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Sunny skies and cold snow greeted the skiers for the start of the men’s 15 k individual freestyle on Friday, kicking off an extended weekend of racing in Falun, Sweden. With temperatures below 10°F (-14.1°C to be exact) the athletes were well bundled as they headed out of the start gate, one by one. Joni Mäki of Finland, perhaps better known now after his relay performance and ensuing run-in with Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov in Lahti last weekend, was the first starter in a field of 84.
Initially, it seemed as though it would be another runaway performance from Bolshunov. With the exception of the first split at 1.8 k (taken by Sergey Ustiugov of Russia), Bolshunov led with an ever-growing margin over the course of 15 kilometers. When he finished, wearing bib 41, he led by over a minute (-1:14.5), ahead of the young Norwegian, Harald Amundsen. Among those first 41 finishers was Johannes Høsflot Klæbo of Norway, who returned to the World Cup circuit a week later than his fellow countrymen. Today marked his first World Cup race since the season opener in Ruka, Finland, in November 2020.
In a pre-race interview Klæbo said, “It’s great to be back and something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time now and to be back here in Falun, finally able to compete again, it’s something that I think will be really good… I think it will be really interesting, I’m going to do my best and go as fast as I can but there are a lot of strong guys here so it will be interesting.”
When asked whether he had been following the races in his absence, Klæbo replied, “Yeah for sure I’ve been following it, every weekend. I love skiing so for sure I’ve been following and the guys look really strong so it’s sad to be at home and not to be able to compete. The guys look really strong so we’ll see how it goes for me.”
Klæbo began in bib number 39 and just before 12.8 k was caught by Bolshunov, who started two places behind. At the conclusion of the day, Klæbo placed seventh, +1:01.3 back from Bolshunov.
However, Bolshunov was not completely unchallenged. Further back in the field was a string of Norwegian starters who, spearheaded by Simen Hegstad Krüger, mounted an attack. At 6.8 k, Krüger was 6.5 seconds behind Bolshunov, and Sjur Røthe nine seconds behind the Russian. Jump forward to 11.3 k and Bolshunov had stretched the lead to +10.5 over Krüger while Røthe was down +23.9, having been overtaken by his teammate Hans Christer Holund.
At 14.1 k, however, Bolshunov’s lead began a precipitous decline, as Krüger raced through +0.7 seconds behind. Despite his best efforts, however, the victory remained elusive for Krüger as Bolshunov came away with the win, yet again, in a time of 32:33.3. Røthe closed hard and regained time from Holund, sneaking into third place (+23.9).
After the race Bolshunov spoke through a translator, saying, “This is my third victory in a row in Falun for a skating race, so this place is lucky. Big thanks to the technicians and my team, I had really good skis today.”
With such a dominant season thus far, Bolshunov is well on his way to taking the Overall Crystal Globe at the end of the season – he currently leads the standings with 1491 points, more than double that of the runner-up, Ivan Yakimushkin of Russia (720 points). When asked about this, Bolshunov responded, “[today’s victory] is really important because I have quite a secure lead in the overall, so I can add to it and that makes me relaxed and confident and I can focus on getting ready for World Champs.”
The day’s most notable results came in the form of two Americans in the top 20. Scott Patterson, who started bib 2, paced well throughout the race and held the leader’s chair through the first 24 starters, until his teammate, Gus Schumacher, crossed the finish line –18.9 seconds ahead of him. In an email, Patterson wrote, “My thought for the race today was to really take advantage of the power V2 and gradual rolling terrain. A lot of people look at Falun and see the Morderbaken as the key feature, but really there is a lot of time elsewhere on the course. I also figured after last weekend returning to low altitude from our post tour time in Seiser Alm that I really wanted to push hard the whole course and not hold much back pacing early. In the end I think this worked out quite well and I felt that I was able to charge even the last time up Morderbaken.”
“The coaches tried to provide some good information from splits, but I knew as an early starter it was mostly about hammering and then hammering some more. The big benefit of the early start was that I got to spend quite a bit of time in the leader’s chair at the finish. It made it even better than when I finally was displaced it was by Gus.” Patterson finished in 15th, a season-best finish for him, one-upping his 16th place in Davos, Switzerland during the 15 k skate.
For Schumacher, today proved that his stellar performance in Val di Fiemme during the Tour de Ski, where he placed 8th, was no fluke. In a fully stacked field, Schumacher finished the day in 9th with a time of 33:50.7. Placing just behind him were a string of Russians, including Denis Spitsov, Evgeniy Belov, and Sergey Ustiugov.
Post race interview with Gus Schumacher:
Also in the field for the Americans was Simi Hamilton, who placed 32nd having recently returned to the World Cup circuit after a brief break. David Norris placed 40th, Hunter Wonders was 52nd, and Kevin Bolger finished 61st.
Post-race interview with U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb
The Canadian men were led by Russell Kennedy who finished in 29th, matching his result from last week’s skiathlon in Lahti, Finland. Behind Kennedy, Philippe Boucher finished 58th, and Remi Drolet 63rd.
Racing continues tomorrow with a 15 k mass start.
Results: Men’s 15 k
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.