OBERSTDORF, Germany — In front of some 4,300 spectators in the Ried arena and around the course at the site of the 2005 World Championships, Norway’s Emil Iversen achieved the first World Cup victory of his career in the men’s 1.2-kilometers classic sprint final on Tuesday.
The fourth of eight stages in this year’s Tour de Ski (visiting Oberstdorf for the fifth time since the Tour began 10 years ago) challenged racers with a difficult course, which was partly due to the precarious snow conditions on the artificial loop, thinly veiled by a few flakes that had fallen during the prior nights on the surrounding slopes. The sprint races on a course with mostly just three groomed classic tracks saw a number of crashes, many on a steep downhill section and left hairpin turn with mushy snow. However, most of those happened in the women’s race, with athletes resorting to the snowplow technique and becoming obstacles for those who did not.
“I am so excited to win today. I am really surprised to be first,” the 24-year-old Iversen said during the post-race press conference.
At the first sprint of the Tour last week in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, Iversen failed to advance from the qualifying stage in the freestyle sprint. On Tuesday, he qualified fourth, won his quarterfinal (ahead of Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin in second*) and advanced to the final as a “lucky loser” in his semifinal — the third finisher with a fast-enough time after Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, who won that semifinal, and Poltoranin, who again automatically advanced in second.
Earlier this season, Iversen, a former Norwegian U23 development team member, missed being named to Norway’s senior national team. He had not finished in the top 10 in a World Cup yet this season before Tuesday.
But Norwegian superstar Petter Northug was not surprised by the success of Iversen, expecting a breakthrough of the teammate with whom he has also been sharing hotel rooms with during this Tour. Last season, Iversen raced in two skate sprint finals in Lillehammer, Norway, and Rybinsk, Russia, where he finished sixth in both races.
“I have kept him in the reins. He is a better skier than he is a roommate,” Northug joked in an interview with NRK, according to a translation.
“I’m not surprised. He should have been on the national team a long time ago, but … his development stopped a little bit two years ago,” Northug continued. “I think he has figured out now what is right. Now he is where he should be, and he can do everything from sprint to longer races. He’s going to be skiing on the national team next year.”
The two trained together this past offseason, and Northug admitted that Iversen repeatedly beat him in interval sessions.
At breakfast Tuesday morning, Iversen reportedly proclaimed he would win, according to Norwegian sprint coach Arild Monsen.
“It was said with a bit of gallows humor, but then he comes here and impresses all,” Monsen told NRK.
Iversen later insisted that he didn’t mean it as a joke, but still did not actually expect the victory.
Finishing 1.03 seconds behind him in the final, Ustiugov took second place after Iversen gathered enough speed out of the final downhill to gap the field, slingshotting past Ustiugov and Poltoranin to take the lead. The Norwegian held it down the finishing stretch, while Ustiugov and Poltoranin battled for second. Ustiugov edged him by 0.37 seconds, and Poltoranin took the final podium spot in third (+1.4).
“Ustiugov set the speed after the start and I tried to keep up,” Iversen recounted at the press conference. “I was first on the top and I thought I could go for the podium. I chose a good line in the downhill and to the finish, but I am still very much surprised to win.”
With the win, Iversen moved into 10th in the overall Tour standings.
“It is good to be on the podium, but I am little bit tired of losing to a Norwegian all the time,” Ustiugov said in the press conference via a translator. “I made a mistake in the last downhill and lost speed. That probably cost me the victory today.”
Fourth place went to Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, thereby defending his fairly comfortable lead in the overall Tour standings, 1:33.6 minutes ahead of Northug in second. Sundby also claimed first in the Tour’s sprint standings (ousting Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, who failed to make the semifinals when he placed third in his quarterfinal).
Ustiugov moved into third overall in the Tour (+1:56.9), bumping Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh to fourth (+2:13.4), after Krogh planted his own pole between his legs and tumbled out of the start in in his semifinal. Krogh skied the rest of the semifinal alone in sixth, finishing nearly 39 seconds behind Sundby, who won that heat.
The top North American in the Tour standings, Canada’s Alex Harvey finished 15th to improve one spot into eighth overall (+3:22.2).
Northug finished fifth in this sprint, 10.32 seconds after Iversen, and for once was not the main focal point of the media assembled in Oberstdorf.
But he later claimed that he had not even gone all-out in the final, already happy with the bonus seconds he had collected, and instead tried to help Iversen.
“We discussed the positions out on the track if it was going quiet,” Northug told NRK. “I said that I wasn’t going to go into the basement [pain cave] in the finals, and that he just had to yell at me to get a lane if it went fast. I did not come to war.”
However, this tactical plan wasn’t necessary. Northug was positioned in the back of the pack for much of the final, and Iversen got the job done on his own merit.
Also out of position to fight for the podium, Germany’s 25-year-old local fan-favorite Sebastian Eisenlauer placed sixth (+14.19), for his best career result. Eisenlauer hails from a town just a few miles down the valley from Oberstdorf, so racing in front of his family and friends left him stoked.
“I deliberately saved my strength for today,” he told German TV broadcaster ARD after the race. “But I could have hardly dreamed it would work out so well. That was wicked cool.”
The best North American of the day was Canadian Len Valjas in 10th overall, advancing through the qualifier and quarterfinals, before being eliminated in his semifinal. He came in fifth in a stacked field that included all three eventual podium finishers.
His teammate Harvey narrowly missed advancing from his quarterfinal in third. For the U.S., Andy Newell placed 17th after finishing fourth in his quarterfinal.
The Tour continues in Oberstdorf on Wednesday with 10/15 k classic mass starts on a 2-kilometer loop, extending the sprint course with additional hills. This race replaces the originally scheduled skiathlons, which organizers deemed too difficult to prepare given the lack of snow conditions.
*Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug was relegated to last in Iversen’s quarterfinal after initially placing second. The jury ruled he committed a technique violation (i.e. skating). That put him 30th on the day and 14th in the Tour (+4:29.2), and allowed Poltoranin to automatically advance to the semifinal in second.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.