready to deal with the repercussions. Halfvarsson had to settle for silver when he was leading the fight for gold, and then watch Northug shush him at the finish.
That’s right, Northug, the now 12-time world champion (with two Olympic golds as well), put his finger to his lips after crossing the line, looking at cameras rather than back at Halfvarsson to send a message to the Swede.
“When Calle crosses the finish line, [I wanted to] make it hurt so much that he takes [it] with him for a lifetime,” the 29-year-old Northug told NRK, according to a translation, after sealing the win for Norway in 1:34.18.5, six-tenths of a second ahead of Sweden.
So what exactly did Halfvarsson do to get him so riled? A year ago, he said he would beat Northug in a finishing sprint on home soil in Sweden. Unfortunately for Halfvarsson, in front of more than 41,000 spectators in Sweden on Friday, it didn’t happen.
The Swede led much of the last lap, countering Northug’s attack on the second-to-last major climb on the 2.5 k freestyle course while France’s Adrien Backscheider clung to the duo as well.
The three had skied on their own, a healthy distance away from Russia in fourth, since the end of the second classic leg. Sweden’s Johan Olsson had brought the team from seventh and 20 seconds out to first, ahead of France’s Maurice Manificat and Norway’s Didrik Tønseth, by the halfway point amid heavily falling snow — which lightened up considerably for the first skate leg.
“It was really nice to be able to exchange first,” Olsson said in a press conference, after tagging Swedish teammate Marcus Hellner with a 6.7-second lead on France’s third skier, Robin Duvillard. “I was a little bit worried before the race. Yesterday I didn’t recover so much after the 15 k race. Of course I’m really satisfied with my race and the other guys as well.”
A two-time world champion, Olsson won Wednesday’s 15 k freestyle individual start by 17.8 seconds over Manificat in second, and Norway’s Anders Gløerssen took bronze, 19.2 seconds behind.
On Friday, Gløerssen skied the third leg for Norway, heading out 14.1 seconds after Hellner, and over the course of his four 2.5 k laps, he lifted Norway to first.
“I tried to set my own pace in the start and when I went out on the second lap, I was closing a little bit so I tried to speed up and close the gap,” Gløerssen said in the conference. “When I joined with the teams in front, I was a little bit tired so I tried to calm down. In the end i made a little attack just to see what happened.”
The result was Norway leading France by 3.8 seconds to start the last leg. Hellner tagged Halfvarsson in third, 6.4 seconds out of first.
“I think [Olsson] did a fantastic job and I was really satisfied with that gap, but I tried really hard but I wasn’t so strong today,” Hellner said. “The other guys were stronger and I lost some seconds to them.”
With one last skate leg to go, Northug led Halfvarsson and Backscheider out of the stadium. The Frenchman put himself in first for the first of two steeper climbs, both of which were used on the championships sprint courses, while Halfvarsson and Northug followed closely in second and third.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Evgeniy Belov pushed to catch the leaders, after his teammate Alexander Bessmertnykh brought his team from sixth to fourth on the second classic leg. Bessmertnykh finished his leg 32.4 seconds out of first and 18.3 seconds behind third. Alexander Legkov kept the Russians in fourth, tagging Belov about 40 seconds out of the mix.
From there, Belov — who ended up skiing the fastest anchor leg — cut the deficit in half early. Behind him, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, Switzerland’s Toni Livers and the Czech Republic’s Petr Knop contended within a chase group. Germany’s Tim Tscharnke and Finland’s Ville Nousiainen skied together in eighth and ninth, and Simi Hamilton of the U.S. initially led Canada’s Lenny Valjas on the first of their fourth laps together in 10th and 11th.
About 3 1/2 k into the final 10 k leg, Backscheider decided to push the pace to ensure a medal. Russia was closing, or so he thought, and he didn’t want Belov to get anywhere near the top three.
“I started in second position and I just skied to make the gap with the Russian guy,” Backscheider told FasterSkier.
A 22-year-old bronze medalist from this year’s U23 World Championships, Backscheider’s timing wasn’t exactly spot on. While he slightly increased the distance to Belov to 26.7 seconds at 5 k and was seven seconds ahead of Halfvarsson and Northug at the halfway point, the Swede and Norwegian pulled him back in by the third lap.
On that same lap, Livers and Pellegrino two minutes behind the leaders dropped Knop, while Tscharnke and Nousiainen, Valjas and Hamilton, continued to ski in their own mini groups within the top 11.
With just over a kilometer to go, Northug upped the ante and tried to pass Halfvarsson on the first, longer climb. Halfvarsson stayed in front of him, while Backscheider matched them stride for stride in third over the top.
