If there’s anyone on the hunt to dethrone Finland’s Iivo Niskanen of the 15-kilometer classic kingship–Niskanen was the gold medalist in the 2017 Lahti World Championships 15 k classic and is certainly looking to repeat the feat at this year’s World Championships 15 k classic in Seefeld, Austria–it’s Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov.
On Sunday in Cogne, Italy, the 22 year old Bolshunov raced to a decisive win over Niskanen, besting the Finn by 43.7 seconds with his time of 34:48.4. Sunday’s result comes exactly eleven months after Bolshunov’s first-career World Cup win, which he achieved in last season’s 15 k classic at World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden.
Between his victory in Falun and Cogne, Bolshunov has reigned at the top of the podium two other times–taking back-to-back victories in the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) opening races in Ruka, one of which happened to be a 15 k classic.
With the 2019 World Champs slated to start next Wednesday, Feb. 20 and the men’s 15 k classic scheduled for Feb. 27, Bolshunov could be on his way to his first World Championships gold. On paper, one skier definitively stands in his way. And if anyone can hold off a Russian attack, it’d be a Finn.
Niskanen has been a force in the 15 k classic for the past five years; seven of his nine World Cup podiums are in the 15 k classic event and all of his wins on the World Cup have come in the discipline. Along with his World Champs gold medal, the 27 year old has two World Cup wins from Kuusamo, one in 2014 and one in 2016 and four weeks ago, he also claimed the men’s 15 k victory in Otepää, Estonia.
The Finn and the Russian were in close quarters for the first half of Sunday’s interval start, with Niskanen trailing Bolshunov by 6.5 seconds at the 3 k mark, then 9.8 seconds by the 7 k mark.
In another 3 k, the Finn, who had started 12 bibs behind the Russian in bib 53, was down on Bolshunov by 24.9 seconds. Bolshunov’s pace for the remaining 5 k proved too fast for Niskanen and the Russian put another 18.8 seconds into the Finn by the end of the race.
“With every minute the snow got softer and softer and one really needed some good ski’s today,” Bolshunov said according to a FIS press release.
Following Bolshunov and Niskanen, Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh took third, finishing 55.9 seconds behind the race winner.
Canadian Alex Harvey was the top North American male finisher on Sunday, placing 10th, 1:40.7 seconds behind Bolshunov. Harvey started in bib 65, four bibs ahead of Sunday’s final starter, Didrik Tønseth of Norway.
With Bolshunov still in the leader’s chair by the time he got on course, Harvey pressed to the front and he also pushed others back. At the 2 k mark, he was ranked ninth and 14.6 seconds down on Bolshunov, with that gap widening to 44.2 seconds at the halfway point. An early charge from Tønseth put the Norwegian ahead of the Canadian by 0.2 seconds at the 2 k and later 7.6 seconds at 7 k, but by the finish, Harvey had the Norwegian beat by 16 seconds.
The result is Harvey’s fourth Top 10 this season. At the age of 30, he is about to enter his sixth World Championships, and is one of Canada’s strongest hopefuls for hardware in Seefeld.
The next North American to finish on Sunday was the U.S. Ski Team’s, Erik Bjornsen in 16th (+1:54.8). The result is Bjornsen’s best individual finish this season and in the 27 year old’s eyes, came just at the right time.
“Today’s race went well. It’s exactly the boost of confidence I needed heading into Seefeld,” Bjornsen wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
While some U.S. athletes spent last weekend at a training camp in Davos, Switzerland, Bjornsen raced the World Cup individual sprint and team sprint competitions that took place in Lahti. The transition from low altitude to racing in the Italian Alps “made yesterday’s sprint really difficult,” Bjornsen explained. Sunday’s distance course, he added, “suited me better.”
“I didn’t feel extremely good or anything, but I think I was able to pace it well and use my double pole power on all the gradual climbs,” Bjornsen said. “I did much more strength training this summer and I’m still trying to get some of my endurance back. We had a great camp in Sweden a couple weeks ago and I put in a lot of volume. Hopefully that’ll pay off now.”
American Kyle Bratrud scored his first World Cup points on Sunday, finishing in 26th (+2:21.1) just 1.2 seconds behind Switzerland’s Dario Cologna in 25th (+2:19.9).
Prior to Sunday, Bratrud had competed in one other World Cup race, the Östersund 15 k back in 2015 where he finished 84th. He qualified for his first World Championships that same year and has qualified for every World Champs since then. In Lahti two years ago, he finished 33rd in the 15 k classic, 20.7 seconds outside the Top 30.
“I wish I could say I have some formula for making World Championship teams every other year but in truth I just seem to be healthy every other year,” Bratrud wrote in an email to FasterSkier on Sunday. “This year I also joined Stratton and have made great strides with this extremely professional program.”
Though initially unsure if he would race in Cogne on Sunday, Bratrud’s decision to do so turned out to be the right call.
“Today was awesome. I wasn’t sure I would even race since I was in bed with a cold two days ago but I felt good yesterday and woke up this morning feeling fine so I decided to send it,” Bratrud wrote.
“It was an interesting race course in the sense that it wasn’t very hilly but there was a lot of work and we are at altitude,” he added. “There were stretches were I was hoping for more hills and stretches where I was thankful to have recovery but all in all I’m very happy with the result leading into Seefeld.”
Earlier this season, Bratrud garnered his third U.S. National title at U.S. Cross Country Championships in Craftsbury Vt. and is currently the Continental Cup leader. Thanks to that, most of his trip to Austria for World Champs is covered by FIS.
“I got to Davos on February 5th and spent some time at altitude training and acclimating before Cogne which really helped,” he wrote “I’m looking forward to head a bit lower for Seefeld!”
Also competing for the U.S., was American David Norris in 33rd (+2:52.2). Norris finished 9.3 seconds outside of Sunday’s Top 30 and is also on the 2019 World Championships Team bound for Seefeld next week.
Two more U.S. skiers competed on Sunday, with Scott Patterson finishing in 43rd (+3:36.8) and Adam Martin in 50th (+3:56.3). Canadians Evan Palmer-Charrette and Scott James Hill placed 56th (+4:17.0) and 58th (+4:20.6), respectively.
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.