Count them: six in a row.
That’s how many World Cup tours Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway has won. He kept his streak alive in the final stage of the Ruka Triple mini tour on Sunday, the 15-kilometer classic pursuit in Kuusamo, Finland.
With a 44.7-second win over Petter Northug, also of the Norwegian national team, Sundby, 31, illustrated he’s a world-beater and is primed to defend his World Cup overall title for the third-straight year.
“It is a good start of the World Cup season. Today’s race was tougher than yesterday,” Sundby told FIS.
He won Saturday’s 10 k freestyle to take the mini-tour lead, then started Sunday’s pursuit with a 14-second head start on teammate Finn Hågen Krogh. While the two never skied together — and actually skied alone for most of the race — they both ended up on the podium.
Krogh faded in the final third of the race, and Italy’s Francesco de Fabiani and Norway’s Didrik Tønseth caught him with about four kilometers to go. He stayed with them, then dug especially deep to edge de Fabiani by 0.1 seconds for third, less than two seconds behind Northug.
“I was completely on the [brink] when [the chase group] overtook me,” Krogh told NRK.
Norway took every spot on the podium, but de Fabiani in fourth kept the powerhouse nation from a top-six sweep. Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug and Tønseth placed fifth (+48.5) and sixth (+50.6), respectively, and Alex Harvey of Canada was another five seconds back in seventh. In all, Norway put seven in the top 10.
For Harvey, it was his best finish in the Kuusamo mini tour after placing 11th overall there in 2011. He was second in Saturday’s 10 k freestyle to put himself sixth in the tour heading into the final pursuit.
“I am super satisfied with the weekend,” Harvey said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “I just felt I had something more in me today than seventh.”
The Norwegian domination began at the outset. Sundby started alone ahead of Krogh, followed by another Norwegian, Anders Gløersen, 19 seconds back in third. Northug started fourth, 24 seconds after Sundby and a second ahead of Harvey and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who placed third in Saturday’s 10 k.
While Harvey and Cologna headed out together 25 seconds back, the two formed a coalition to battle the elements, particularly the wind, and try to rein in Sundby. However, just before the 4 k mark, Sundby was already 44 seconds ahead of Krogh, 47 seconds ahead of Sweden’s Martin Johansson (who started seventh), and 48 seconds ahead of Cologna, de Fabiani, Harvey, and Gløersen, respectively.
By 5 k, Krogh had successfully broken away from the rest of the field, skiing 13 seconds ahead of them and 42 seconds behind Sundby. Behind him, Harvey and Cologna stuck with the chase pack that remained seven-men strong by 6.4 k.
With two laps remaining at 10 k, Cologna had fallen off the pace slightly and slipped to 16th, while Harvey skied in seventh, 15.5 seconds behind Krogh and 1:12 behind Sundby.
When Tønseth, de Fabiani and Johansson accelerated at the start of the second-to-last lap to catch Krogh, the chase pack split and left Harvey, France’s Maurice Manificat and three Russians — Alexander Legkov, Sergey Turyshev and Maxim Vylegzhanin — in a group of their own. From there, Harvey had to fight for a top 10.
“It was a tough race for sure. I felt really good, in fact I think it was the best day I had physically, but it was really tricky waxing conditions,” Harvey explained.
“Our skis really weren’t that bad. The speeds were average, but the difference was the Norwegians and Italians had the best skis,” he added. “I was right there until the final kilometer, but I think as the track started [deteriorating], I lost the group on the last downhill.”
This Kuusamo course can be like shock therapy. The Ruka hills no joke for World Cup skiers in midseason form, let alone the opening races on this year’s World Cup circuit. A big climb marks the central portion of the 2.5 k loop that the men rounded six times.
According to Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth, his team approached the race with a straightforward mindset.
“We didn’t talk about anything strategy wise before the race. We were so focused on the skis,” he said in a post-race phone interview. “I just told the guys that the only piece of advice that I could really offer was everyone is going to be in the same boat, and it’s going to be hard. So, that was the main thing. Just don’t worry if the skis don’t work everywhere because it’s going to be hard.”
Although the Canadians had a relatively strong day, with Harvey in seventh and Devon Kershaw in 23rd (after starting 29th), Wadsworth said they may have come up short with ski prep.
