The first time Andy Newell raced in Kuusamo, Finland, was 2006. He was 22, just shy of his 23rd birthday, and he placed 12th in the classic sprint there. What’s more impressive is that he qualified in second in that race.
A year later, he placed fourth in the same 1.2 k classic sprint.
Fast-forward eight years from his 2007 classic sprint there to Friday, when Newell, a longtime U.S. Ski Team member, placed fourth yet again in a slightly longer and even tougher 1.4 k classic sprint in Kuusamo.
The first race of the Ruka Triple, Friday’s classic sprint was the official start to the 2015/2016 World Cup season, and it marked Newell’s best World Cup result since February 2013 when he was fourth in a classic sprint in Davos, Switzerland.
“It was a long, hard day to get to the finals,” Newell said in a post-race phone interview. “I wanted to fight more for the podium, but to start off the season with a fourth is perfect because it keeps me wanting more.”
Three days shy of his 32nd birthday, Newell has a long history with the Ruka course. He’s raced there almost 20 times, and in recent years, he’s seen how the course — with a brutally steep and long final climb back up to the stadium — can chew up the best of the field.
He had a few tips for his U.S. Ski Team (USST) teammates on Thursday, which was Thanksgiving in the U.S. and the night before the season-opening sprint.
“He’s the guy, as coaches, we ask for advice,” said USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb, who is leading the team in Finland. “In a team meeting last night, we were talking about strategy. … Newell always has a point or two that we as coaches don’t see that he remembers from the multiple finals he’d been in here in Kuusamo.”
Newell remembered emphasizing the importance of positioning for the final climb.
“It all comes down to the final hill and making sure you’re in a position to kind of charge up that,” he said. If you get stuck in traffic, like he ran into during his quarterfinal, he said it’s all over.
Fortunately for Newell, a slight misstep on that climb in his quarterfinal didn’t cost him. He had reached the heats by qualifying in 12th, 6.44 seconds behind qualifier winner Pål Golberg of Norway. Golberg was fastest around the one-lap course in 2:32.62 and another Norwegian, Sondre Turvoll Fossli was 0.43 seconds behind him in second. Fossli went on to win the final at the end of the day for his first World Cup victory.
Of the North American men, Newell and Canada’s Lenny Valjas advanced to the heats. Valjas was 8.32 seconds back in 22nd and went on to place fifth in his quarterfinal (behind Norway’s Petter Northug, Sweden’s Teodor Peterson, France’s Baptise Gros, and Germany’s Sebastien Eisenlauer, respectively) for 25th overall.
In his quarterfinal, Newell found himself fourth at the top of the climb and entered the finishing lanes in that position, then charged late to challenge Russia’s Alexey Petukhov for third. In a photo finish for third, Petukhov took it by 0.03 seconds, finishing 1.31 seconds behind the winner of their heat, Finland’s Matias Strandvall. Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal finished 0.21 seconds back in second.
And while fourth in most quarterfinals didn’t come close to cutting it, Newell ended up advancing to the semifinals with Petukhov — both lucky losers based on time. Their quarterfinal, the first of five, had been the fastest of the day. Newell knew that it would probably be one of the fastest; that’s why he picked it.
This year on the World Cup, qualifying athletes pick which quarterfinal they want to be in, based on the order in which they qualified. Newell chose the first quarterfinal to maximize his recovery time between heats.
“I chose that first heat was because that was going to be my best pass to the final,” he explained. “It tends to be stack up to be a competitive heat, but it tends to be a good heat for lucky losers. I knew that going into it, which is why we were pushing so hard to the finish.”
That late push showed him his training had already paid off: “For the first time in a few years I’m actually passing people in the finishing stretch,” Newell said. “That feels good to me. I have a lot of power in my double pole. I was psyched to come across the finish line strong, and when I do that I know I have a pretty good chance at a lucky loser time.”
Lucky loser is always a relief because it means that the day isn’t over for the two chosen athletes per round (quarterfinals and semifinals), but for Newell to advance that way twice on Friday? He wasn’t exactly surprised.
“I could tell it was fast just by the feeling of the pace,” he said of his first semifinal, which was five seconds faster than the second semi.
While Newell moved up into third at the top of an early climb after attacking around an outside corner, Sweden’s Emil Jönsson passed him on the long uphill and Newell was in fourth coming into the finish. With another last-ditch push toward the finish, he contested Jönsson for third, and in a photo finish, Newell came out 0.03 seconds ahead. Both ended up advancing as lucky losers to the final.
