It was a dramatic day at World Championships in Seefeld, Austria on Thursday. Norway’s Johannes Hoesflot Klæbo can now call himself a World Champion after a tactical and hard-fought victory in the 2019 World Championship 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint. Federico Pellegrino of Italy won silver finishing 0.23 seconds behind Klæbo. Russian skier Gleb Retivykh placed third, 1.37 seconds back.
Klæbo qualified fifth, then proceeded to win his quarterfinal and advance to the finals after placing second in his semifinal. This is where the day’s big drama played out.
The semi was stacked: featuring Klæbo, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, and skate sprint crusher Federico Pellegrino of Italy. Atop the course’s first major climb at 1:38 minutes, the six skiers, led by Ustiugov came to a near standstill. The with a burst of V2, the Russian made his move, peeking under his legs to determine the damage as he descended. Any lead Ustiugov gained had dissipated by the free-skating straight nearly 30 seconds later.
Coming into the tight right-hander that would swing skiers into the final climb, Klæbo slotted to the inside, his ski tail centimeters away from Ustiugov’s ski tip. The Russian stumbled slightly, as Klæbo kept his balance and V2 momentum — Ustiugov appeared to push off Klæbo’s back during the Norwegian’s move.
Atop the final hill, Pellegrino sped down first with Klæbo in third and Ustiugov chasing. Pellegrino closed out the semifinal win as Klæbo placed second after an after-burner effort. As the skiers collected themselves after crossing the line, a visibly upset Ustiugov engaged Klæbo with several shoves in the finish pen. Ustiugov received a yellow card for pushing Klæbo during the race as well as a second yellow card for his unsportsmanlike conduct after the race. According to FIS and ICR 352.23, two yellow cards in one race results in a disqualification which is reflected in today’s results.
Klæbo described this event to the FIS reporter, “It was really strange, at the top [of the first hill] everyone was stopping and no one wanted to go first so we were just standing there and after some seconds, one person was going down and everyone was following him.”
In the day’s sprint final, the podium places came down to the finishing stretch. Pellegrino’s raw speed was overcome by Klæbo just meters before the line. It was Klæbo’s first time competing at World Championships where he now compliments his three Olympic golds with a FIS championship medal.
Pellegrino won last weekend’s World Cup in Cogne, Italy. As he remains on form, his second place today is his fourth World Championship medal. Pellegrino won both his quarterfinal and his semifinal. He won his quarterfinal easily, waiting until the last uphill to take the lead. As he gained distance on the final downhill he skied unchallenged across the finish line. He spent a good deal of his semifinal in the back of the pack, but he was able to maneuver his way towards the front right before the finish, and once again place first.
For Retivykh, it was his first World Championship medal and his second individual sprint podium of the season.
Simi Hamilton was the best placed American in ninth overall. He qualified 11th and was fourth in his fast-paced quarterfinal. Hamilton snagged the second lucky loser position and moved onto the semis. He raced in the first dramatic semifinal with Klæbo and Pellegrino.
Atop the first hill in his semi, Hamilton tangled with Pellegrino. Both skiers stayed on their feet, but Hamilton was unable to gain back his lost time as he placed sixth.
“The quarter-finals were really tough, it was a fast heat,” Hamilton told FasterSkier in a call. “Viktor Thorn, I think because he had a really good qualifier, wanted to push the pace the whole time, so that made it really hard. But it also ensured that both lucky losers came from that heat. So I was really psyched about that. A top-10 at World Champs is a result you can be proud of. Obviously, I would have like to be in that final today, I think I’m still that caliber of skier but, it’s pretty cool being top-10, so I’m happy with today.”
U.S. skier, Logan Hanneman (APU) qualified 20th today and finished sixth in his quarterfinal for 26th overall. It was Hanneman’s first World Championship start. At last weekend’s World Cup skate sprint, in Cogne, Italy Hanneman qualified 15th and placed 27th overall.
“The racing today was tough for sure,” Hanneman emailed. “I am sure that you have seen the course, but the guys course is very front-half heavy, with a large hill right out of the start. Last year when I raced the World Cup here, I found that I lost most of my time to the leaders from the start to the base of the large hill, so today in the qualifier my goal was to get to the hill as fast as possible, and then get up it. The rest of the course, I was just hanging out for dear life. I was so flooded!”
Hanneman comes to this championship admittedly new to World Cup sprint heats.
“It was only my second heat ever at the level, and the learning curve is steep,” he continued. “Obviously if I was faster and fitter, it wouldn’t be too much of an issue, but opportunities to pass are rare and come very quickly here, and I need to just be more confident in my abilities to take those windows.”
USST member, Kevin Bolger qualified 23rd today. He was in the first quarterfinal with Klæbo and Ustiugov where he placed fourth. Bolger finished 18th overall for his best result of the season.
“Great job by Logan and by Kevin in their first World Championship sprint heats,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach told FasterSkier in a call. “Neither of those guys really have a lot experience yet skiing heats, they are at the place where they aren’t qualifying in the top part of the field yet either so it kind of makes sense that they are going to end up 5th or 6th in their heat until they can take another step forward in their qualification and also just build their experience and learn how to really ski in the heats with these guys.”
Bolger told FasterSkier about his quarterfinal via email, “I picked Heat One because it looked like a A.) it would be a fast heat and B.) it looked like a competitive heat where the guys were going to ski and not play any games. Unfortunately, my time wasn’t fast enough to move on. Ustiugov made a move going up the first hill and I was wasn’t quite able to respond and get in the tail of it! But of course, I’m happy to have skied competitively with my heat!”
U.S. skier Andy Newell was 41st in the qualifiers today. According to Grover, Newell is suffering from a back strain.
“Newell has been struggling with a light strain to his back for a little bit here,” Grover said. “So I think if he had been healthy, he’s easily qualifying material. Then you go into a world championship field with only four starters from each nation, he would have easily made that. So bummed for Andy that he wasn’t 100% healthy and ready to really unleash it today, it would have been awesome to have four guys in there.”
For Canada, Alex Harvey, who announced he will retire from the World Cup after the finals in Quebec this March, placed 16th overall.
“It was a good start today and the body felt really good,” said Harvey in a Cross Country Canada press release. “I just wanted to come in today and get some good feelings heading into the rest of the championships. I did that so I’m happy.”
– David Brown contributed