LILLEHAMMER, Norway — The men’s 10-kilometer freestyle on Day 2 of the Lillehammer mini tour turned out to be a nail biter and a win-win situation for Swedish fans on Saturday.
Calle Halfvarsson, who won Friday’s classic sprint, started 42nd, 6 minutes behind his teammate Marcus Hellner in bib 30. Both are Swedish national team veterans. And both were vying for the top step of the podium.
Halfvarrson ended up taking the win by just 0.8 seconds in 23:04.9. Hellner, four years Halfvarsson’s elder at 31, placed second, ahead of Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov in third (+6.7).
For the second-straight race, Canada’s Alex Harvey placed 10th, 23.5 seconds behind Halfvarsson.
“It was really fun to fight with Marcus until the finish,” Halfvarsson told FIS after, according to a press release. “My body felt good. I felt little bit tired in the first lap from yesterday’s sprint. In the second lap I got better and I could ski really fast on the last uphill.”
Hellner explained that, as an earlier starter, he didn’t have the advantage of knowing where his teammate stood and how fast he needed to go to beat him. While Hellner had the fastest time at 8.3 k (by 3.3 seconds over Halfvarsson), the 27-year-old Halfvarsson had the edge at the finish. (Halfvarsson also posted the fastest splits at 3.3 and 5.8 k.)
“It is a good feeling to be on the podium,” Hellner told FIS of his first World Cup podium of the season. “The body feels good. I have some work to do with my technique, I hope I can get better.”
The two Swedes helped keep the Norwegians off the podium, which hasn’t happened on Norway’s home turf since a 50 k in Trondheim in March 2009.
During the post-race press conference, Halfvarsson said it was cool to have two Swedes at the top “and it’s extra cool that it’s Marcus I’m fighting against.”
When asked if it was more gratifying to beat Hellner or all of the Norwegians, Halfvarsson laughed before saying that he’d rather beat Norwegians.
After the race, Harvey told FasterSkier in an in-person interview that he considers top 10 to be a benchmark. He recalled starting too fast on the first lap and fading a bit on the second, “at least the first half of it.”
Out of 97 finishers, Harvey’s split times ranked sixth at 3.3 k, seventh at 5.8 k, and 10th at 8.3 k.
“Sometimes you start too slow and you just can’t get it back, so I don’t think [my first lap affected me] too much, but had I started 5 seconds slower, I could have been 10 seconds faster on the second lap, but it really wasn’t a whole lot,” Harvey explained.
He continued by saying that his start aligned with his strategy.
The two-lap race included 209 meters of climbing resulting in 74 meters of total elevation gain. The first hill of the race began about 100 meters from the start, but Harvey, who said that “the conditions were some of the best we’ve had in years,” didn’t seem to mind the hilly course.
Sunday marks the final stage of the three-day mini tour, where Halfvarsson will start first in the 15 k pursuit. Harvey, who will be the eighth athlete out of the gate, 51 seconds after Halfvarsson and 1 second behind Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, had a positive outlook for Sunday.
“I think I’ll have a decent group around me, and I may not be too far away from some good athletes so I can try to stay with them and move up the rankings, hopefully I’ll be around Finn Hågen [Krogh, who’s starting 8 seconds ahead in fourth] and get a good ride,” Harvey said.
Halfvarsson will start 28 seconds before Ustiugov in second and 38 seconds ahead of Hellner, who’s currently third in the tour.
When asked what his strategy for the pursuit, Harvey, 28, replied, “to hunt, it’s a hunting race tomorrow.”
Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who finished seventh on Saturday, 14.3 seconds behind Halfvarsson, chose a different strategy.
“I tried to find a good speed and not push too hard at the beginning and find a good rhythm and keep that up and I think it worked well,” Cologna said, adding that he hopes to be in top 10 on Sunday. He’ll start 11th, 59 seconds after the leader.
Noah Hoffman led the U.S. men in 33rd (+1:08.6), and was 5.3 seconds away from scoring World Cup points in the top 30.
“My goal was to go out and just ski with really relaxed muscles, and just ski high energy … and I think I did that pretty well,” Hoffman told FasterSkier after. “I wasn’t really good in the early splits and [Canada’s Devon] Kershaw started coming up behind me, and he got really close to me and then, but because I was feeling relaxed, I was able to kind accelerate through the race and ended up beating Kershaw by a couple of seconds, so I executed it the way I wanted to.”
Kershaw ended up 40th (+1:16.7) as the second-fastest Canadian of the day. Teammate Len Valjas was close behind in 42nd (+1:19.1). The two will start the pursuit with Valjas in 37th (+1:54) and Kershaw in 43rd (+2:01).
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover called Hoffman’s race a “big step in the right direction.”
“He really paced that course well,” Grover said in a phone interview. “He was maybe a little bit back perhaps from where he wanted to be at the first time check, but compared to the field, he was kind of just picking through people all the way through the race.
“He skied with a lot of energy out there,” he added. “I know he feels like he is coming out from underneath this really big training load and now that he is having a chance to rest, we are going to start seeing his fitness coming through, and seeing his ability coming through.”
Hoffman’s teammate Erik Bjornsen, who placed 24th in Friday’s sprint, finished 45th (+1:22.2) on Saturday.
Bjornsen told FasterSkier that he was hoping for better, but that his performance was realistic according to his current abilities.
“I felt pretty good the first 5 k and I had a sweet ride,” Bjornsen said. “I was skiing it with Sundby [who ended up sixth], and then once I got tired, it was hard to push, I think I was losing a lot of time on the last 5 k.”
Grover called Bjornsen’s race “solid.”
“He was really climbing through the ranks for awhile,” Grover said. “And then he lost contact and he kind of had a little bit of a flat space in the middle of the 10 k, and then closed quite well, so really solid day for him, and I think tomorrow could be another good day for him. He’s in great shape right now.”
Bjornsen will start the pursuit 44th, 1 second behind Kershaw and 2:01 behind Halfvarsson. Hoffman will start 6 seconds later in 48th.
Norway’s Petter Northug finished the race in 51st (+1:26.6) and will start the pursuit 36th (+1:53), just ahead of Valjas. Northug told a group of journalists after Saturday’s 10 k that lacked power in his strides, which he noticed after crossing the 2 k mark.
Also for the North Americans, Canada’s Graeme Killick placed 64th (+1:46.6), Knute Johnsgaard 73rd (+2:22), Bob Thompson 88th (+3:03.4), and Andy Shields 89th (+3:06.3). Americans Simi Hamilton finished 69th (+1:55.8) and Eric Packer was 78th (+2:28.7).
Aleks is a freelance journalist based in Gjøvik, Norway, covering ski-related sports and track & field. He also works part time as a model and reads a new book almost every week.