(Note: This article has been updated to include details about a crash involving Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby early in the men’s classic mass start.)
Certainly it’s too soon for Norway’s Emil Iversen to tell his elders to move over. One of those elders is Norwegian teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby, current overall World Cup leader. The other, Petter Northug Jr. is … Northug.
But at the second stage of the Ski Tour Canada (STC) on Wednesday, a 17.5-kilometer classic mass start in Montreal, Quebec, Norway’s 24-year old Iversen, strided, herringboned, and double poled to the win.
Exactly 45:05.4 minutes after the start, Iversen crossed the wind-swept finish line first, 5.3 seconds ahead of Northug. The overall leader of the STC and winner of Tuesday’s sprint, Russian Sergey Ustiugov, placed third (+14.5).
At 23 years old, it was Ustiugov who first showed his fearlessness. Establishing a tempo and drive that 3.5 k in showed he was going to be the pace-setter — Ustiugov went on to dictate the pace for most of the race.
But at that 3.5 k mark it still could have been a number of skiers’ race to control. Strung out behind Ustiugov in a line were Norwegians Iversen, Sundby, Northug, Finn Hågen Krogh, Canada’s Alex Harvey, Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestad, and Kazakhstan’s classic specialist, Alexey Poltoranin.
It must have been something subtle. Maybe an extra effort herringboning up the steep, sugary hills, or double poling with his burly core, but only a kilometer later, Ustiugov played for keeps. Only Iversen and Northug could hang on.
Sundby later told reporters that he had crashed early on an icy and curving descent.
“I went on my face,” he told NRK, according to a translation.
Slowly but surely, a gap back to Sundby grew. And as the moisture on Sundby’s beard began to freeze, so did his chances of bridging up to the leaders. At the 4.6 k mark, Sundby was 13 seconds behind.
“I lost a lot of time and then it was [over],” he said. “I’m not sure what to say. We are trying to showcase our sport, but today I am unsure what we were doing. Was it cross-country…?
“It was unusual conditions,” he added. “Fortunately, it was the same for all.”
As the moisture on Sundby’s beard began to freeze, so did his chances of bridging up to the leaders.
By 12.5 k, Sundby chasing in fourth was 18.2 seconds behind the trio of Ustiugov, Iversen and Northug. It remained a long day of trying to play catch up for Sundby, who toiled in no man’s land, chasing solo for the remainder of the race. Sundby finished fourth, 39.8 seconds behind the upstart Iversen.
It’s Northug’s signature tactic to let others set the pace until he marks the race with an exclamation point across the line. But Wednesday, Iversen, having grown up watching Northug’s bait-and-switch prowess over the years, left nothing for chance. With 1.5 k to go, Iversen began to stretch the rubberband back to Northug inch by inch. He had a 3.6-second lead on Northug, but even that small margin never vanished.
When Iversen made his decisive move, he simply upped the pace and never looked back.
“In the fourth lap I saw Ustiugov was little bit tired,” Iversen said in the post-race press conference. “I decided to try and went for it 100 percent. I hoped I could get a gap and gain some seconds. My goal before the Ski Tour Canada was to have a good start. I’m sitting in second place. Now I have to take stage by stage and we see what happens.”
With his win on Wednesday, Iversen took his first ever distance World Cup victory and the third of his career. Iversen’s other two World Cup victories, both of which were sprints, also came this season.
Northug spoke about the trio out front and pushing an unrelenting pace.
“The plan was to stay in front of the field,” Northug said during the press conference. “After one lap it was only three or four guys in the lead. The pace was very high. We had to fight hard against the wind and snow. Ustiugov did a lot of work in the lead. He was the strongest today. We can thank him for the high speed.”
Ustiugov also acknowledged that he had taxed himself with the workload.
“It was a very tough race,” Ustiugov said at the press conference, through a translator. “I knew the guys behind me were fresher than me as I did all the work in the front, but I am satisfied with third place and be in the lead of the Ski Tour.”
With two consecutive podiums in as many stages so far, Ustiugov remains in first in the Tour standings, 6.1 seconds ahead of Iversen in second. Northug is third, 11 seconds back, and Sundby is nearly 1:40 minutes out of first in fourth overall.
