The men’s freestyle sprint final in Lahti, Finland, started in almost comical fashion: the six men who had made it to the final heat of the day skied slowly, then even slower, as nobody wanted to lead.
The final was full of dangerous men. Norwegian youngster Johannes Høsflot Klæbo has won five sprints this season, and he just became an Olympic gold medalist in the sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea, a mere ten days ago. In his quarterfinal and semifinal heats, he had put in big turns of speed which had dropped most of the field.
They hadn’t dropped Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, though, and the 2017 World Champion was the only man competing in Lahti who had beaten Klæbo in a sprint this season.
Then there was France’s Lucas Chanavat, who put in a huge burst of speed up a hill in his own quarterfinal, perhaps mimicking the move that Klæbo usually makes to test it out or prove a point.
They were all lurking there in the final, along with Russia’s Gleb Retivykh, Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola – consistently one of the fastest qualifiers on the World Cup – and Norway’s Sindre Bjørnestad Skar.
Klæbo finally got up to some sort of speed on a gradual downhill, stringing out the field after a full 90 seconds of being clumped together and moving at walking pace. But he still wasn’t going full bore. On one of the final opportunities, it was Skar who went to the front and sprinted up a hill, finally turning the speed dial to “full”.
Coming down the final hill into the stadium, it was Skar, Klæbo, and Pellegrino, who overtook the leader going into the last turn. In the finishing stretch, the two Norwegians seemed to just fade away; Pellegrino sprinted for the line and a big win of 0.77 seconds.
“I think that when I returned after the Olympics, back home I had a very good time, really good weather in the Alps,” Pellegrino – the silver medalist in the PyeongChang sprint – said in a post-race interview with FIS. “And it was very good to recover and train a lot, so that I could come here in the best shape. I’m really proud of this.”
Also surging past the Norwegian duo was Retivykh, who had accelerated into and through the final corners and pulled away in finishing lane.
“I have been waiting quite long for the World Cup podium,” said Retivykh, according to FIS. “Last time I was top three was in PyeongChang last year. So it feels great to be back. I am not surprised to be second because I knew I could do it. It feels great… I am sharing the podium with two great athletes.”
Klæbo hung on for third, +0.90 seconds, and Skar was fourth, +1.30. He edged Hakola (+1.44) while Chanavat was left in sixth (+7.55).
Coming into the final as the giant everyone feared, Klæbo’s tactics had not paid off.
“I’m glad this was not the Olympics,” Klæbo told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, according to a translation. “Pellegrino was too strong. I had nothing to answer with. Then you have to be thankful for third place. And I’m still smiling pretty wide.”
Pellegrino, meanwhile, played his cards exactly right. He also beat Klæbo here one year ago to win World Championships gold, and he channeled that experience.
“I lost too many races in the past when I was leading almost the whole race,” he told FIS. “I think that on this track I know how to do it.”
And with the win, Pellegrino became the most decorated skate sprinter in men’s World Cup history. It was his tenth skate sprint victory, a new record.
With third place, however, Klæbo has sealed this year’s overall Sprint Cup trophy even though there are still two sprints to come in Drammen, Norway, and Falun, Sweden.
“That is a bright spot, then,” he told NRK. “It helps a little, but there was no snap today. The [qualifier] was good, but otherwise it was a bit dead.”
Bolger 11th in World Cup Debut, Bjornsen 20th
You didn’t have to scroll very far down the qualifier results sheet to find the name of a World Cup debutant. In 16th place was Kevin Bolger of the Sun Valley XC Gold Team. The SuperTour leader made the most of his opportunity, and NRK broadcasters referred to him as “the surprising man – Kevin Bolger.”
“Honestly, I didn’t necessarily expect him to qualify in a Scandinavian World Cup, in his first go at it,” Bolger’s coach Chris Mallory wrote in an email. “He generally builds into sprint days as they progress, as he’s a bit of an all-arounder. But he really stepped up to the plate today.”
In his quarterfinal, Bolger was last out of the start gates and sat in sixth place for much of the race. But near the end of the heat he moved into fifth and then coming into the finish turned on the afterburners to move up to fourth.