“We feel like we were scrambling a little bit on the skis. We were a bit slow. We could have a little bit more time for that, at least to test today,” he said. “I think maybe we focused a little too much on the the powder testing, some of the glide testing, and that pushed it a little bit later than we wanted. So we didn’t have have as much time as we like to test the kick, which is a priority because it was very, very hard day.”
“We know what mistakes we made and the skis were a bit slow for all the athletes on the fast downhills, so that was definitely an issue,” Wadsworth continued.
On a day with 92-percent humidity and temperatures just below freezing, no one’s skis worked everywhere. There was some striding, some ski-running, some herringbone.
“It was one of the hardest World Cups I’ve ever watched as far as that nobody had the skis that they could run up everything and then glide well,” Wadsworth noted. “There were guys icing. They were slipping in the tracks, out of the tracks. It was a really tough race in that respect.”
U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb reiterated the universal waxing conundrum. “The conditions today were very very difficult,” he said on the phone. “Picture some of the worst classic conditions you’ve skied in and it was pretty much that.”
With the relentless climbs, a course profile that rarely backs off, coupled with the dicey kick, the race took a collective toll on the field.
Meanwhile, lurking at the tail end of the top 20 with five kilometers to go, Northug kept the frontrunners within sight. In the final kilometers, he worked his way forward, eventually closing the gap on those ahead.
With 2.5 k remaining, he was up to seventh behind Harvey. Then at 14 k, he began stalking Tønseth, de Fabiani and Krogh while skiing in fifth.
Sundby crossed the line in 37:10 without anyone in sight. Almost 45 seconds later, it was Northug who steamrolled ahead of Krogh and de Fabiani and left them fighting for third.
Ever the tactical chameleon, Northug was clearly gassed at the finish. He lay prone on his back, lungs heaving. When he finally spoke to reporters, Northug explained his form and technique were not quite up to his liking.
“I was tired. I’m not in shape to go with these guys yet … so I was [skiing] back there and I was annoyed at myself,” he said to NRK, according to a translation. “It was about being in the right place at the right time.”
The duo that had hoped to gain places as a unit, Harvey and Cologna faded slightly in the end to finish seventh and 13th (+1:18.8), respectively.
As is his style, Sundby remained humble.
“The first two laps were hard, so I tried to maintain the pace the rest of the race,” he told NRK, according to a translation. “This weekend I have had wonderful fine skiing. Things worked out and I’m in good shape. This winter I think will be exciting and I think I get a lot of exciting duels with these guys here.”
“I wanted the other guys think they cannot catch me, but I started way too fast,” Sundby told FIS. “I got extremely tired. After 7.5 k, I did not know how to continue. I am happy I am leaving Ruka with the overall victory in the mini-tour.”
The fastest time on the day belonged to Dyrhaug, who completed the course in 37:08.1, almost two seconds faster than Sundby.
The top American male was Erik Bjornsen, who finished the Ruka Triple 46th overall (+2:10.3) with the 43rd fastest time of the day.
In an email, Bjornsen wrote he feels like he’s building his form. “I know I have to be at the top of my game to post an impressive World Cup result and I’m just not quite there right now,” he wrote.
Racing in massive fields with world-class talent, each World Cup weekend is a learning experience, the 24 year old explained. “Racing over here is just so different, I’m trying my best to learn from all these experiences.”
Also for the U.S., Noah Hoffman finished the weekend in 52nd (+4:25), Simi Hamilton was 68th (+5:29), Kris Freeman 73rd (+5:44.2), and Andy Newell did not finish.
“We had some big hits this weekend and some big misses,” Whitcomb said of the U.S. Ski Team’s overall showing in Kuusamo. In the women’s pursuit, Sadie Bjornsen led the team in 14th. “It’s the first weekend of World Cup racing and Kuusamo presents some of the toughest waxing and skiing conditions of the season. It’s an agressive introduction.”
After Harvey in seventh and Kershaw in 23rd (+1:48.5), Ivan Babikov placed 50th (+4:17.2) for Canada, Graeme Killick was 55th (+4:38.9), Michael Somppi 81st (+ 7:08), and Len Valjas did not start Sunday’s race.
World Cup racing continues next Saturday and Sunday with a skiathlon and relay in Lillehammer, Norway.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.