To get there, Newell had done something Whitcomb found particularly impressive: when his skis failed to grip on the long, icy climb, Newell jumped out of the tracks and ran up the right side of the trail — right through the coaches’ zone.
“The brilliant thing that I saw from Andy today was that he was boxed in a little bit, slipped twice, hopped out the tracks, and just burned up the side of the trail,” Whitcomb said. “That quick decision-making at the bottom of the hill is what allowed him to have a fast time. He didn’t waste any time getting bogged down behind another skier.”
Newell said that Northug ran up that hill out of the tracks on the right side “all day long.” And Northug ultimately placed third, just over a second ahead of Newell in the final.
“It’s like being in the Tour de France. They just kind of get out of your way and you just run right through them,” Newell said of skiing through the coaches’ zone, which he found to be firmer ground than between the tracks where poles chew up the snow. “That’s a tactic skiers have used here in the past.”
The right guy to chase
Opting for a little more kick beneath his skis after the semi, Newell didn’t have to run through the coaches during the final. Instead, he hung between third and fourth for most of the race then followed Fossli up the last hill.
“My strategy for the final was to either have my own lane going up the big climb or make sure I chose a lane behind somebody that was ready to run,” Newell said. “I didn’t want to get stuck behind anybody because I think going up the hill is one of my strengths.”
Fossli ended up being a great choice. A 22-year-old Norwegian sprinter who was selected to this race earlier this week (in place of Ola Vigen Hattestad who welcomed the birth of his first child with Slovenia’s Katja Visnar), Fossli charged up the last hill like he had something to prove and won the final by 1.03 seconds over Brandsdal.
A year ago, Brandsdal won the Kuusamo classic sprint, ahead of Northug in second and Fossli in third. That day was a big moment for Fossli, and this was even better.
“I’m here to stay in the top three now,” Fossli told NRK after Friday’s win, according to a translation. “You always have to go out to win, but you must have confidence and I have it now.”
After qualifying in second, Fossli advanced out of the quarterfinals in second behind Jönsson, and went on to win his semifinal by 1.17 seconds over Brandsdal. Newell placed third, 2.31 seconds back in that heat, and Jönsson was fourth.
“He has always been good,” Northug said of Fossli to NRK, according to a translation. “But he shows he has had progressed and is even stronger. He might have evolved and become even tougher.”
Northug was disappointed not to finish better than third in order to have more of a cushion over his teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby in their quest for the overall Ruka-tour win. After qualifying in third, Sundby was third in his quarterfinal for 14th overall (after Golberg in 13th).
“It’s a little emotional,” Fossli said of his win. “There are many who are behind this win: family, friends and my girlfriend. Many who have been involved in this career.”
As Fossli successfully broke away from the pack up the final hill, Newell found he had room to roam.
“He left me with a pretty open lane to charge up the hill behind him,” Newell said. “If anything, I just lost a few steps going over the top, maybe that’s possibly what took me out of the podium placing.”
Coming around the final corner in fourth, Newell decided to tuck in behind Northug to mitigate the headwind in the finishing lanes. He had hoped the two of them could rein in Fossli and Brandsdal, but they were “way too fast in the finishing stretch for Northug and I,” he recalled.
While Northug finished 1.65 seconds behind Fossli, Newell was 1.11 seconds off the podium in fourth. Peterson took fifth, about a second after Newell, and Jönsson — who jumped out to an early lead after an aggressive start — finished sixth, 22 seconds after Fossli.
Commenting on Norway’s podium sweep, Peterson said it wasn’t a surprise.
“I had hoped that I could do a little more, but in the end of the hill, I did not really,” he told Aftonbladet. “I thought it seemed impossible to keep up. … Norway will be hard to beat this weekend, then we will certainly [in the future].”
“I think Kuusamo is one of the toughest sprints of the season so I know if I can have a shot at the podium here, I can have a shot at the podium any race this year,” Newell said. “I’ve worked really hard and had a lot of focus [this offseason] so now I’m just stoked to enjoy it and have a lot of fun this season. Hopefully having fun means getting on the podium a bunch.”
Last season, Newell’s best individual World Cup result was eighth in a skate sprint in Lahti, Finland. The season before that, he made the final in the skate sprint in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, and finished sixth.
As for how this sets him up for the rest of the Ruka mini tour, with 10 k freestyle on Saturday and 15 k classic pursuit on Sunday, Newell said Saturday — the first of two distance races this weekend — will be about “damage control.”
“Individual skate is always a hard event for me. Hopefully I stay in a reasonable position to fight for a good race on Sunday,” he said.
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.