If Finland’s Iivo Niskanen has a classic race course, it’s clearly becoming the men’s 15-kilometer in Kuusamo, Finland. For the second time, Niskanen outlasted Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby to take the overall title — the Finn’s first and only other World Cup win occurring in 2014 at the age of 22.
Now, two years later at 24, Niskanen is the only male to have repeated a victory in the Ruka men’s 15 k classic individual start, an event that has taken place in Kuusamo for the past nine years.
“I was confident when I saw the intermediate times,” Niskanen said during a post-race TV interview. “I believed that my pace is sufficient for victory.”
Starting in bib 21, Niskanen toggled between third and fourth place for the first 3 k on Sunday, while Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson, bib 84, took the lead until the end of lap one. With two more laps to go, the Finnish skier took over the lead, superseding not only Halfvarsson, but Norway’s Sundby and Emil Iversen as well.
During the next 5 k, Iversen and Halfvarsson dueled for second place, with Iversen eventually coming out on top and taking the front position from Niskanen around the 10 k mark.
Within another kilometer, however, Niskanan had regained control of the lead and Iversen dropped back from the Finn by a little more than eight seconds. Sundby, who had been sitting comfortably in fourth for most of the race, began to dig deeper and reeled in Iversen with less than 5 k to go.
With less than a lap to go, Sundby made another push to surpass Niskanen, but it was too late. The Finn held him off for the rest of the final lap, and as Sundby started to lose steam, Iversen regained speed and moved back into second.
“This was good for my head and body,” Iversen told Langrenn.com. “I felt lousy yesterday but now I’m relieved. I considered not racing at all, but it turned out pretty good and I don’t completely know why.”
Iversen placed second overall, finishing 10.2 seconds behind Niskanen’s winning time of 35:27.6. Sundby took the final podium spot in third, 11.2 seconds out from the win.
“I got a beating from the other two,” Sundby said, referring to Niskanen and Iversen, in a post-race TV interview. “I feel like I did a good race … sadly I wasn’t good enough to win today.”
After leading for the first third of the race, Sweden’s Halfvarsson, who reached the podium in Saturday’s sprint final, dropped back to seventh (+21.2) by the end of the day. Within a little under 14 seconds of Halfvarsson was Canada’s Alex Harvey in 11th (+35.0).
The top North American on the day, Harvey, a 28-year-old Canadian World Cup Team member, narrowly missed Sunday’s top 10, with 1.2 seconds separating him from 10th. He said it was still a good sign of where his classic technique is headed as he begins a new season.
“I felt last year I never had a good classic race, a race that I felt like I skied well the whole way technically,” Harvey said on the phone, pointing out that Sunday was one race that he he did.
Despite feeling a little worn down prior to the start of Sunday’s race –which Harvey indicated may have prevented him from racing in a top-five position — the consistency he showed on course in his skiing mechanics were a positive for the Canadian.
“I’m still really happy with the result and not just the result itself, but also the way I was skiing,” he said.
After placing 25th in Saturday’s classic sprint, Harvey also explained that the weekend’s combined results were, for him, checkmarked accomplishments.
“I didn’t put too much [weight] on the sprint, so just being able to qualify yesterday was good,” Harvey said of Saturday. “I had a bit more expectation on today’s race [with] the goal [being] to get close or at least finish in the top ten.
“And I think that’s what I reached,” he added. “That’s mission accomplished for me, I’d say for both days.”
After Harvey, the second top North American man on the results sheet was Devon Kershaw in 33rd (+1:23.4), finishing just outside of World Cup points — not quite where he wanted to be, but on the right track.
“To be just outside of the points is never a great feeling,” Kershaw said, according to a Cross Country Canada press release. “[B]ut to know that I’m knocking on the door in only the first competition of a long World Cup season gives me some confidence moving forward. I’m looking forward to the next stop!”
Following him as the first American was U.S. Ski Team (USST) B-team member Erik Bjornsen in 41st (+1:37.2). These being Bjornsen’s first races on snow, he indicated that coming into the opening World Cup competition, his greater focus was getting the feel for racing again.
“I only did one day of classic skiing in the 30 days leading up to coming over here,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I took a fairly bad rollerski crash at Soldier Hollow which left my tail end and hand in a bad spot. My goal coming into this weekend was to not get to hung up on the results. Lillehammer has always been a good venue for me so I was trying to think of Ruka as a warm-up into the season.”
Canada’s Graeme Killick (World Cup B-team) finished 53rd (+2:12.9) and Noah Hoffman (USST B-team) was 64th (+2:42.6).
“It’s an early race on a super-tough course against athletes that have been racing for two or three weeks and we know we just came up short today,” USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone.
Whitcomb indicated that, from his perspective, the men’s squad has had good preparation, training and fitness leading up to the opening World Cup races in Kuusamo. With goals of peaking for later World Cup competitions, such as those in the Tour de Ski and World Championships, Whitcomb explained the men’s team will continue to work into the season with the understanding that the opening races this weekend are early season races.
“They haven’t gotten fast yet and everybody has a pretty balanced head on their shoulders,” Whitcomb said of the U.S. men who raced on Sunday. “I think there is nothing wrong with being a little disappointed. I know they are right now but they’re also very realistic and they know that their season is about to open up.”
When asked about Hoffman, who made a notable increase in training hours this season, Whitcomb explained that the way Hoffman absorbs his training load as he comes out of it and into the race season may impact his early season and later performances.
“I would suggest that [Hoffman] has probably not fully absorbed that training load and good things are to come,” Whitcomb said. “I’ve already seen really nice changes in his strength level. He has spent a huge amount of time this year on general strength training and it has improved his double pole. … I think it is just going to take a couple weeks of being in Europe racing and training more normally for things to liven up.”
The Canadian coaches could not be reached for comment.
– Jason Albert, Aleks Tangen and Harald Zimmer 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.