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With swaths of bare ground peeking through the melting snow, skis rattling through tracks and swooshing across the lanes, and short-sleeved race tops, World Championship racing continued in a warm Oberstdorf, Germany for the men’s 15k/15k skiathlon. Swirling through the stadium after each 3.75 kilometer lap, four in classic then another four in skate.
For some historical context, Norway’s Sjur Røthe won the event in 2019 during the World Championships in Seefeld, Austria by a margin of just 0.1 seconds over Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov, with Martin Johnsrud Sundby crossing the line just 0.6 seconds later. Because of this victory, Norway was able to enter five men in today’s skiathlon, compared to four representing other countries.
Two years prior at the World Championships in Lahti, Finland, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov took the win ahead of Norwegian’s Sundby, who had fallen 500 meters from the finish, and Finn Hågen Krogh. The message – the 30 k championship skiathlon comes down to the wire.
With Bolshunov clearly on form this season and a pack of hungry Norwegians in pursuit, today’s mass start event looked again to be a Russia versus Norway dog fight.
As a large lead group of men slowly whittled down in the classic leg, Bolshunov held a steady position at or near the front alongside Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, who was 4th in 2019, and a slew of strong Norwegian racers that included Røthe, Hans Christer Holund, Emil Iversen, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, and 2018 skiathlon Olympic champion, Simen Hegstad Krüger. These men entered and left the exchange together, with a steady stream of chasers not far behind.
In the chase pack at the exchange and sitting in 11th place at the 16 k checkpoint was Scott Patterson. The American started in bib 38, well inside the inner workings of the accordion of racers that stretched and compressed over the first few laps. Nonetheless, Patterson steadily worked his way up through the field, looking to build on his 18th place finish in the event at the 2018 Olympics and 30th place finish the subsequent year in Lahti. With 11 k to go, Patterson was tucked in with Russia’s Ivan Yakimushkin and Alexey Chervotkin, roughly 21 seconds behind the leaders and reeling in Niskanen and Jens Burman of Sweden.
Back at the front, it was still Bolshunov versus five Norwegians with Great Brittain’s Andrew Musgrave interjecting the pattern, though fitting within the red-blue-white color scheme.
With 6 k to go the pack whittled further. It was Røthe, Bolshunov, Holund, then Krüger, with Iversen and Klæbo chasing with pained faces a few seconds behind. Musgrave had fallen off the pace, and the chasers led by Patterson in 8th position were over 1:20 back.
There was no question that Bolshunov looked strong and confident at the front; the spring in his V2 and full-body power in his V1 were enviable after 26 k’s of racing. But he had bobbled on a descent the previous lap as the men stepped as if on hot coals around a corner, a reminder that anything could happen in the final lap. The Norwegians were matching his every move, albeit from a few meters behind.
With 2 k remaining, Holund took to the front, pulling Bolshunov who finally showed signs of fatigue, with Krüger on his tails. Hop-skating up a rolling climb and building his small gap, Holund continued to hammer, but the threesome rejoined on the downhill.
Attacking the final roller with a seemingly superhuman tempo, stepping around a hairpin, and dropping into a tuck, Bolshunov took back the lead and tore away at the front. He created enough of a gap over Holund and Krüger that he could look over his shoulder, raise his arms, and take in the victory as he crossed the finish line in a time of 1:11:33.9.
Krüger took the silver medal (+1.1) with Holund just behind for bronze (+1.7).
Today marks Bolshunov’s first individual World Championship gold medal. He holds two individual silver metals, one in the aforementioned skiathlon and another in the 50 k freestyle in 2019. He also helped the Russian team to second place in the 4×10 k relay and team sprint.
“I felt fine in the first half, then on the last uphill, I was repeating ‘I have to win today. I have to win today,’” Bolshunov told FIS through a translator in a post-race interview. “On the final descent, I could understand that this is the day that I finally achieved this task.”
After a gap, Klæbo was next across the line in 4th (+21.5) followed by Iversen in 5th (+22.1) and Røthe 6th (+47.3).
For the Americans, the excitement continued as Scott Patterson made his way with the chase pack toward the finish. He sat in 9th with 2k to go, but his group was nine men deep. As they made their way into the stadium and sprinted toward the line, Patterson was unable to hold this position, ending his day in a nearly indistinguishable photo finish with Niskanen. It was decided Niskanen edged him out for 13th, leaving Patterson 14th (+2:03.3), less than three seconds behind Yakimushkin who led this chase group.
“It was great, we had awesome skis today, classic felt pretty good,” Patterson said after the race. “The last lap the front guys definitely turned it up a bit and started spreading things out. But, kind in the transition I was able to put a pretty good switchover and get on some more guys… It is the first race of World Champs, I have not raced in a month. I felt good, so looking forward to some more racing. I think without a pack, I think 15 k skate next, I think it could be even better, I felt strong out there. Really excited for this week coming up.”
Commenting on the course conditions, Patterson continued, “It was definitely different than yesterday out there on the course; it was skiing really well. It was pretty consistent all the way around, the corners weren’t nearly as deep as we have had the last couple days. Honestly, this cloudy weather and a little rain over night made it really nice skiing. Consistent fair racing for everyone, I think. And we had awesome skis…the best thing.”
Behind this group but steadily holding his ground inside the top-20, David Norris finished 17th (+2:19.8). This is Norris’s best individual finish on the world stage since he took 16th in a 15 k freestyle in Falun, Sweden in March, 2019. Leading the American men, he took 20th in the 2019 World Championships in the 50k freestyle, finishing 24th in the 50k classic a week later at the Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway.
Norris’s start to this season was delayed after he contracted COVID-19 in November. After two weeks of complete rest, Norris conservatively began to resume training in hopes that he could still salvage a season on the World Cup. Today’s result is a testament to his fortitude in the face of adversity, COVID-induced and otherwise.
“It was good,” Norris put his race simply. “The classic was pretty mellow until it wasn’t with about 3 k to go before the exchange. That was the first time I really flooded and started to suffer. But then, I got through the exchange and then worked up in the skate with groups of seemed like groups of three and four. We kind of worked our way up until we caught a good chase pack.
“By the first 3 k of the skate I was really kind of still suffering the final effort in the classic,” Norris continued. “Then all of a sudden, my legs got under me and I felt pretty free — it is the best I have felt all season skating. And that was awesome.”
At the 20k mark, Norris was roughly 30 seconds back on Patterson’s group, but made up 10 seconds over the last two laps.
“I worked my up until I was in the group with Scott and then it was kind of funny, because I mean, I was a little bit suffering on the climbs and dangling, and Scott was at the front kind of pushing, but I felt really good in the rolling terrain and flats, so I’d usually make up any ground I lost and I held kind of strong in that position, but I wasn’t really in it for the fight at the front of that group.”
Fellow Alaskan Hunter Wonders was the next American, just outside the top-30 in 31st (+4:25.7). 21-year-old Ben Ogden rounded out the American starters in 45th (+6:27.4).
Racing for Canada, Antoine Cyr skied his way into the top-30 finishing 27th (+4:01.9). A minute back, Remi Droulet took 39th (+5:02.4), with Phillipe Boucher finishing 51st (+7:46.1).
58 men finished the race with an additional 11 starters ending their day early after being lapped by the leaders. Racing continues on Sunday with the team sprint.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646