For the men’s opening stage of the Ski Tour Canada on Tuesday, a 1.7-kilometer freestyle sprint, the end is the best place to start.
Adjacent a frozen Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, those who withstood the -5 degree Celsius (23 Fahrenheit) cold, the tight corners, and the scrum-like jostling at the front of the pack went on to stand on the podium.
Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov won the speedy and tightly contested final in 3:09.36 minutes, proving it’s not over until it’s over — but more on that in a bit. Richard Jouve from France placed second, just 0.08 seconds back. But the big news for North America, U.S. Ski Team sprinter Simi Hamilton took third in a photo finish with both Ustiugov and Jouve. Hamilton was only 0.09 seconds behind Ustiugov and 0.01 seconds out of second place.
Hamilton: Waiting, Waiting, Then Pouncing
For the Aspen, Colo., native, Canada is as close to home-racing soil as he’ll get on this year’s World Cup. Considering he spends most of the offseason training with Vermont’s Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team, a long drive south, Hamilton came prepared for what he hoped would be a solid day in front of family and friends. And he didn’t disappoint.
In an in-person interview after the race, Hamilton, 28, explained the local support kept the stoke high.
“You always kind of want to play it cool and stay engaged and focused, but it’s so awesome when you run to the start or even when you are racing and you hear, ‘USA,’ and ‘Simi,’ ” Hamilton said. “I have a lot of friends and family out here. It’s just super cool to race so close to home and people are fired up. I think we are bringing a lot of good energy to cross-country ski racing on this continent, and it’s fun to be part of that movement.”
Hamilton’s effort in the qualifier made a statement. He wore bib 2 throughout the heats as a result of his second-place qualifying time. Fastest qualifier, Norway’s Petter Northug set the best mark in 3:12.99. Hamilton was a bit more than an eyeblink behind, finishing only 0.45 seconds back.
Quarterfinal 3, Hamilton’s heat, featured Norway’s Emil Iversen as a main threat — Iversen qualified fourth (+1.40). And in Lahti, Finland, the site of the last World Cup sprint, Iversen won out the day.
Clearly in good form again on Tuesday, Iversen led Hamilton’s heat like a greyhound chasing the unreachable rabbit — just go, go, go. Hamilton remained in the back, shifting from third to fourth and back to third. On a portion of the course where two small straights are linked by a horseshoe-shaped bend, Hamilton said he began to learn how the course could be exploited.
“Today I kind of figured out in my quarterfinal that it’s good to conserve energy in the middle of the pack or close to the back of the pack,” Hamilton said in the post-race press conference. “And then I knew that I was skiing that horseshoe climb really well all day today. So I knew that I could put a move on there and I knew that a lot of other people were kind of letting off the gas a little bit on that climb and around the corner.”
That’s where Hamilton began to move up and position himself for the final straight. Iversen took the heat win in 3:13.73, but Hamilton, who finished second (+0.35), took the best how-to-race notes.
Hamilton moved onto the second semifinal where Northug, Jouve, and Norwegian Ola Vigen Hattestad awaited.
With the flat light dulling the course, the star of the show appeared to be Northug. Sporting retro-looking mirrored sunglasses, Northug seemed ready for prime time. Having won his quarterfinal in iconic Northug fashion — never seeming to exert real effort yet moving faster than the others — he won out again in 3:13.38.
In that semi, Hamilton played the same hand as he did in the quarters, with slightly less stellar results. He remained in the pack. He conserved energy. He navigated a pushy and tightly packed group of skiers, but he left his chances up to a nail-biter sprint down the home stretch. But the semi proved to be the faster of the two semifinals, by just under a second. Hamilton placed third, 0.42 seconds back, but his time was fast enough for a spot in the finals.
Remember, Hamilton’s wore bib 2 for the day — a reminder to those around him how fast he had skied previously to reach the final. Lining up with Hamilton was a burly set of skiers, any one of which could take the day. There was third-fastest qualifier Ustiugov, the first semifinal winner Finn Hågen Krogh of Norway, his teammate Hattestad, France’s Jouve, and the ubiquitous Northug.
For the first two thirds of the final, it appeared Hamilton had given his best shot. Never in the front, and at times seemingly at risk of dropping off, the group seemed too congested for any skier to move up from the back. Nearly two minutes into the final, Hamilton remained in sixth place.
But Hamilton was playing it cool, knowing that his peers were used to shorter sprint courses over in Europe.
“I knew that if I played my cards right, I could throw some moves kind of in that horseshoe climb,” Hamilton said in the press conference. “It was going well all day and I just kind of banked on having that in my quiver for the final. So I focused on conserving my energy until then. And then tried to lay down as big a move as possible coming over that hill.”
