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The firepower was evident on the start line. Norway, Russia, France, Italy, and six other teams paired for the team sprint Sunday at the 2021 Oberstdorf, Germany World Championships. Revving at the start for Norway were Erik Valnes and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, with Alexander Bolshunov and Gleb Retivykh for Russia. Two teams in a freestyle team sprint with a seemingly endless list of scores to settle.
With the third day of racing dawning at these championships, Klæbo comes in with a gold medal in Thursday’s classic sprint while Valnes earned silver. Bolshunov satisfied his itch for individual gold with a technical-strike win in yesterday’s 30-kilometer skiathlon. Although only twenty-four-years-old, the win was the first individual championship title for Bolshunov.
With a wide-angle view of the blue sky and mountainscape, the setting was dreamy if not trending on too warm for the start of the team sprint. At this level of racing with F1 engine fine-tuning and horsepower – the initial pacing and gamesmanship wasn’t exactly horse and buggyesque, but certainly not close to redline speed. The real jazz in this team sprint, which amounted to a total of 7.2 k of skate sprinting with each athlete racing three laps total, came around the 6:40 mark.
Bolshunov and Valnes were rolling for their respective teams. Up the course’s decisive hill, Bolshunov hop-skated and V1’d to separate himself from Valnes, Francesco de Fabiana of Italy, France’s Lucas Chanavat, and Ristomatti Hakola of Finland. The shake-up from Bolshunov was enough to have what appeared to be everlasting relevance in this narrative. It turns out, the move almost stuck.
Retivykh, one of the planet’s best skate sprinters, pulsed away with a two-second lead at the third exchange over Norway. Italy (+2.5), France (+2.8), and Finland (+3.2) were close behind. As far as prescient strategies go, the burst of speed from Bolshunov and cushion of time gifted his partner seemed a lucid move on many levels. It kept the Russians out of traffic. And it kept hope alive for a Russian gold when the stars, and in fact, the entire universe was aligned in this truth: No skier besides maybe his partner, Valnes, currently door-slams a final climb and descent into a finishing straight like Klæbo.
There were more pulses of speed from Bolshunov on his final turn of the screw during his final lap. Camera angles and stopwatches aside, the Russians appeared ready to bite down on real gold rather than see their efforts stymied on the final lap in an effort for fool’s gold. Retivyk took a 4.3-second lead at 6 k into the last 1.2 k to finish the race. Klæbo had his target ahead in Retivyk, with Joni Mäki skating off 5.1 seconds back. France and Italy, at that point and time, barring a spill upfront, were no longer podium threats at +9.9 and +10.0 seconds behind, respectively.
At 13:00 into the race, on that last lap, Retivyk V2d 15 meters ahead of Klæbo and Mäki. At the base of the first rolling climb, with no evident uptick in effort, Klæbo (with Mäki in his draft) began to close in. On the long glide-out, Klæbo’s slick skinny skis did the work: Norway and Finland were locked onto Russia at 13:40.
At 14:08, despite the race officially not run its course, was over. Klæbo moved around Retivyk and put on a technical and profound display of high-turnover uphill precision. Around the left 180-degree corner atop the hill, Klæbo had 20 meters on Retivyk and Mäki.
Down the straight, with what looked like 40 and maybe 50 meters of real estate between himself and second and third place, Klæbo let up, soaked in the stoke, and won for Norway in 15:01.74. Finland was second (+1.68), and Russia third (+2.09).
“It means so much to me, yah, to be World Champions,” Valnes told FIS after the race. “It is an amazing feeling and it is amazing to be a team with Johannes. I am really happy, I have been nervous for this day.”
For Klæbo, this makes it back-to-back World Championship team sprint gold medals. He won in 2019 in Seefeld, Austria’s classic team sprint with Emil Iversen. The duo outpaced Bolshunov and Retivyk in that race too, when Russia placed second overall.
“It is amazing,” Klæbo told FIS. “I think it was also a tough semifinal today with really hard conditions and it was really high speed and then the sun started burning a little bit and the conditions got a little bit heavier so it was perfect for us. I felt really strong today and Valnes did a very good job there so it was an amazing feeling. Like I said, to be World Champions together is the best feeling.”
Klæbo is also the 2018 Olympic team sprint champion with Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
Canada was the lone North American team represented in the men’s final. Antoine Cyr and Graham Ritchie placed fourth in semifinal A, which was won by Norway in a tight finish – the top four teams were within 0.61 seconds. (Due to the warm weather in Oberstdorf, race officials changed the ruling yesterday to allow the top four teams in each semifinal to advance plus the two additional fastest teams overall. Before the rule change, the top two teams from each semi, and the next six fastest teams by time, considering both semis, were slated to advance.)
