It didn’t seem likely until the last second – but last season’s star sprinter has once again arrived on the World Cup circuit.
Italy’s Federico Pellegrino collected his ninth individual win on Saturday in Falun, Sweden, nipping Norway’s Emil Iversen by six-hundredths of a second in a photo finish in the freestyle sprint. The winner of last year’s Sprint World Cup, Pellegrino didn’t make his first sprint final of the season until after Christmas.
However, since then, he has been second (in Val Müstair, Switzerland), fourth (in Toblach, Italy), and now, finally, first.
“This season is not so easy right now for me,” he told the International Ski Federation (FIS) in a finish-line interview. “Now I think [the way it is going] is the right way, going toward the World Championships.”
Pellegrino had the second-fastest qualifying time around the 1.4-kilometer course in the morning. Then, he won his quarterfinal with a blazing display of speed at the finish to best Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh. In the semifinal, Pellegrino pulled a similar move to win the heat by 0.21 seconds over Sweden’s Teodor Peterson.
In the final, coming into the last few hundred meters it looked like Pellegrino was too far off the pace to make it to the front. The rest of the men – all Swedes and Norwegians – jostled for the lead constantly. As the field shot down a long hill into the stadium, though, Pellegrino made his way to the front; he said he had amazing skis. He followed Iversen over the last bump of an uphill and down a corner to the finish. The pair’s paced outstripped anything the others could keep up with.
“In the final I showed up still fresh, but with a long downhill before the finish I couldn’t pull, and when you’re behind you risk losing [moves],” he told the Italian Winter Sports Federation, according to a translation. “In fact, I found myself in fifth place and I thought I would not make it. But on the last hill before the finish I took a wide path and I went for it, giving everything I had in the body. Then I made it a photo finish.”
Iversen had thought he had the win in the bag. He seemed incredulous that Pellegrino could catch up with him in the final meters – and the Italian timed his finishing lunge better, eventually edging Iversen by just six hundredths of a second.
Iversen slapped his poles in the snow in frustration after finishing, breaking one, and lay unsmiling while the two waited for the results of the photo finish. He remained restrained during the post-race photo opportunities.
“I thought I had the win today,” Iversen told FIS. “I didn’t know who was coming but I could feel the shadow. I was very disappointed in the finish but in the end I have to be happy with second place.”
“I’ve been pretty mad at my little brothers, but I don’t think I’ve been this angry in years,” Iversen elaborated to NRK.
Another photo finish gave Sindre Bjørnestad Skar of Norway third place (+0.47), by three hundredths of a second over Falun’s own Oskar Svensson. Johannes Høsflot Klæbo – the fastest qualifier on the day – finished fifth (+1.32), and Peterson placed sixth (+2.08).
“It’s really tough to make it on World Cup as a Norwegian and so every time I can make a podium result it is important,” Skar told FIS, referring to simply earning start rights.
Indeed: Pål Golberg, who before this weekend led the Sprint Cup, did not even get the chance to start Saturday’s race. The Norwegian team deemed him too slow. Other skiers also found this amazing. Alex Harvey told Norwegian media that the Canadian team would be happy to take Golberg and give him a starting spot.
“They seem sure, like me, that it’s comical,” Golberg told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I’ve certainly gotten lots of messages from people who think it’s strange, so I’m glad that other people share that view.”
He now worries that he might not have a chance to start the sprint at World Championships. Five of the top seven men in the Sprint Cup standings are Norwegian: Skar in second, Iversen in fourth, Krogh in fifth, Golberg in sixth, and Klæbo in seventh.
There’s no such problem for Italy, a team which is thrilled that its star is back in top form. Pellegrino now has the most podiums in skate sprints of any Italian man ever, with 13.
World Championships is the only thing on his mind.
“At this time the [Sprint Cup] ranking does not interest me,” he said in the federation press release. “I’ll skip the next stage in Korea, and then will race in Otepaa [Estonia, the last World Cup before World Championships.”