Harvey in the Hunt
After two days of racing, both of which took place in his home province of Quebec, Harvey ranks sixth overall, 1:58.3 out of first, after placing ninth in Wednesday’s mass start (+1:16.4).
While racing the five laps of Montreal’s 3.5 k loop, Harvey appeared to be one of the few who could match the front runners’ pace. At 5.5 k, the Canadian skied in sixth, 14.5 seconds back.
Again and again, it seemed Harvey would cover the breakaway. In an in-person interview afterward, Harvey said those efforts were exhasting.
“It was a drop in my energy.” Harvey said. “I tried closing the gap with the first three, but I exploded in trying to do so. I fought for the podium but the three guys at the front were out of reach. Ustiugov was really strong the first two laps. I paid at the end for my efforts.”
Harvey did ski wisely. He was close enough to the front to fight for the two mid-race time bonuses. Harvey took an 8-second time bonus at 4.6 k and a 2-second time bonus at 11.6 k.
Thinking more of the long-term than a one off race performance, Harvey said he is staying true to his STC plan.
“My fitness level is good and stable, which is important because you can’t win the Tour in one day, but you can lose it in one day,” he said. “The goal is to not loose the Tour on any day.”
The second best North American result came from fellow Canadian World Cup Team member Devon Kershaw, who began the day near the back of the pack in bib 50. Kershaw moved forward incrementally and by 5 k was skiing in 22nd place. He eventually skied across the finish in 17th (+1:38.9).
“It was a challenging day,” Kershaw said afterward. “Really soft snow, different conditions.”
Despite the less-than-ideal fresh snow and blustery wind, Kershaw appreciated the opportunity to ski in a city some of his family calls home.
“To race in front of friends and family here on the Island of Montreal is a pretty neat feeling,” he said. “It’s just so nice to have the home crowd behind you. My aunt and uncle live here, my mom and my brother live here as well. So I have a lot of family in the city. I heard their voices. It was pretty neat.”
In the points, and moving up on a day with tricky snow and biting wind, Kershaw remained positive.
“Seventeenth isn’t something we are going to be lighting fireworks off, calling everybody that I know,” he said. “But at the same time it’s a step in the right direction. I was pretty disappointed after yesterday so its better.”
Kershaw placed 50th on Tuesday’s freestyle sprint and now sits 17th overall.
A third Canadian World Cup Team skier in the points was Ivan Babikov in 29th (+2:32.1). Unlike Harvey, who started the day in bib 10 (meaning he had a good starting position heading into the courses steeply pitched and punchy climbs), Babikov wore bib 78. As a result, Babikov started near the rear in the field of 85 skiers.
When the day’s sinuous track kicked up on lap one, skiers had to herringbone some of the soft headwalls.
“There was actually a few places, mostly the first and second lap was the worst,” Babikov said on the phone after the race. “The course was just really interesting. I’ve never see something like that before.”
Babikov described quick downhills that pitched up into mandatory herringbone sections. Those sections created bottlenecks since the herringboning forced skiers to keep their skis wide.
“Oh yeah, like people crashing and tangling up all over the place,” Babikov said of the scene. “It also was really soft for the skis, so it created really like barely any track on the uphill where you could have strided … It was just a mess, broken poles, people falling down.”
Babikov explained that maybe the first five, 10 or 15 skiers could ski cleanly through, but not the main pack. On his first lap, Babikov said he felt like he waited thirty seconds for the mess of skiers to clear before pushing ahead.
When he finally did push ahead, he pushed hard. Of his jump from 78th to 29th place at the finish, Babikov said skiing conservatively wasn’t part of the plan.
“You have to take a risk today,” Babikov said. “Like, at times to pass people on the downhills. My body felt pretty good. I tried to pass people whenever I could.”
All that passing moved Babikov up in the overall standings. He now sits 33rd overall.
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth was pleased with the day’s result.
“It was actually a pretty solid day for us, three guys in the top 30, Alex in ninth, Devon in 17th and Ivan 29,” he said.
Wadsworth also spoke about the benefits of World Cup racing for a future generation of Canadian skiers.
“Today was an experience…,” he said. “For the younger athletes, it was a real eye opener. It was very hard conditions, with the wind and the snow and the course. I think our younger athletes, also arriving just last night … usually you get some time on the course ahead of time and there’s a ski warmup area and a testing area, and none of that happens here. Boom, you show up and you get ready to race on a race course your’ve never raced on at the highest level.”
