It was a sprint skier’s delight for nearly three-minutes on the 1.6-kilometer loop in Ulricehamn, Sweden on Saturday. In the uptick towards the hets on this working skier’s course an unusual name, as far as results go, topped the leaderboard after qualification.
Finland’s Joni Mæki (26) was the fastest qualifier in 2:58.41. Before the last few weeks, Mæki had flown under our radar until he and Bolshunov captured cross-country headlines a few weeks back in Lahti. Before his notoriety, and before this weekend, Mæki had a single individual World Cup top-10, the seventh-best time in the 2020 Ruka 15 k pursuit.
Let’s just say his ability to stay with Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov on the final leg of the 4 x 7..5 k relay in Lahti may have opened his eyes. He was quick in qualification today.
Absent from the scene as he and his Norwegian A-Team mates prep for Worlds was Norwegian speedster Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. In fact, and we’ll note this in more detail later, no Norwegians advanced to the finals. (Which reminds us to explain that as we come closer to the start of the World Championships later this month, many of the cross-country skiers likely to medal there will take time away from the World Cup to dial in their World’s fitness.)
Otherwise, many of the usual suspects were in the skate sprint mix. However, the most notable qualifier from North America was Canada’s Graham Ritchie (22) in 9th (+4:06). According to FIS, this was the U-23 skier’s ninth World Cup start.
The Americans qualified three men for the heats. In order they were Simi Hamilton in 23rd (+6.95), Logan Hanneman 25th (+7.53), and Kevin Bolger 24th (+7.46).
We’ll get right to it – it was a frustrating day for the Americans. None advanced out of the quarterfinals with both Bolger and Hamilton stymied by incidents that scrubbed speed and took them out of the mix.
Hamilton contested the first heat with some speedy company in the likes of Frenchman Lucas Chanavat, the day’s third-fastest qualifier, Russian Sergey Ustiugov, the fourth-fastest qualifier, and Michal Novak of the Czech Republic, sixth fastest.
Taking it out hot is Ustiugov’s bread and butter. And in this heat, he was able to keep it hot as he won in 2:56.45. Hamilton was in the mix coming around the final corner into the finish straight.
At 2:30, Ustiugov pulled upfront, with Chanavat and then Hamilton glued in second and third, respectively. Sweden’s Oskar Svensson, a name of note recently in sprinting, shimmied into a barely open window and moved in front of Hamilton. This is, after all, rock’em sock’em sprinting. And Hamilton let off the gas a smidge as Svensson steamrolled in. Around the downhill corner, Hamilton defied the Gs forcing a skier wide, and quick-stepped inside of Svensson, when he stumbled. With the lost speed, Hamilton’s opportunity was gone. He placed sixth in the heat to finish 28th. This was the fastest of the five quarterfinals and both lucky losers advanced from the heat.
Another bitter pill was swallowed by Bolger in the fourth heat. He too was in the mix late until he tangled with Italy’s Michael Hellweger at the 2:05 mark. Bolger was spun around, his chance for advancing snuffed out. Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh pushed ahead and won the heat. Bolger finished in fifth to place 23rd overall.
In between, Hanneman and Ritchie raced in the second heat. Ritchie held strong for much of the race, yet lost vital ground in the finish to place fourth (+0.53) and 17th overall for a career-best.
“I’m definitely proud of that qualifier. Not only was it a personal best but it was great to have that Canadian flag in the top-10 on the results sheet,” said Ritchie.
“I’m pretty excited with the performance today,” Ritchie told Nordiq Canada. “My skis were incredibly fast thanks to the wax techs. It was so much fun to race my first World Cup heats.
“I found myself close to the back quickly in the heat. I tried to pass people the entire way, but it just wasn’t working out,” added Ritchie. “I was able to get a good kick at the end and move up a couple of spots in the finishing stretch.”
Hanneman, who hails from Fairbanks, Alaska and trains with APU in Anchorage, finished sixth in the heat and 29th overall.
JC Schoonmaker, a young American skier of note, finished 35th, while Peter Holmes was 68th. U.S. skier Gus Schumacher is in Oberstdorf, Germany preparing for U-23 Worlds.
Post-race interview with U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb
For Canada, Russell Kennedy finished 44th, Pierre Grall-Johnson 51st, and Antoine Cyr 60th.
In the first semi, Ustiugov gunned again. At 30 seconds he moved to the front. He positioned himself well, yet the group remained tight on this tough-to-pass-on-course. France’s Richard Jouve won, with Ustiugov in second, and the two lucky losers, Russia’s Gleb Retivykh third, and Chanavat fourth.
Italy’s Federico Pellegrino won the second semi, with Svensson second by only 0.3 seconds.
In the men’s final, there was no guessing the contents of the first chapter: Ustiugov flexed first. In the next to last chapter, the Russian folded, as he faded on fumes to place sixth, 6:06 seconds off the winning time. The five remaining skiers were tight-pack skiing for much of the race. Only Chanavat was taxed too much from the endurance sprint racing. Around the corner, and into the straight, it looked like any of the four contending skiers could take the win: Jouve, Pellegrino (one of the best historic skate sprint closers), Retivykh, or Svensson.
The advantage went to Sweden’s Svensson as he toed the line first in 2:55.34 – which was the day’s fastest time for a heat; quarter or semi. Retivykh placed second, Pellegrino third, Jouve fourth, and Chanavat fifth.
Svensson (25) has had a breakout season. Until this year, he had never podiumed in an individual race on the World Cup. This season, he has won the classic sprint in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and placed second last weekend in Falun (both were classic sprints).
Racing continues tomorrow with a 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.