The last of the quarterfinals, it also turned out to be the fastest one, and both Bolger and third-place Karl-Johan Westberg of Sweden moved on to the semifinals as lucky losers behind Retivykh, the heat’s winner, and second-place Franceso De Fabiani of Italy.
“He’s a big glider, and can carry his speed really well, but he’s focused a lot on improving his speed this year,” Mallory wrote of that finishing sprint.
In the semifinal, Bolger couldn’t quite pull the same move. He was again in sixth out of the gate, but Pellegrino broke a pole, dropping to last. The two traded off places as Pellegrino then caught back up, and then replaced his pole again. Then Bolger passed Emil Iversen, but the Norwegian passed him back by the finish and Bolger ended up sixth in the semifinal and 11th on the day.
Bolger graduated from the University of Utah last year and it is his first season as a full-time senior racer with the Gold Team, although Mallory said that Bolger had trained with Sun Valley for two years as a high school postgraduate before heading to college.
Before heading to Europe for the World Cup, Bolger had won a SuperTour sprint in Ishpeming, Michigan, and placed second and sixth in 20 k and 10 k races there. Earlier in the season, he was second in the skate sprint and fifth in the classic sprint at U.S. National Championships.
“My goal was for him to get some World Cup starts and a top 30 this season, so those opportunities would keep coming,” Mallory explained. “I watched FIS live timing all night, normally not so exciting, but last night it was!”
Erik Bjornsen of the U.S. Ski Team and APU qualified in 29th place and in his quarterfinal, had a poor start position as a result of his bib and was immediately shunted to the back of the heat.
“Up the first climb I tried to make a couple moves, but I was just kind of boxed in,” he explained.
He was in the first quarterfinal, along with Klæbo, Pellegrino, and Renaud Jay of France. By late in the heat Bjornsen was able to move up to fifth when Poland’s Maciej Starega, who had led early, began to fade. Then in the final downhill he moved into fourth and held that position through the finish.
But he hadn’t been able to get to the front early in the heat, and by the finish, the two eventual podium finishers were jetting off at hyperspeed. Though he wasn’t able to catch onto their tails, Bjornsen said that he was feeling better than he had at the Olympics, where his results had been disappointing.
“I definitely kind of struggled,” he admitted of the 2018 Olympic experience. “It was some of my worst distance racing of the year, so it was obviously very frustrating.”
After today’s sprint, however, there might be light at the end of the tunnel.
“I felt like I had good energy left,” Bjornsen said of his heat. “I tried making moves on both sides… the fitness is feeling a lot better than it was a couple of weeks ago. And so, I mean, the peaking plan for the Olympics didn’t work as planned. But it’s been a relatively good season for me, pretty consistent. I had a lot of top 30 finishes… I’m just trying to move past [the Olympics] and have a solid period four on the World Cup.”
He now looks to the 15 k classic on Sunday, which he called “one of my favorite races.”
And on getting upstaged by Bolger, Bjornsen seemed the opposite of upset.
“I was just really psyched to see that,” he said. “The kid has put in a lot of work the last few years and – I mean, I was very surprised. It was great to see. I like to see those younger dudes coming here and having successful results. It’s really impressive. You know, it’s his first World Cup and he just looked comfortable and good out there. It’s just the perfect transition to the World Cup. Keep it up!”
“It was so awesome to have two World Cup first timers, Kelsey [Phinney] and Kevin, have such impressive results,” agreed teammate Sophie Caldwell. “Kevin had the race of the day and it was so inspiring for our entire team, staff, and hopefully all the skiers back home to see that success in a young, up and coming racer who just sent it today. We were going crazy!”
The rest of the North American field did not make it into the quarterfinals. In the qualifier, Logan Hanneman (APU) placed 49th (+11.45). Paddy Caldwell (U.S. Ski Team/SMS T2) finished 59th (+13.55), and APU’s Reese Hanneman and David Norris placed 61st (+14.33) and 67th (+19.27).
Julien Locke led Canada in 42nd place (+9.78), and Andy Shields finished 60th (+14.29).
— Harald Zimmer contributed
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.