In the final, Canada, fueled by the two twenty-two-year-old skiers, crossed the line in a photo finish with Sweden to place seventh, 0.4 seconds behind Sweden and 17.06 seconds off Norway’s winning time.
“This race is good for both of us,” said Cyr to Nordiq Canada. “Graham has proven he is a good distance skier and is a wicked sprinter. I also enjoy being in the heats sprinting like today, so it is a good mix for us.”
“This is eye opening and very cool for us to have Canada right there in the mix,” said Ritchie, to Nordiq Canada. “It hasn’t sunk in yet really, but we have the confidence and thought we could do it. It is pretty cool.”
For the U.S., on a team representing two generations of cross-country skiing, Simi Hamilton and Gus Schumacher were eliminated in semi-final B and placed 14th overall. In their semi, Schumacher appeared to ski away on the fourth tag a fraction before being tagged by Hamilton. He snow-plowed as he sensed Hamilton had not reached him before the end of the tag zone. As he checked speed, Switzerland’s Jovian Hediger crashed into Schumacher. Schumacher righted himself and circled back to Hamilton for the tag.
The U.S. skied to seventh in that semi, 15.56 seconds off the pace of Italy’s winning time. This was Schumacher’s first World Championship appearance and by most accounts, the last team sprint for the veteran Hamilton.
Reflecting on the race, the twenty-year-old Schumacher noted that championships racing on the senior level was a growth opportunity. “I think we can chill out a little bit more in the sort of clustery-spots and rely more on good skiing,” Schumacher told the U.S. Ski Team after the race. “I think I was a little bit unsure of how good the skiing needed to be and put a lot of pressure on the tactics and the bumper-car aspect of it. But, I mean, we skied pretty well. But there was a bobble that cost it all.”
Asked what he would take away from the experience, Schumacher was matter-of-fact about the experience and moving forward. “I think just the way I approach most races and just be more relaxed and looking to enjoy it and whatever happens, happens, is a good approach to these races too even if they are not necessarily conducive to chill skiing.”
“It was amazing,” Schumacher added about teaming up with Hamilton. “I felt a lot of pressure because it is his last World Champs and his last team sprint. We knew that we had a lot of potential. I was really proud to have this start and give him my all. I think I did my best, but I made a mistake.”
For his part, as Hamilton ruminated on the day, he was clear about honoring the big picture of team culture and putting the day’s events in perspective. Below are Hamilton’s comments as told to the U.S. Ski Team’s Tom Horrocks:
It is one of those days where going into it felt awesome. We were psyched, our training has been amazing not just Gus and I, the whole men’s team we are clicking in a way that I don’t think I have ever seen this men’s team click before.
All that contributes to just feeling really prepared and psyched for a race like this. And, we did everything we could, you know it is a team sprinting is, I would put sprinting in general, in its own category when it comes to chaos and things that can go wrong and things that can happen. Team sprinting has its own category in that level of chaos.
Especially championship events like this where there is in the men’s semis there are up to 20 teams or something like that. It is always chaos and you see really changing conditions, so the tag zone is getting slower, a corner is getting sloppier, and it just, yeah it was one of those things we mistimed our tag, it wasn’t Gus’s fault because the tag zone had been much faster, even the previous leg…so you get into this mindset of going when you think you should be going, but it is hard to adapt to the change, for how much slower it is.
I think he just went a little early, and we missed that tag at the very end of the zone, the jury is always going to see that, that you are going to miss the tag, so we decided that we wanted to just stop and get back in the zone and tag, that’s is when things kind of really took a turn for the worse.
But, it doesn’t change all that stuff leading up to today. You know, this probably being my last team sprint and last sprint effort ever, obviously I wanted to ski with Gus in the final and possibly win that elusive medal at World Champs. But you, know, I have been thinking about it for the last hour skiing out with Gus and it is like it is just as important for me to feel like what I did today to get onto this team and be able to race with Gus, that is going to contribute to him winning medals in the future with this group of guys coming up. To me, that is just as important as me potentially winning a medal. I am still so grateful and humbled to be a part of this team and be able to race with Gus and train with Gus and all the other guys, and so it doesn’t change how I felt about the day at all. We are both fit. We are still hungry and fortunately, I think we get a few more racing opportunities coming up this week so we are going to make the most of that and enjoy the sunshine.”
– Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
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.