(Note: This article had been updated with comments from Noah Hoffman.)
Possibly the new normal: a thin 2-kilometer ribbon of manmade snow snaking through the brown hillsides in La Clusaz, France — site of Saturday’s men’s 15 k freestyle mass start. Organizers changed the original format, a 30 k skiathlon, to the 15 k format due to lack of snow.
The old normal: Norwegian skiers pushing the pace and a yellow-bibbed, World-Cup-leading Martin Johnsrud Sundby making a decisive up-tempo move in the final kilometers. 24:40 into the 15 k race, Sundby nonchalantly glanced back at his group containing Russians Sergey Ustiugov and Alexander Legkov as well as his Norwegian teammates Finn Hågen Krogh and Didrik Tønseth.
That group, minus a slightly fading Ustiugov, had a 12-second gap going into the final kilometer. The remaining chasers already an afterthought, Sundby was the cat, Krogh, Tønseth, and Legkov the perceived mice.
In La Clusaz, the old normal was marginally new.
Krogh, who won in a time of 34:09.3, edged Sundby (+0.3) in the finishing sprint. Legkov was third (+3.1). Norway’s Tønseth placed fourth (+12.1) with Ustiugov fading to fifth (+25.3) just beating Finland’s Matti Heikkinen in sixth (+25.4).
It was a diverse group of nations representing the top fifteen places. Along with Norway, Russia, and Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Sweden were all represented. Factor in the top thirty, and add Great Britain, Japan, the United States, Bulgaria, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
A World Cup melting pot.
But with Krogh the winner, the post-race press conference was still a Norwegian affair. “I felt in the race I was having a good day,” Krogh said at the press conference. “I wanted to stay in top five and save some energy. Last couple of kilometers are always hard. Last two laps were really fast. I was fighting with myself to keep up with Martin. He was little bit unlucky in the last corner before the finish. He hit an icy patch. I could ski the last curve better and I had more speed to the finish. It is awesome to win.”
At 3 k, 6 k and 12k, Krogh remained in the lead group. Shadowing him and often taking a turn in the lead was Sundby. Sundby came into the race as the overall leader on the World Cup, and he’ll leave La Clusaz with that designation as well. His second place keeps him in first overall with 550 points. Krogh is second overall having amassed 412 points after La Clusaz’s distance day.
According to Sundby’s comments during the press conference, Krogh was a favorite coming into the race.
“I knew that Finn would be one of the toughest opponents,” Sundby said. “He looked very strong yesterday and he was strong in the race today. I knew I had to have more than 2 seconds on the last uphill, I did not have it.”
For Legkov, who, according to a FasterSkier article published Dec. 13th, is implicated as a doped athlete according to the McLaren report, it was his first non-relay podium since a March 2014 skiathlon in Falun Sweden. Legkov won the Sochi Olympics 50 k freestyle, the race he is suspected of doping in. He also finished both the 2013 and 2014 seasons ranked se,cond overall on the World Cup. In 2013, Legkov had five podiums. In 2014, he had six.
It’s been a dramatic fall off. Last week in Davos, Switzerland after the men’s 30 k freestyle, Legkov is reported to have walked by the scrum of journalists in the mixed zone asking questions about the second McLaren report released the day before.
“It is great I am back on the podium after 2 years,” Legkov is quoted by FIS as saying in the post-race press conference. “I felt very good today. I had to be very careful to stay away from a crash.”
Harvey Places 7th Despite Crash; Bjornsen Scores 1st WC Skate Distance Points
Five and a half kilometers into the race, Harvey took a spill. “I just came into the corner I was kind of riding the berm,“ Harvey said on the phone. “I don’t know. I broke through the berm and was kind of heading towards the grass outside the course and then tried to skate a little bit to scrub some speed and get back on the line. But I just fell on my ass just like that. It is one-hundred percent on me.”
Before the crash, Harvey remained with the lead group in eighth place, 4.7 seconds off the front. Post-crash, he plummeted to 23rd. The next lap, the race’s fourth, Harvey commented he could only maintain his spot, his body flooded by the crash induced adrenaline rush.
“My body was filled up with lactic acid from the stress of falling,” Harvey said of his crash. “So then I kind of stayed in my position there for the whole lap because I could not do anything. I kind of got into a rhythm in the fifth lap. So I could start moving up through the group bit.”
Harvey began to move up. Seventeenth, then 14th, and 12th by 14 k. His final push in the closing kilometer was enough for a remarkable seventh-place finish (+26.0). Harvey is now ninth overall in the World Cup with 235 points.
If it’s up to the mustachioed Quebecois, the whiskery lucky charm will be Harvey’s Tour de Ski look. “If it is only me it is going to stay,” Harvey said. “But we will see if I have to shave it or not.”
Harvey’s girlfriend arrives shortly in Davos, Switzerland, where he will remain through the World Cup holiday break until the Tour de Ski begins on Dec. 31. She’ll decide the mustache’s fate. “It is going to be her call, but it has been going pretty well for me with the mustache. I think I am going to fight to keep it, but we will see. Sometimes you got to pick your battles.”
Harvey’s teammate Devon Kershaw had the type of battle he’d rather forget.
“All is ok here – but today wasn’t my day,” Kershaw wrote in an email. “This morning I felt a bit weird, but I was hoping that it was just nerves or something. I warmed up and my head felt foggy and energy wasn’t good – but again, I tried to just focus on the race at hand and go for it.”
Kershaw started in bib 29. By 2 k he had dropped to 34th. By 6 k he was 41st (+29.2). He moved back from there, finally pulling from the race.
