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The fog seemed to have thickened since the completion of the women’s race earlier in the day, at times obscuring the skiers with only their silhouettes visible. Eleven teams contested this men’s 4×7.5 k relay with nine nations represented, though with the disqualification of Alexander Bolshunov (more on that in a bit), anchor for Russia I, only 10 teams officially finished.
Historically, World Cup men’s relays have been a duel between Russia and Norway. Out of the fifteen relay races in the past 10 years (not including world championships or Olympics), Russia has won four of those times, the remaining victories all Norway. After a men’s podium sweep in the skiathlon on Saturday, it seemed fair to bet on Norway for today’s race. Indeed, when the race concluded Sunday in Lahti, Finland it was Norway once again on top. As skiathlon winner Emil Iverson so aptly put it yesterday, the Norwegians are “back with a boom.”
The race began, and ended with drama, particularly for team Russia I. Immediately out of the start gate, Alexey Chervotkin, who scrambled for Russia I broke a pole but recovered to quickly rejoin the field. Pål Golberg of Norway led the charge off the front, pushing the pace to string out the pack. By the end of the third lap, Golberg had created a gap to the rest of the field, followed only by Ilia Semikov of Russia II and a little way back, Chervotkin of Russia I. “It was good that it was snow and not rain coming down,” said Golberg after the race, “so it was possible to go hard at the front.”
At the first exchange, Golberg tagged teammate Iversen with a +0.8 lead to Ivan Yakimushkin, who took over for Russia II, and +10.7 to Evgeniy Belov of Russia I.
These standings held steady for much of leg two. Russia II entered the tag zone +0.5 ahead of Norway for the third leg handoff. Andrey Melnichenko took over for Russia II with Sjur Røthe hot on his tails. Denis Spitsov of Russia I was tagged +11.9 back while Iivo Niskanen took over for Finland, not far behind. Over the next few minutes, Niskanen surged, catching Spitsov at the outset of their third lap.
Further up the trail, Røthe made a decisive move, gapping Melnichenko (Russia II) by +6.95 at 20 k. At the conclusion of the third leg, Røthe had stretched this lead to +38.3 ahead of Niskanen.
“I felt really good today,” said Røthe to FIS after the race, “and we had really really good skis today. It was just for me to start hard and go even harder in the end.”
With the benefit of Røthe’s effort, Norway’s anchor, Simen Hegstad Krüger, cruised along with a healthy lead.
The race for second was where the podium racing became spicey. Niskanen skied a furious third leg, bringing his team into contact with Russia I and II — moving his team into second at the final tag off. Taking over at that third exchange (final leg) for Russia I was Tour de Ski winner, Alexander Bolshunov. Sergey Ustiugov made his season debut as an anchor for Russia II after missing Period I due to COVID-19 complications. For Finland I, Joni Mæki skied anchor after the tag from Niskanen.
Mæki, Bolshunov, and Ustiugov formed a group for the fourth relay leg as Krüger continued to stretch Norway’s lead out front.
Exiting the stadium for the final lap Bolshunov picked up the tempo and succeeded in dropping Ustiugov, while Mæki stuck with this year’s Tour de Ski winner.
Out on his own, Krüger cruised into the finish straights and crossed the finish line in a time of 1:07:56.8. “I took the Lahti corner nice and steady,” said Krüger, a reference to his teammate Iversen’s notorious crash there during the 2017 World Championships, “all the guys gave me such a nice starting point at the end there. Really good day for team Norway and we are back in the World Cup.”
The ugly cross-country skis news of the day starts here – with Mæki and Bolshunov playing cat and mouse over the final kilometer. Mæki led Bolshnov into the final corner of the stadium, a sweeping left-hander. Trying to execute a slingshot move, Bolshunov took the corner wide, attempting to slot into the outside finish lane. Mæki, who was slightly ahead, shifted towards this lane too. Bolshunov continued full gas, Mæki, it appeared, made a subtle tactical move to quell the Russian’s closing speed. Pinched out of his lane, and much to his evident frustration as he swung a pole at Mæki, Bolshunov began his unraveling. Mæki crossed the finish line in second, only to be bowled over seconds later as an angry Bolshunov slid into him, knocking the Finn to the ground. This unsportsmanlike behavior resulted in the disqualification of Russia I, thus bumping Russia II into third place. According to FIS, this was Finland’s first men’s relay World Cup podium.
On Twitter after the race, U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb was terse in his assessment of Bolshunov’s actions. “To be clear to any kids and coaches watching: This tackle by Bolshunov is not okay. If a U.S. athlete did this, they’d be sent home and removed from the team. A disqualification would just be the beginning of their problems.”
To be clear to any kids and coaches watching: This tackle by Bolshunov is not okay. If a U.S. athlete did this, they’d be sent home and removed from the team. A disqualification would just be the beginning of their problems. @FISCrossCountrypic.twitter.com/3FgfqqB5yC
— Matt Whitcomb (@Matt_Whitcomb) January 24, 2021
The US team, composed of David Norris, Gus Schumacher, Scott Patterson, and Hunter Wonders, placed seventh (+4:04.3). The backstory for the men’s U.S. roster reveals the race was an opportunity for some to gain World Cup level relay experience. Schumacher and Wonders, both U23 skiers, were relay rookies at this level. This is Wonders’ first career World Cup weekend. He placed 46th in Saturday’s skiathlon. Norris, as many observers of the sport are aware, was diagnosed with Covid this past fall. The Lahti series is his initial foray into international racing post-diagnosis.
The Canadian team composed of Graham Ritchie, Antoine, Cyr, Philippe Boucher, and Russell Kennedy was lapped and is listed as ninth in the results. Like the U.S. team, Canada featured two U23 athletes in Ritchie (22) and Cyr (22). Prior to this weekend, Canada had not sent athletes to the World Cup this season. Pictured above, Kennedy scored his first career World Cup distance points in Saturday’s skiathlon.
Men’s Relay: Results