A day of double-pole domination and some unlucky mishaps on a sloppy and warm course made for an interesting lineup in the men’s 1.2-kilometer classic sprint final in Stockholm.
At the start of the men’s classic sprint final at the Royal Palace, there were only was only two interruptions of the imposing red lineup of Norwegians: Frenchman Baptiste Gros and Russian Nikita Kriukov, the only two who could try to prevent a Norwegian sweep. This would be a tall order against Norway’s Petter Northug, Finn Hågen Krogh, Ola Vigen Hattestad, and Sondre Turvoll Fossli.
Although changes were made to the course to include another hill and encourage striding, it did not deter all of the men’s field from double poling the course. The decision to gut it out on skate skis proved to be rewarded through the heats amid deteriorating conditions as a large portion of the top 30 in the heats, including the final, were composed of racers who opted to double pole. Only one finalist, Fossli, chose to race on kick wax.
As the only strider, Fossli led the field up the first climb on the one-lap course. The field strung out, and Fossli continued to lead through the descent and the hairpin turn at the bottom. However, the pack swallowed Fossli on the flats and gentle descent that followed, and he faded to sixth.
Heading into the final straightaway, Hattestad took control, but Northug and Kriukov were closing. In the final 100 meters, Kruikov threw a crushing surge that neither could match. He passed both Northug and Hattestad in the final meters and established enough of a gap to celebrate across the line.
“I’m back!” Kriukov exclaimed at the finish.
With his first World Cup victory since December 2013 in Asiago, Italy, Kruikov had indeed returned. The 30-year-old Russian classic-sprint specialist had previously recorded a season-best 10th at the classic sprint in November in Kuusamo, Finland.
In Thursday’s qualifier, he narrowly made the top-3o cutoff in 27th, 7.4 seconds behind qualifying winner and fellow Russian, Alexander Panzhinskiy. But there’s a reason Kriukov had five previous World Cup victories and an Olympic gold medal in classic sprints.
In the heats, Kriukov automatically advanced to the semifinal after placing second in his quarterfinal, 0.2 seconds behind Fossli. He was the last lucky loser to advance from the first semifinal, after placing fourth behind Fossli, Hattestad, and Northug, respectively.
In the final, he outlasted Hattestad in second place by 0.69 seconds. Heading toward the finish, Hattestad thought he could hold him off.
“When I got halfway up the hill, and did not hear anyone who challenged me, so I thought actually I had it,” Hattestad told NRK, according to a translation. “But then stiffened I bit and then came Nikita in an insane speed.”
“It feels good to be back on the podium again and this time in first,” Kriukov told FIS afterward. “I have skied well here before and I am happy to do it again in the soft snow today.”
The other lucky loser from the first semifinal, Northug followed up his classic-sprint win from last week in Drammen, Norway, with another podium in third, 1.16 seconds behind Kriukov. After the race, Northug was uncharacteristically complimentary.
“What he [Kriukov] did at the end today, was totally awesome,” Northug told NRK.
Kriukov was the highlight for an otherwise rough day for the Russian team. Panzhinskiy posted the top qualifying time by 0.55 seconds over Hattestad in second, but broke a pole in his semifinal and did not advance. Sergey Ustiugov crashed hard in his quarterfinal after posting the third-fastest qualifier, 2.28 seconds behind Panzhinskiy. Hitting the homestretch, Ustiugov appeared to cross his skis when jumping into a track, but nobody else was involved in the crash.
Harvey Narrowly Misses Final; Hamilton and Newell in the Heats
As Canadian Alex Harvey charged to the line of the second semifinal, the potential of advancing to the final hung tantalizingly close. Harvey was third entering the homestretch, within reach of Gros and Krogh, but the pair pulled away along with Harvey’s shot at automatically advancing.
Harvey lunged for the line in third, finishing 1.11 seconds behind Gros in first and 1.08 after Krogh in second, but the second semifinal was nearly four seconds slower than the first. Gros’s winning time of 2:47.82 was slower than both the lucky loser times of Northug in third (2:45.01) and Kriukov in fourth (2:45.03) from the first semifinal.
Harvey’s finish placed him seventh in the overall standings for his best sprint result this season.
“Sprinting hasn’t been going super for me this year,” Harvey wrote in an email after Thursday’s race. “Today was the first day I made the semis, but still, every time I put a bib on, I’m racing for the podium.”
“Alex skied really well through all the rounds and looked really strong, especially his straightup double pole,” said Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth said on the phone.
Harvey chose to double pole through the rounds and it paid off as he put together three strong races and narrowly missed qualifying for the final.
“I felt good today, but nothing special,” he wrote. “My lungs are still not 100% recovered from the 50km [last Saturday at Holmenkollen]. I did feel like my double pole was holding up well.”
Harvey was the lone Canadian who reached the heats, qualifying in 20th (+6.72). Americans Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell advanced to the quarterfinals as well, qualifying in 21st (+6.79) and 26th (+7.40), respectively.
Harvey and Hamilton both raced in the fifth quarterfinal — Hamilton striding and Harvey double poling.
Although he considered double poling the course, Hamilton chose the technique that he felt fit his strengths.
“When it is not obvious that double poling is going to be faster than everything else, I lean towards striding,” Hamilton said on the phone afterward. “I had a really good race last week in Drammen on klister skis when about half the field was double poling so that gave me confidence.”
Hamilton’s plan for Stockholm was to power up the last hill to put himself in contention to advance. However, he ran out of time to close gaps that had opened on the flats and gradual descent.
“I tried to make something happen in that last 200m, my kick was really good and I still felt really good energy wise but I just ran out of room and couldn’t close the gap,” Hamilton explained.
Ahead of Hamilton, Sweden’s Oskar Svensson won the quarterfinal by 0.78 seconds over Harvey in second, as both advanced to the semifinal. Hamilton placed fifth, 2.21 seconds after Svensson, and also behind Finland’s Matias Strandvall in third and Norway’s Even Northug (one of Petter’s younger brothers) in fourth. Overall, Hamilton finished 22nd on the day.
Newell found himself in a stacked first quarterfinal, which included eventual finalists Fossli, Kriukov and Gros. Although both Ustiugov and Finland’s Toni Ketelä advanced to the semifinals as lucky losers from that quarterfinal, Newell finished a distant fifth after making a last-minute decision regarding technique.
“In the quarterfinals I was prepared to double pole the heat but switched to kick wax right before the start since it was looking like I would have a majority of striders to go up against,” Newell wrote in an email. “Who knows if it was the right call, but for whatever reason my Klister was dragging a bit on the flats which was frustrating.”
While Newell was far enough behind Ustiugov to avoid his trip-up before the finish and ski around him into fifth (+9.44), it wasn’t enough to advance and he placed 23rd overall.
Canada’s second skier, Len Valjas also chose kick wax and ended up 45th in the qualifier, 10.72 seconds out of first and 2.83 seconds out of the top 30.
Reese Hanneman and Erik Bjornsen also competed for the U.S., finishing 66th (+17.64) and 69th (+18.87), respectively.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
New to the FasterSkier team, Kaitlyn is a silent sports all-arounder, competing in cross-country skiing, cycling and triathlon since graduating from the University of Michigan, where she ran cross country and track. Kaitlyn is intrigued by the complexities of cross-country ski racing and is excited to start in the elite women’s field at the 2016 Birkie.