Valjas 10th After Blistering Quarterfinal Finish
Only two Canadians started the sprint. Alex Harvey missed qualifying in 46th, but teammate Len Valjas not only made the quarterfinals, but shone there.
Valjas was skiing near the back of his heat, only to find his way to the front at the last possible moment, much like Pellegrino. While Klæbo had seemed to have the quarterfinal locked up with only a possible challenge from Andrew Young of Great Britain remaining in the finishing stretch, Young and Valjas came down the last downhill with more momentum and some speed in their legs. Eventually all three crossed the line together in a photo finish, from which Valjas emerged second.
— Andrew Young (@andrew_youngy) January 28, 2017
In his semifinal heat, Valjas also hung near the back of the pack. But the whole heat finished within about a second, and he wasn’t able to fight his way through the crowd. Valjas landed fifth, this time 0.99 seconds behind heat winner Klæbo.
“I definitely felt like I had a little more,” Valjas said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “I was able to close in the finish, but I just lost a little too much contact with the pack. I had the speed at the finish and felt great. I was really comfortable staying at the back. I thought I could bring it back on the second hill, but I just stayed a little too far back. I needed to work on my tactics a bit better.”
He finished 10th overall, his best individual result in a year since he finished 10th in a classic sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany, as part of last year’s Tour de Ski.
“I had great skis and I know the fitness is there,” Valjas said in the press release. “Being in the fifth heat in the quarters, I likely could have used about five more minutes of rest time before the next heat, but I can’t complain and have to be happy with a top 10.”
Hamilton, Newell in the Quarters
For the U.S., Simi Hamilton qualified 13th and Andy Newell 25th. Both were at the front of their quarterfinal heats at some point, before fading at the finish.
For Hamilton, things more or less immediately deviated from plan.
“I actually lost my basket on my right pole coming out of the start,” Hamilton said. “The pole holes were pretty gnarly at the start since people are double poling so hard, and I think my basket got stuck in on of the previous pole plant holes… [the snow] was actually firm enough that I could still pole pretty well, but I knew that the rest of the course got a little bit softer. So Andrew Morehouse, who is one of our techs, made a great hand-off and I got a new pole at the first corner. That’s probably only 20-25 seconds in the race at the point, but I was definitely off that back a little bit.”
Hamilton did manage to catch back up to the group. And then on the last uphill before the descent to the stadium, the skiers in the left lane got a bit jammed up. Being in the right lane, Hamilton was able to ski freely – but then found himself leading the heat, exactly what he didn’t want to do.
As Pellegrino had said, leading down the hill into the stadium means that most likely, the competition would sail past you thanks to the draft effect.
“You know, a lot of the race was going to come down to that final little bump that is in the stadium,” Hamilton said. “So I knew if I came into that with some really good momentum and hopefully get a slingshot off of someone in front of me, that I would be able to crush that bump and make a move into the finish lanes and then have a open lane for the finish… that was what I was really hoping for, it didn’t totally play out like that.”
Instead, a few competitors slingshot past Hamilton.
“I kind of found myself tangling with a lot of dudes going over that bump and through that corner,” he explained. “I just didn’t really ski the last 200 meters the way I would have really liked to, with a lot of energy power and speed. So found myself fighting in the pack going into the finishing stretch. I just focused on just skiing a good finish, and unfortunately wasn’t quite enough.”
He landed fourth in his heat (+0.87), and not close enough to get a lucky loser spot. He finished 18th on the day.
“It’s a frustrating day, but I felt good in my qualifier, and it’s hard course and I know my fitness is really good right now,” Hamilton said. “It was just kind of one of those days that happens out there, not a lot of things really connecting in terms of luck and positioning and equipment. But still a decent day so I am okay with it.”
Newell also found himself outgunned in the final meters, finishing third in his heat and 16th on the day.
Also for the U.S., Erik Bjornsen finished 43rd (+9.30) and Matt Gelso 59th (+13.12) in the qualifier.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.