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Squeaky snow, firm tracks and a fanless Falun was the backdrop for the men’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint in Falun, Sweden on Sunday. The racing capped a three day series on the championship courses that hosted an individual start skate Friday and a mass start classic Saturday.
The qualifier and heats revealed the nature of the men’s sprint field – indeed a more challenging mix of skiers with Norway present. The Falun stop represents the second World Cup weekend since early December in which Norway arrived with a slate of skiers. We’ll get to this, but one-third of the 12 spots in the semis were earned by Norwegians.
Erik Valnes won the qualifier in 2:46.83 with pre-race favorite Johannes Høsflot Klæbo third (+2.23). And as if risen from the pandemic ashes after suffering a tough go with Covid-19, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, in his first weekend of racing this season, qualified fourth (+2.49).
JC Schoonmaker (20) of the U.S. was the lone North American to advance into the heats after qualifying in 11th (+5:06). Schoonmaker placed 18th overall for his third World Cup top-20. His best result remains 14th place in the skate sprint in Dresden, Germany, earlier this season.
Schoonmaker began the fourth heat and skied near the front a minute into the race. His prospects to advance began to fade slightly nearing the two minute mark as he slotted into fourth place cresting a punchy climb. The Tahoe, California native finished fourth (+0.88) as Finland’s Lauri Vuorinen won the heat in 2:52.36.
“In my heat I wanted to try and stay relaxed and make sure I wasn’t leading on the last downhill into the stadium,” Schoonmaker explained. “I felt like I was exactly where I wanted to be on the second climb but ended up getting a little crowded in over the top and from there I was just barely too far back to move on. I feel like I’m skiing with more confidence in these world cup heats but I just need to gain more experience in the packs in order to break into those semis.”
A trio of Americans just missed out on qualifying in Falun. (Their qualifying place also represents each athlete’s standing in the overall.) They were Kevin Bolger in 31st (+9.74), Luke Jager, in his first career World Cup start, 32nd (+9.79), and Logan Hanneman 33rd (+9.83). Also for the U.S., Simi Hamilton qualified 37th (+10.57), and Hunter Wonders 68th (+17.20).
Antoine Cyr was the top Canadian, finishing in 49th. He was followed by Russell Kennedy in 51st, Pierre Grall-Johnson 54th, and Graham Ritchie 62nd.
The Sharp End
On a course requiring mandatory sprint-speed and power-bursts, endurance, and drafting, the sharp end racing tactics in the men’s first semifinal lulled well into the race. Atop the course’s final serious climb, none of the skiers opted to lead into the sinuous descent back towards the stadium. That is until Oskar Svensson of Sweden took the opportunity and skedaddled over the top leading Valnes, Federico Pellegrino of Italy, Gleb Retivykh of Russia, and Klæbo into the s-turn’s maw. This was a similar tactic the Swede used to his advantage taking the overall win in Val di Fiemme earlier in the season.
As he does, Klæbo outpaced Svennson down the straight winning the first semi while Svensson placed second.
The second semi’s reveal was loud and clear at 1:00. Ustiugov powered up the first and longest of the climbs, gained roughly 10 meters on the five chasers, and never relented the lead. In fact, rather than cede ground, he looked to have a 15 to 20 meter lead gliding into the finish straight. He won in 2:51.06, 2.01 seconds ahead of second place Lucas Chanavat of France.
Contesting the final were, Klæbo, Svensson, Ustiugov, Chanvat, Valnes, and Norway’s Håvard Solås Taugbøl.
Ustiugov led out with pedal-down gusto to dictate this final’s narrative. The tactic, with a savvy crew of skier’s along for the ride, did not pay podium dividends for the Russian. Although dominating his semi, Ustiugov, who last won a World Cup sprint in December 2017, could not sustain his seminfinal’s moxy.
He was first around the 1:10 mark cresting over the longest climb, but the five skiers shadowing Ustiugov in the final were able to sit in his draft. Svensson shot around the Russian to lead into the second major climb. Svensson ran up the outside track, while Ustiugov ran up the inside. And Klæbo simply Klæboed. Again the Russian propelled himself into first up over the final climb. However, the group did not hesitate to determine who led into the downhill as Ustiugov was already zipping away in a tuck. Klæbo, Svensson, and Valnes all descended behind the Russian by a few meters.
Down through the S-turns and a sliver before the final roller, Klæbo, Svensson, and Valnes overtook Ustiugov. Klæbo slotted into the finish straight first, with Valnes tight behind. Yet as Valnes, taking the corner hot, tried to quick-step around, he lost his footing and slid out. Klæbo took the win 2:48.22, Svensson placed second (+1:45) and Taugbøl third (+2.80).
“It was a very hard race out there, but I was really glad when Ustiugov was heating up the pace, really high there,” Klæbo told FIS after the race. “My goal was to be second before the last downhill and in the quarterfinals, semi, I was number five, so I thought I would try to be in a better position. Yah, it worked quite good.”
According to Klæbo, he will not race again on the World Cup before this year’s World Championships in late February.
“This will be my last weekend before the World Championships so I am really glad I had the opportunity to go all the way to the final and have these four heats and everything,” he said. “It was a really nice to do it before the World Championships but Ustiugv was really strong and I am glad to see him back again.”
The day marked the 25th career World Cup sprint win for Klæbo, 11 of which are in classic technique. This is Klæbo’s first World Cup sprint appearance since the opening weekend in Ruka, Finland, also a classic race, in which he placed second to Valnes.
This was the third World Cup podium for Taugbøl and the second for Svensson. Rounding out the top-six, Ustiugov placed fourth (+2.97), Chanavat fifth (+11.18), and Valnes, who slowly strode down the straight after righting himself, sixth.
World Cup racing continues with an all-sprint weekend in Ulricehamn, Sweden. Saturday features a skate sprint, Sunday a skate team sprint.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.