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Against the backdrop of hundreds of cardboard cut-out fans, the men battled for the first medals of the 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany. Despite warming temperatures, conditions were firm and fast for the 1.5 k classic sprint, likely due to the application of salt to help with freezing. The course featured three climbs with the last being the most significant and sustained.
From start to finish, the day belonged to Johannes Høsflot Klæbo who won the qualifier in a time of 3:00:08 and took his second consecutive sprint World Championships gold medal, becoming the first male athlete in history to repeat back to back sprint golds, winning the final in a time of 3:01.30.
As in the women’s race, the final hill proved to be the decisive factor throughout the quarterfinals and into the remaining rounds. The hill was no stride-fest, but instead a full-on sprint-run. Competing in Heat 1, Norwegians Erik Valnes and Klæbo easily gapped their competitors on the climb and advanced with ease.
Racing in Heat 2 was J.C. Schoonmaker for the United States who qualified in 20th position. Schoonmaker came in 6th in his heat to finish 26th overall. After the race, Schoonmaker said, “I did not feel my best today but it was a solid result I think for my first World Champs, and I think I can walk away, I learned a lot and I think I am happy with it. But definitely saw it going better and I hoped it was going to go better. But, yeah I think it was overall still good.”
His teammate, Ben Ogden, qualified in 11th position and raced in the fifth quarterfinal. Ascending the final climb in that heat, Francesco De Fabiani of Italy found himself caught in the slush and went down, taking Cerny Ondrej of the Czech Republic down with him.
Ogden ended up fourth after a solid fight in his quarterfinal and 17th overall. In a post-race interview, Ogden said about his day, “It was good in general. The qualifier was really good. I was happy to be able to feel fast in that. And then in the heats were a little tricky, as they often are. Just remembering that this is only my second heat so far this year since World Juniors last year. I have a lot to learn and that was my first ever World Cup level heat. So, yeah, I am really excited with the whole day, and we will be looking forward to the skiathlon in a few days”
In the semi-final rounds, once again Klæbo and Valnes went one-two in the first semi. Given this was the faster semi, Alexander Bolshunov (representing the Russian Ski Federation at these championships) and Oskar Svensson of Sweden, also advanced from this heat as lucky losers. Coming from the second semi-final was Håvard Solås Taugboel of Norway and Sergey Ustiugov (RSF) who bested the likes of skate sprint legend Federico Pellegrino and steady sprint finalist Gleb Retivykh to advance to the final.
Preparing for one last round, the three Norwegians, two Russians, and lone Swede took their start positions, having shed hats and layers as the temperatures and efforts increased. Steady through the first part of the course, again the final climb marked a crucial moment. Taking the inside lane Klæbo stomped his way up the hill using his trademark technique. However, it was his teammate Valnes who was first over the crest. As they descended into the stadium Klæbo shot to the outside and took off. Valnes was left to fend-off his teammate Taugboel to secure second place while bronze went to Taugboel, making it a Norwegian triple.
Speaking to FIS after the race Klæbo said, “I don’t know what to say. I’ve been so nervous the last couple of days. It’s been a really strange season with not so many competitions and I think we made some decisions that weren’t so good when we were sitting at home watching the Tour de Ski, but today it feels great and is a dream come true.” When asked about the conditions he replied, “I think it was a really tough day, the conditions were really good today, I think it was the right decision to salt it yesterday. It’s really hard out there when it’s so warm, and you are losing a lot of energy.”
Klæbo came out of his first World Championships in 2019 with three gold medals after winning the individual sprint as well as the team sprint and relay event with teammates. After this victory on Thursday it seems like he is well on his way to another successful championship. For his teammate Valnes, this is his first time competing at World Championships. Valnes has made one other podium appearance this season when he won the classic sprint at the season opener in Ruka, Finland. This is also the first time at World Championships for Taugboel who has had three individual World Cup podiums throughout his career, all in sprint events.
Racing continues on Saturday with a 30 k skiathlon.