Hamilton did make a move. But rather than appear decisive, it appeared to get him into a mix of skiers so closely clustered, all of them could end up a World Cup yard sale. Yet his positioning and timing worked.
“It was a long course today. It’s something that we don’t see too much on the World Cup these days,” Hamilton said. “Most of our sprints this year have been about 2:30, so to have a sprint over three minutes was really cool. I think you have to think about some different tactics that you can play. So I figured out that that was kind of one my main strengths on the course today, and I really just relied on that in the final, to be able to put a move in and get ahead of some people there [on the horseshoe].”
Into the home straight, Hamilton came charging up along the fence to challenge Ustiugov in the lead.
The only thing clear at the finish was that the athlete with the biggest stretch would finish best. The race ended in a six-way photo finish with all six finalists within 0.72 seconds of Ustiugov.
Hamilton’s lunge at the line? That was good enough for third behind Ustiugov and Jouve, and ahead of three Norwegians.
“It’s great seeing the Norwegians win,” Hamilton reflected in the press conference. “They are incredible skiers, they come from an amazing skiing culture, but it’s pretty cool to be on the podium with people like Richard and Sergey. I think we are showing the rest of the world that this sport can be won by people other than the Norwegians and it’s fun to be able to be a part of that.”
Tuesday was Hamilton’s second podium of the season and third-career sprint podium.
“I think we are showing the rest of the world that this sport can be won by people other than the Norwegians and it’s fun to be able to be a part of that.” — Simi Hamilton, second in the freestyle sprint at the Ski Tour Canada in Gatineau, Quebec
A word or two about Ustiugov is well worth a mention. Like Hamilton, the 23-year-old Russian played his tactics well, qualifying in third then winning his fast quarterfinal in a three-way photo finish. (His quarterfinal time bested the fastest qualifying time by almost two seconds.)
In his semifinal, Ustiugov broke a pole just after the start. Cooly, he power skated along until a Russian coach was able to hand him a new pole. On the longer-than-usual course, Ustiugov was able to eventually bridge back up to the leaders.
It also seemed like an aha moment. It was as if the pole break taught Ustiugov something that Hamilton had learned: conserving energy early pays dividends in the end.
By 1:49 into the semifinal, Ustiugov took the lead, despite his long-forgotten broken pole. He ended up second to Krogh in a photo finish.
In the final, Ustiugov hovered in the back of the pack, looking like an afterthought until late in the race.
“It was my tactical goal today,” Ustiugov said, according to a translation at the press conference. “In the quarterfinal, I also started very slowly. In the semifinal, I made a really fast start, and in the final again the same start like in the quarterfinal. So that was my tactic play today.”
Gatineau marked Ustiugov’s first sprint victory since Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, where he won his first World Cup (a freestyle sprint) in January 2014. Last month, he won the 15 k freestyle mass start in Falun, Sweden for his second individual World Cup win.
And on Tuesday, he outlasted five skiers in a photo finish for his third victory, with first through fourth being separated by just 0.13 seconds.
Just a toe behind the Russian winner was Jouve. His plan, unlike Ustiugov’s building pace, was to hang on for as long as possible.
“We had a good race tactic, from the quarterfinals all the way to the final,” Jouve said in the press conference. “We tried to stay at the front of the pack as long as we could.”
Asked about lining up with Northug in the final, Jouve said he convinced himself he belonged.
“It really impressed me being in the final, but I had to tell myself I was as good as any of the other finalists,” he said. “The French-speaking public was great and I want to thank all who cheered for me.”
Including the team sprint in Planica, Slovenia, this was Jouve’s third podium of the season.
U.S. Ski Team member Erik Bjornsen was the next-best American in 25th overall. He qualified for his first sprint of the season in 27th, 7.3 seconds behind Northug’s top qualifying time.
“It was fun to jump into the heats and mix it up a little bit,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier after his quarterfinal.
Initially, at the start of his quarterfinal (the fourth of five), Bjornsen led the pack.
“I was just feeling comfortable and I knew it was important to get a good spot and maybe I got a bit too comfortable out there,” he reflected. “And also I let one or two guys go thinking, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ ”
Bjornsen was knocked out of the competition when he finished fifth in his quarterfinal, 2.17 seconds behind Northug as the winner of that heat.
Bjornsen said he’s looking forward to the distance days to come, starting with a 20 k classic mass start on Wednesday in Montreal.
“Tomorrow and then Canmore, both those classic distance races I’m pretty excited for,” he said.
