When the pattern of weekend after weekend podium wins is broken, missing top spots can serve as a wake-up call.
The Norwegian men’s ski team saw this first-hand after Russia claimed three victory titles last week in Sweden. With redemption in mind, Norway locked in on this weekend’s World Cup competitions in Lahti, Finland.
“We needed to come back from three Russian victories last week,” Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby, the overall winner of the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon on Sunday in Lahti, said in a post-race interview with FIS. “We were pretty mad about that. So we had a talk last night that we were going to fight back today.”
The Norwegians commandeered Sunday’s 30 k podium, after also taking the top three spots in Saturday’s sprint. The first five skiers across the finish line on Sunday all sported the red suits of Norway, a quintet spearheaded by Sundby in a time of 1:10:3.0.
Sundby Falls During First 15 k Classic Leg
Even while headed to his 13th individual World Cup win of the season, Sundby was not immune to the challenges presented by the Lahti skiathlon. Fresh snow that continued to cover the course and a crash tested him during the 30 k distance.
“I tried to create quite good speed in the first couple laps as usual, a bit more difficult for sure when it’s snowing,” Sundby said. “I had a crash with a Russian guy in the second loop. It was a bit painful so I used a couple of laps to recover.”
While Sundby recovered from his fall, France’s Maurice Manificat took control of the pace for the next two 3.75 k classic laps.
“Martin [Sundby] was falling on the second lap,” said Hans Christer Holund, who finished third (+8.0), during a post-race press conference. “When he was falling it looked like the French were trying to get ahead and just go. I was a bit surprised that the [French] were going so hard in the beginning.”
First to the ski exchange and the first skate skier on course–followed closely by Sundby and French teammate, Jean Marc Gaillard–Manificat managed to make the king of distance struggle, even if just for the next two skate laps.
“Manificat did a great job setting the pace,” Sundby said during a post-race press conference. “He was going hard. He didn’t want any help. He just kept pushing. From my point of view, the pace was quite tough.”
Still not tough enough, however, to hold off Sundby for long. By 23.7 k the Norwegian was back in the front and the French man began to fade. Saturday’s second place finisher in the sprint, Finn Hågen Krogh of Norway, moved in behind Sundby, while fellow Norwegians Didrik Tønseth and Holund held onto their two teammates in the lead.
By the final course climb, with Krogh still clinging on, Sundby knew he needed to make his move soon, if he hoped to secure the win.
“I didn’t want to come into this last 100 [meters] with him,” Sundby said during a press conference, referring to Krogh. “But I had to try and the last uphill is quite long and tough. So, I just said to myself ‘yeah, you just go 100 percent and see what happens.’”
The race leader’s ‘100 percent’ effort proved potent. He continued his lead into the stadium, crossing the finish line 4.9 seconds ahead of second place finisher, Krogh.
“Usually the day after the sprint you are almost more tired than after a distance race,” Krogh said during a post-race press conference. “That’s why I was kind of surprised that I did so well today because I felt a bit tired after the sprint yesterday. To finish second today is a really good surprise for me.”
Holund out-lunged teammate Tønseth by six tenths of a second for third, 8.0 seconds behind Sundby. Niklas Dyrhaug of Norway finished fifth, (+45.0), and Manificat, the first non-Norwegian, crossed in sixth (+49.0).
“I had fire in classic & so good skis!” Manificat tweeted after the race. “In skate I tried more but I loss too much energy!”
Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia, who won the Falun 10 k classic, finished 10th in the skiathlon (+2:09.6), just ahead of Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, who may be finally coming back into race form after a difficult year.
Bjornsen Best American Finish in Skiathlon, 27th Overall
While some of Sunday’s skiathlon racers struck from the front, others chose to sink their teeth in and hang on from behind. Erik Bjornsen (U.S. Ski Team), the first American to cross the finish line on Sunday in 27th overall (+2:59.2), went with the latter.
“I was feeling like I was pacing it pretty well in the classic,” Bjornsen said in a post-race interview. “It was easy for me to kind of sit up there in the top 20. The plan was to try to hold that as long as I could in the skate.”
After switching to skate skis, Bjornsen found himself battling for position in a pack of close to 20 other skiers.
“It was important to be in the front of that group,” Bjornsen said. “I wasn’t there so I was definitely getting the slingy effect,” he added, referring to his pack position and need to slow for the downhills, but ‘hammer’ the uphills to stay with the group.
“I wasn’t in the most efficient spot, but I was happy with the finish,” he added.
With World Cup points from the skiathlon 30 k, Bjornsen remains excited for his next series of races: the Ski Tour Canada.
“It will be my second tour this year, so I hope to ski through the whole thing,” he said, “and make sure I can go to each race feeling recovered and ready to go.”
The two other Americans who raced in Sunday’s skiathlon, Noah Hoffman and Scott Patterson, finished in 36th (+4:14.3) and 52nd (+6:04.0) respectively, after getting caught up in an early crash.
“Noah and I both got in a crash like 100 meters from the start,” Patterson said. “I mean, it’s hard to fight back when the pace is so fast up front. I picked up some places, but not as many as I wanted. Still shooting for that first top 30, so I’ll have to try again in Canada.”
As the first distance leader after U.S. nationals, Patterson will race the Ski Tour Canada in March as well.
Hoffman, who also broke a pole during Sunday’s fall, managed to move up almost 30 places after the tangle.
“I felt really good during the skate portion,” Hoffman said. “I was moving up I had some good guys to ski with, but at that point I was too far back to do anything. It’s two weekends in a row that I’ve gone down, I’ve got to be better at staying on my feet.”
After a fall in last Sunday’s 15 k mass start in Falun, and a crash in Sunday’s skiathlon, Hoffman is ready to steady his skis and put his race fitness back to the test.
“I got away from the other guys I was with at the top of the course and I’m looking forward to carrying that fitness through to Canada,” he said.
–JoJo Baldus, Harald Zimmer, & Chelsea Little contributed reporting
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.