Prior to the start of the men’s 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint final on Sunday in Davos, Switzerland Sergey Ustiugov pointed to his chest. In bib 29, the eventual overall race winner had just barely qualified for the heats–had his qualifying time been fifteen hundredths of a second slower, he would have cooled down and watched the final from the sideline.
But the 24-year-old eked into the rounds, qualifying 4.28 seconds back from Lucas Chanavat of France’s first place qualification time of 2:20.78.
The Russian continued to leave the leading to the rest of the field throughout the day, racing in the back of the pack during most of his quarterfinal and semifinal.
In fact, by the first descent of his quarterfinal, Ustiugov was in sixth, with a close to 50-meter gap between his skis and those of Norway’s Sindre Bjørnestad Skar, the quarterfinal’s frontrunner.
The Russian’s waiting tactic worked, however, and by the final climb, Ustiugov had enough energy to not only move around all five skiers in front of him, but distance himself from Skar and Italy’s Federico Pellegrino by 15-meters in the finishing stretch. He took the quarterfinal win and advanced automatically to the semifinals.
A similar scenario went down in Ustiugov’s semifinal, with his Russian teammate Alexey Petukhov taking the lead from the start and Ustiugov lurking in the back of the pack through the course’s first hairpin turn, major climb and major descent.
Once again, Ustiugov moved from sixth to first by the final major course climb, leaving the rest of the semifinalists, including Skar and his Norwegian teammate Finn Hågen Krogh, scrambling. Ustiugov safely crossed first, while Krogh crossed second and Petukhov and Skar’s times earned them lucky loser spots in the men’s final.
By the start of the men’s final, Ustiugov’s bib gesture gave viewers a visual reminder that his come-from-behind tactic for the day was working.
“I did not have the best qualification but I felt much better in the heats,” Ustiugov said according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “I knew I had power to win. It is great to win here in Davos.”
In the final, however, Ustiugov switched strategies. The Russian took to the front from the start, skiing in second behind France’s Chanavat for the first half of the final.
By the final course climb, Ustiugov overtook Chanavat, with Krogh following closely behind. Heading into the final 50-meters, Chanavat lost steam and Ustiugov and Krogh began the battle for first.
Krogh pulled hard to the Russian’s right, and with 20-meters to go it appeared the Norwegian would take the win. But two V2 poles later, Ustuigov proved too powerful for Krogh, and the Russian edged the Norwegian by fifty-nine hundredths of a second for his first sprint victory of the season in a time of 2:24.65.
“[Ustiugov] did pretty much the same in every heat,” Krogh told FasterSkier. “So I knew that would be the guy to follow and I tried to be first in the last uphill…[and] I kind of did, but not enough to take him in the final stretch. He was just stronger today.”
Ten meters behind, a second Russian versus Norwegian head-to-head ensued between Petukhov and Skar for the final podium spot. In a photo finish, Skar outlunged Petukhov by eighteen hundredths of a second, securing third place overall (+3.29) and a second Norwegian name to the podium.
Petukhov took fourth (+3.47) and rounding out the top six of the men’s sprint final was Norway’s Emil Iversen in fifth (+5.52) and Chanavat in sixth (+11.48).
Valjas Finishes 14th Overall, Hamilton 23rd
After qualifying 12th and 24th respectively, Canada’s Lenny Valjas and U.S. Ski Team (USST) A-team member Simi Hamilton were entered in the same quarterfinal–the only two North American men who advanced to Sunday’s sprint rounds.
Not getting the start he hoped for in his quarterfinal, Valjas decided to race in the back of the pack for the first half of his race.
“It’s a tough course–it’s all work,” Valjas said during an in-person interview. “So as soon as I realized my start wasn’t very good…I tried to then conserve…[and] happily sat in the back.”
The Canadian managed to move around Hamilton as well Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola coming into the final stretch, crossing his quarterfinal in third, just fifty-four hundredths of a second off of advancing to the semifinal.
“I was happy with it, unfortunately didn’t get the lucky losers spot,” Valjas said. “But I’m happy with another solid weekend for me.”
Coming off of an illness, Hamilton described his race as a “step in the right direction,” indicating that working on his speed will be his focus for the next few weeks.
“[My] speed right now is definitely not where I want it to be,” Hamilton said during an in-person interview. “So I think Christmas break will be a great chance to just work on my speed a bit and just get that gear back… I know I am just going to keep feeling better throughout the season and I’m psyched for the rest of it.”
USST Head Coach, Chris Grover agreed with Hamilton, explaining that as both Hamilton and USST A-team member Andy Newell–who just missed qualifying on Sunday and finished in 36th overall–continue to recover from illness, speedwork will be a primary focus for the two.
“They’re technically very efficient, but they’re just missing a little bit of the high end firing and pop right now,” Grover said during an in-person interview. “Good for Simi to see him in the rounds today…It’s coming and I think you know, by Tour de Ski time and right after the Tour those guys, they’ll be ready.”
Canada’s Alex Harvey was left just outside advancing in 33rd overall. Devon Kershaw ended the day in 49th, Knute Johnsgaard 60th, Bob Thompson 67th, and Andy Shields 73rd. Jesse Cockney did not finish the race.
The third American to race on Sunday, Erik Packer, finished in 95th overall.
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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.