“Right off the start I knew that something was wrong,” Kershaw wrote about his sensations early on. “I had no power in the body, but I tried to fake my way around the course for some laps – but after 5th lap skiing in like 40th or so I knew I had to abandon. It’s only the 3rd time in my career I’ve pulled the plug – but I think it was the best decision. I am feeling worse now, so it seems that like the whole US team, and my roommate here in La Clusaz (Lenny), I’ve come down with the same head cold… I hate being sick – like everyone – but now all there is to do is recover, chill and hopefully it won’t be a long lasting one.”
Kershaw mentioned that with Graeme Killick, Len Valjas, and now himself sick, Canada is left with only three available starters for Sunday’s scheduled relay. As a result, Canada will not field a men’s relay team.
Canadians Knute Johnsgaard placed 63rd, Andy Shields 70th, and Len Valjas did not start as he is fighting a cold.
Erik Bjornsen. (Keeping up with the latest iOS, italics indicate ‘said with loud effect’.)
World Cup points in classic sprint and classic distance. Ditto in the skiathlon and skate sprint. Saturday in La Clusaz, the U.S. Ski Team’s Bjornsen scored his first ever World Cup skate distance points.
A small looping course. A narrow trail. 77 skiers in a mass start skate. Bjornsen wore bib 48 in La Clusaz. “It was obvious it was going to be a really hectic race out there,” Bjornsen said on the phone. “I started bib 48 so it wasn’t necessarily a great start position and I knew that I was going to have to fight to get into a position I was happy with.”
Coming off a cold, Bjornsen had dialed back the intensity in training. “I just went out and was trying to ski pretty smoothly,” Bjornsen said about his race strategy. “I felt like the energy was good … I was trying to be careful and conservative and not push it too hard.”
In describing his race, Bjornsen used terms like patient — an attribute often associated with veterans which Bjornsen is becoming. During the race he positioned himself on the insides of corners to move up a few spots. It was a crowded field where wisely timed leap frogging — passing one place at a time — could pay off.
“I think just being comfortable skiing around people and having good instincts is important out there,” Bjornsen acknowledged. “You see guys like that having good races. For me I was just trying to make moves in places that counted — at the base of hills and going over the top. I had some awesome skis and so that helped to knock off a few positions on the downhills.”
He took advantage. At 4 k Bjornsen had moved into 28th; a twenty place improvement in less than a third of the race.
Bjornsen was able to keep clean and stay on his feet. “The course was littered with broken poles, lots of crashes I mean it was a super high speed tactical course and [Bjornsen] just stayed out of trouble and kept picking people off,” U.S. Head Coach Chris Grover said on the phone.
“Really cool he’s obviously very excited about the result and it feels great.
“He just paced it perfectly,” Grover added.
Bjornsen is a presence — pure cross-country brawn. And in La Clusaz’s tight quarters Bjornsen felt it was a benefit.
“I am definitely one of the bigger guys on the World Cup,” Bjornsen said. “I feel like I am able to hold my position maybe a little better than some of the smaller guys. I think people just can feel, sense maybe a bigger guy being around them and not wanting to get in their way. I don’t know. I actually really like mass starts and racing in close contact with people. I love these small lap races and mass starts are for sure my favorite.”
Bjornsen’s girlfriend is French. He noted that he spends a considerable part of the year there calling it a “second home”. He mentioned being energized by the crowd.
That energy and his emerging status as an all-arounder has Bjornsen primed for the end of the month’s seven-stage Tour de Ski. Known as a strong classic skier, the Tour features two pure classic distance races and a 20 k skiathlon among the six distance events — stage one is the only sprint stage. After La Clusaz, ruling Bjornsen out of skate distance races could be a mistake.
“I think I have more to come,” Bjornsen said.
Noah Hoffman was the next best placed U.S. skier, finishing 49th (+2:14.6). “Noah started really well,” Grover said. “He was able to move up also into kind of like the low 20s but he faded. You could tell he still had some lingering effects from the cold that he’s had this week so afterwards he was feeling OK, but not quite 100 percent.”
That cold was audible when speaking to Hoffman after the race. “I am not that disappointed with today, honestly,” Hoffman said on the phone. “The assessment is that I shouldn’t have raced. I got sick this week with most of the team, and really wanted to race. I felt like my energy was really good and that could and so I went for it.”
The initial k’s went as planned. Hoffman moved through the mass start mayhem. “And I was running top twenty for the first two laps and was really psyched with the way things started and I had every opportunity. I think I had some of the best skis in the race,” Hoffman explained. “And it just got really hard and really painful and I was just going backwards. It was all my body, there was nothing else happening there.”
Hoffman will remain in Europe and rest up before the Tour de Ski. “I’ll rest as along as I need to until I am totally healthy and then I’ll do as much training as I have time for before the Tour,” Hoffman said of his upcoming plans. “I feel like I have a massive back log of training. I don’t think training is the limiting factor so far this season. I am not concerned about some extra rest.”
Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier Eric Packer was the only other U.S. starter. Packer finished 66th (+4:12.5).
“Today was a tough race for me,” Packer emailed. “After staying healthy from the team illness all week, I think it finally got me. I had a decent start, and some great rides, but didn’t have the gas in the tank to go. After two laps, I was skiing with Alexey Chervotkin (RUS) and Sami Jauhojaervi (FIN), and both were moving up through the field, but I did not have the fitness to hang on with them.”
Packer will return to Alaska after the weekend to rest and prepare for U.S. nationals at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. He’s been in Europe for Period 1 of the World Cup. “Being over here for period 1 has been an incredible experience,” Packer explained. “I feel like I’ve learned so much that I can apply to my training and racing. I’ve seen other skiers do things in training where I was like “wow, I can’t do that. And if I could do that, I would be a better skier. I’m looking forward to implementing those things in training and coming back to the World Cup ready to contend!”
The U.S. team is depleted due to illness and will not compete in Sunday’s men’s relay.
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.