Not long after on the next steep uphill, Halfvarsson took his turn — looking at Northug and attacking at the base. Northug stuck on him, tucking behind him in second, while Backscheider hung on at the back.
“I didn’t want to be in front in the sprint hill; I wanted to stay in second, conserve power and I also didn’t want to [ski into] the wind,” Northug said in the press conference. “The last 150 meters was not that good, but I think it was pretty difficult today because it was really icy [in the finishing stretch].”
Racers had a mix of conditions, from light to heavy snow to in the classic portion, to hardly any precipitation for the skate legs. Organizers salted both courses beforehand to cope with the above-freezing temperatures and near-100-percent humidity, which has made the track increasingly soft throughout the week.
While most of the skate course was breaking down, the finishing straight was fast and hard-packed. There, Northug and Halfvarsson focused on skiing fast while staying on their feet.
“The most important thing is to cross the finish in first,” Northug said after racking up his fifth World Championships relay gold.
“You never know what’s going to happen in a relay, but we had a better chance this year on the last leg than in Sochi,” he added, referring to last year’s Sochi Olympics, in which the Norwegian men placed fourth behind Sweden, Russia and France, respectively. “It feels good to be back on top again. … It’s a lot of pressure on the Norwegian team before a relay. We knew before the championships that only gold makes the Norwegians satisfied.”
The defending Olympic relay champions, which came 0.6 seconds short of gold on Friday, Sweden took silver with essentially the same four-man lineup (except Halfvarsson in place of Lars Nelson, who scrambled for the team in Sochi).
This time around, Richardsson led Swedes out instead, finishing his first leg in seventh behind Canada’s Alex Harvey in first, Finland’s Sami Jauhojaervi in second and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin in third. Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug tagged in fourth, followed by Germany’s Johas Dobler and Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin, respectively.
While the top six were within 5 seconds of one another at the first exchange, Richardsson was 20.5 seconds back in seventh. (France’s Jean-Marc Gaillard was another 0.7 seconds back in ninth, behind Italy’s Francesco de Fabiani in eighth.)
“Yesterday I was a little bit worried that we wouldn’t take a medal at all,” Olsson said. “We know that Norway is the team to beat, and with Petter as the last leg, he’s almost Mr. One-Hundred Percent at the finish. … We’re satisfied with the medal, but of course we would be more satisfied with the gold.”
For Halfvarsson, it was personally his first medal of his home championships. Two years ago at World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, the Swedish men’s relay — with the same team and order — placed second to Norway by 1.2 seconds.
After Friday’s race, Halfvarsson realized his mistake.
“[Northug] came into my draft behind and got better speed and knew exactly how he’d run into the [downhill corner before the finish],” Halfvarsson told HD.se, according to a translation.
“I had trouble keeping track of where he was, then suddenly he just takes off. It might have been better to get in back of him before the stadium.”
He acknowledged that Northug was stronger, as did Backscheider, who finished 8.9 seconds back in third for bronze for France.
“The finish was hard — I need more experience to have a better finish,” Backscheider said at the press conference.
Regardless, France was pleased to repeat its bronze medal following the 2014 Olympics.
“We believed that it is possible,” Manificat said in the conference. “Championships is always a surprise, but we fight for this and … it’s really perfect.”
Belov finished fourth for Russia, 31 seconds after Norway, and Livers skied away from Pellegrino to finish fifth for Switzerland, 2:03 behind Norway and 24.2 seconds ahead of Italy in sixth.
Tscharnke and Nousiainen raced to a photo finish for seventh, in which Germany had the edge, while the Czech Republic placed ninth 5.6 seconds later.
Canada’s Valjas held off Hamilton by 1.4 seconds for 10th (+3:03.5).
Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, attended the race and personally congratulated her nation’s four-man team after the finish.
“I enjoyed it very much,” she told FasterSkier. “But it became a bit too exciting. I always want them to have a bigger lead in the last part, but of course Petter Northug is like this. He keeps it until the last 200 meters. … He always makes me nervous.”
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting
- 2015 falun world championships
- 2015 World Championships
- 4 x 10 k relay
- Adrien Backscheider
- Anders Gløerssen
- calle halfvarsson
- Daniel Richardsson
- Didrik Tønseth
- Erna Solberg
- Falun World Championships
- Jean-Marc Gaillard
- Johan Olsson
- Marcus Hellner
- Maurice Manificat
- Men's Relay
- Niklas Dyrhaug
- Petter Northug
- Robin Duvillard
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.