If someone had to be a carrot, so to speak, Martin Johnsrud Sundby was the guy to go after in the men’s 30-kilometer freestyle individual start on Saturday at the World Cup in Davos, Switzerland.
Maurice Manificat of France started a minute behind the Sundby — and interestingly 30 seconds after Canada’s Graeme Killick — in bib 60 of 83. By the first timing point at 2.2 k on the 5 k course, Manificat had already put himself in a position to rival Norway’s defending overall World Cup champion.
But how long would it hold up?
One kilometer later, Manificat was just a tenth of a second faster than Sundby with the lead, and by 5 k, the he remained 0.2 seconds ahead in first.
“I started quite fast and had great skis,” Manificat told FIS after the race. “I was focused the entire time.
Manificat’s fast start held up as the 29-year-old Frenchman matched Sundby’s times for two-thirds of the six-lap race. Most of the time, despite not actually being able to see Sundby, Manificat had the edge — except for when Sundby was 0.6 seconds ahead at 10 k and then 0.3 seconds up 10 kilometers later.
That’s where Manificat’s race started to unravel. He later explained his back hurt for the final 10 k. By 22.2 k, he started to lose contact with Sundby, who was then eight seconds ahead at that checkpoint.
Sundby extended that gap to 9.5 seconds 1 kilometer later, then was 10 seconds ahead with 5 k to go. At 27.2 k, it appeared the race was over and in Sundby’s control, as the 31-year-old Norwegian led Manificat by 20.8 seconds.
Sundby went on to win by 20.7 seconds in 1:06.27.9, and Manificat held on for second place, 7.9 seconds ahead of Anders Gløersen of Norway. Gløersen won the shortened version of this race last year in Davos: the 15 k freestyle.
Throughout Saturday’s full-distance signature event, even tougher because it’s at altitude 5,000-plus feet above sea level, Gløersen had been in the hunt for a podium, skiing the same speed as Norwegian teammate Chris André Jespersen early. Both were about 18 seconds behind Manificat and Sundby at 8.2 k. Two kilometers later, Gløersen’s time still ranked third but Jespersen had dropped to fifth behind France’s Robin Duvillard.
An early starter in bib 22, Duvillard initially set the times to beat for the Norwegians following him. Duvillard’s teammate Jean-Marc Gaillard started 23rd and ultimately finished about 10 seconds faster than Duvillard, earning his seat in the leader’s chair until Norway’s Sjur Røthe in bib 34 crossed the line 1.3 seconds faster.
Gløersen topped Røthe by almost 15 seconds to take the lead, then was finally bumped to third by Sundby and Manificat. Røthe ended up fourth, Gaillard placed fifth, Norway’s Petter Northug came on strong later in the race to finish sixth (+46.2), Duvillard was seventh (+54.3), and Jespersen finished eighth (+1:03.5). Hans Christer Holund was the sixth Norwegian in the top nine in ninth (+1:07.5), and Switzerland’s Toni Livers placed 10th (+1:13).
At the finish, Sundby appeared content with what he’d done — winning his fourth-straight individual race in as many distance races this season — without much showmanship. Truth be told, he was tired.
“I pushed a bit too hard the first 15 kilometers,” Sundby told FIS. “I did not feel that good after that. I was lucky I joined Sjur and Petter. Sjur did a great job in the fifth lap. I was able to catch some speed.
“The races in Davos kill me every year,” he added. “The last two kilometres were almost impossible to ski. I tried to ski easy on the way to the top but I was tired…”
“I’m glad that I won,” Sundby told VG, according to a translation. “This is the toughest [race] I’ve been in so far this year. This was no ‘walk in the park.’ ”
He would have preferred to have completed the course — lap after lap — with “steel control”, Sundby added, but that wasn’t in the cards.
“It was a tough race and Maurice had a hold on me…,” he said. “Today I had to fight. I luckily got good [skiing with] both Petter and Sjur the last two laps.”
Røthe explained he struggled to follow Sundby, but he stuck with the Norwegian train and it led him to fourth place.
“I asked Martin if he would pull a bit, but got no answer,” Røthe told VG.
Perhaps the most visibly gassed at the line, Manificat was initially frustrated with his 20-second loss, but he didn’t take long to recover, stand up and smile at the TV cameras. He had done his best and ended up on the podium.
“It is crazy to be on the podium again. It was great fight with Martin,” Manificat told FIS. “In the last two laps I had pain in my back. I was losing seconds on Martin and then I let it go…”
The last time Manificat reached the podium was last February in Östersund, Sweden, when he placed second in the 15 k freestyle at the pre-World Championships World Cup.
“We are delighted to be joining the fight,” Manificat said to VG about his French teammates, with three French skiers in the top seven.
As for what it will take to beat the Norwegians, he added, “We have to be in really good shape.”
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.