No other Americans qualified for the heats. Bjornsen’s Alaska Pacific University (APU) teammate Reese Hanneman placed 35th, Andy Newell (SMST2/USST) finished 42nd, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) was 54th, Eric Packer (APU) 72nd, Noah Hoffman (SSCV/USST) 74th, Scott Patterson (APU) 75th, Tad Elliott (SSCV) 81st, Matt Liebsch (Gear West) 82nd, and Brian Gregg (Team Gregg) 83rd.
The U.S. notched a never-before-seen double podium with both an American man (Hamilton) and woman (Jessie Diggins) on the podium, as Diggins placed third in the women’s final.
“We are so proud of all the USA athletes today,” U.S. Head Coach Chris Grover said in a USSA press release. “It was really exciting to see Erik Bjornsen take his first sprint points of the season and finish 25th. … Once the heats began, both Jessie and Simi were masterful when it came to making space in which to pass their competitors. They made gaps open for themselves and timed their podium bids perfectly.”
It’s Good to be Home
Canadian World Cup Team member Alex Harvey, of St-Férréol-les-Neiges, Quebec, took advantage of the home field right from the go. He qualified 15th (+4.18) for his first time making the heats in a World Cup freestyle sprint this season.
“It was a great start to the Tour. I felt really good out there as the day went on,” Harvey said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “I haven’t had much success this year qualifying in the sprint races so to be 15th was a good sign.”
In his quarterfinal, the first of five, it didn’t appear Harvey would advance until the final stretch.
“We had three of the fastest men pushing the pace in the quarterfinals,” Harvey said in a press release. “We get to pick our heats that we want to race in and I wanted that one because I knew it would be fast and a good chance to have a lucky loser spot.”
In a four-way photo finish, Harvey finished fourth, 0.29 seconds behind Ustiugov, the winner of the heat. Krogh automatically advanced in second (+0.01), while Hattestad in third (+0.27) and Harvey two-hundredths of a second behind him reached the semifinals as lucky losers.
Harvey did not advance beyond the semifinals, finishing sixth in the first semi (1.44 behind Ustiugov in first), and placed 11th overall. It was his second-best sprint of the season after placing seventh in a classic sprint last month in Stockholm, Sweden.
“I was better positioned in the semis, but I almost crashed in that final corner and it scrubbed my speed. That was it for me,” Harvey said on Tuesday. “I felt really good as the day went on. The crowd was awesome today and really loud so it was a great start.”
That great start was not Harvey’s alone. Canadian National Development Team athlete Knute Johnsgaard, in his second World Cup sprint, qualified 29th (+7.80). He ended the day 30th overall for his first World Cup points.
Johnsgaard told FasterSkier he tried to relax compared to his recent starts in Europe.
“I think I maybe waited a little better,” Johnsgaard said. “The last rounds I did in Europe would have been the OPA Cup in Planica, the week before the World Cup weekend. And I was … getting a bit too excited off the start that time. So I was just trying to relax this time until the second lap, and maybe make a move on the second lap. But unfortunately everyone is so strong … I don’t think it was much about tactics today, just the strongest skiers went through.”
Canadian World Cup Team member Len Valjas finished 37th, Andy Shields (Thunder Bay National Development Centre) placed 48th, Devon Kershaw (CNST) was 50th, Bob Thompson (NDC Thunder Bay) 52nd, Jesse Cockney (CNST) 53rd, Russell Kennedy (Canmore) 59th, Kevin Sandau (AWCA) 70th, Gatineau’s own Simon Lapointe (Skinouk) 71st, Graeme Killick (CNST) 76th, Ivan Babikov (CNST) 78th, and Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA) 84th.
The Ski Tour Canada continues Wednesday in Montreal with the Stage 2 men’s 20 k classic mass start, and a 13 k women’s classic mass start on an approximately 3 k loop.
— Gerry Furseth, Alex Slobodian, François Léger Dionne, and Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
- Andy Newel
- Andy Shields
- Bob Thompson
- Brian Gregg
- Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess
- Devon Kershaw
- Emil Iversen
- Eric Packer
- Erik Bjornsen
- Graeme Killick
- Ivan Babikov
- Jesse Cockney
- Kevin Sandau
- knute johnsgaard
- Len Valjas
- Matt Liebsch
- Noah Hoffman
- Ola Vigen Hattestad
- Patrick Stewart-Jones
- Petter Northug Jr
- Reese Hanneman
- Richard Jouve
- russell kennedy
- Scott Patterson
- Sergey Ustiugov
- 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.