Also for Canada, Graeme Killick (CNST) placed 50th, Kevin Sandau (Alberta World Cup Academy) was 53rd, Len Valjas (CNST) 63rd, Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA) 64th, Jess Cockney (CNST) 66th, Michael Somppi (NDC Thunder Bay) 68th, Knute Johnsgaard (AWCA/CNST) 69th, Bob Thompson (NDC Thunder Bay) 73rd, Russell Kennedy (Canmore Nordic) 74th, Andy Shields (NDC Thunder Bay) 76th, and Simon LaPointe (Skinouk) 82nd.
Bjornsen leads the U.S.
Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University/U.S. Ski Team) was the top American in 31st, just 0.4 seconds outside the top 30 and 2:37.3 behind the winner. In a post-race phone call, Bjornsen said he is feeling good after two STC stages.
“Coming into today I knew that I have been feeling pretty good lately, so I was hoping for a good result,” he said.
Bjornsen also noted the difficult herringboning and the likelihood for bottlenecks to develop.
“It went out at a pretty hot pace just knowing things were going to get strung out having such a narrow course like that,” Bjornsen said. “But I felt like I went out all right. I struggled a bit with the herringboning and felt strong on the double pole. I was not happy with being so close to the top-thirty. Definitely hoping for a little more in the next few stages.”
The STC is the second World Cup Tour for Bjornsen.
“In the last Tour I was right outside the top 40,” Bjornsen said. “It’s my goal this time to be closer to the thirties, but I think if I finish in the top 30 I would be very happy with my overall result. We will see how it goes, there is definitely a couple of good races for me coming up. If I could pop into the top 20 in one race that would be absolutely awesome.”
U.S. head coach Chris Grover discussed how the front-end racers escaped from the main group so quickly. Bottlenecks were a recurring theme.
“It was a pretty narrow course overall,” Grover said on the phone. “And in particular, the big longer herringbone hill was really only about one skier width … The packs got super strung out because the nature of the course but also because of the tough conditions. Once people got away from those that were trying to herringbone in the soft stuff, they really got away.”
Grover said those rough-an- tumble patches took a toll on both the U.S. men and women.
“We had a lot of broken equipment today,” he explained. “Just amongst our team, Ida Sargent broke a ski in a crash tangle-up right away. Brian Gregg broke a ski by having a binding rip off a ski. So it was definitely a challenging day.”
Gregg ultimately finished 81st.
“I had one pretty solid crash out there, which was certainly very frustrating but that’s part of racing,” Gregg said after.
Noah Hoffman (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/USST) placed 42nd. He reiterated the tough course.
“It’s a really challenging course,” Hoffman said. “We were just standing still on the first lap, so often. It was so narrow, there’s so much herringbone. It was a challenge from way back off of yesterday’s finish.”
Also for the U.S., Scott Patterson (APU) finished 55th, Simi Hamilton (SMST2/USST) was 58th, Eric Packer (APU) 67th, Reese Hanneman (APU) 70th, Andy Newell (SMST2/USST) 71st, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) 77th, Matt Liebsch (Gear West) 79th, Tad Elliott (SSCV) 80th, and Gregg (Team Gregg) 81st.
- 17.5 k classic mass start
- Alex Harvey
- Alexey Poltoranin
- Andy Newell
- Andy Shields
- Bob Thompson
- Brian Gregg
- Chris Grover
- Dakota Blackhorse-von Jes
- Devon Kershaw
- Emil Iversen
- Eric Packer
- Erik Bjornsen
- Finn Haagen Krogh
- Graeme Killick
- Ivan Babikov
- Jess Cockney
- Justin Wadsworth
- Kevin Sandau
- knute johnsgaard
- Len Valjas
- Martin Johnsrud Sundby
- Matt Liebsch
- Montreal World Cup
- Noah Hoffman
- Ola Vigen Hattestad
- Patrick Stewart-Jones
- Petter Northug Jr
- Reese Hanneman
- russell kennedy
- Scott Patterson
- Sergey Ustigov
- Simi Hamilton
- Simon Lapointe
- Tad Elliott
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.