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After the tropical conditions of the past week, the men were greeted with heavy snowfall for Friday’s championship 4 x 10 k relay competition in Oberstdorf. Temperatures hovered around freezing and the snow fell thick and fast as the scramblers lined up at the start. Eighteen nations were represented at the start line with thirteen completing the whole race.
On paper Norway was the team to beat out on the track. Of the last 15 men’s relay titles at a World Championship, Norway has won all but one. The last time Norway failed to win the men’s relay was in 1999 when team Austria finished 0.2 seconds ahead of Norway. And in the end on Friday after striding and skating through fresh snow for 40 k, it was once again team Norway that crossed the line in first, but what a race it was to get them there.
The team most likely to challenge Norway was Russia, or the Russian Ski Federation as they are represented at these championships. The bar was set from the beginning. Despite conditions not favoring an early breakaway, Alexey Chervotkin (RSF) made a move just 1.4 k off the start, putting distance between himself and the pack.
At 4.7 k, Chervotkin had stretched his lead to +14.1 seconds and the group seemed largely unprepared to mount an organized counterattack. Perhaps expecting the Russian to fade or simply unable to respond, Norway’s Pål Goldberg remained tucked in the rear of the pack. At 6.6 k the margin was +33.6 to Russia. Save for Chervotkin’s effort out front, the pace remained World Cup-pedestrian. At one point, the skiers nearly halting completely at the crest of the sprint hill, playing chicken for who would descend first. Through 8 k the gap to Russia was nearly one minute.
Entering the first exchange the chase pack had split in two, with France leading and Norway off the back in 10th position. In a post-race interview Golberg said of his race, “it was a bit of a tough start. I chose a different choice [of ski] from the seventeen other skiers so that was really stupid but fortunately I have three skiers on my team that are better than everyone else here today so I’m really happy for them.” One of those skiers was Emil Iversen who took over for Norway on the second leg. His work linked Norway up with the rest of the chase pack, now being led by Iivo Niskanen of Finland. Ivan Yakimushkin had taken control for RSF, but already, with the hot pace set by Niskanen, the gap was down to +30.4 seconds to Norway.
At 13.3 k Niskanen, Iversen, and Dario Cologna of Switzerland were closing in on Yakimushkin. After 40 minutes on the clock they had overtaken the Russian. The pack now comprised six nations (France and Sweden also in contention), with team Canada drifting around eight seconds behind. Again on lap two through the stadium the pace slowed to a halt before the descent, unrelenting snow adding an extra challenge to the lead.
At the base of the Burgstall climb on his final lap, Iversen (NOR) made his move, directly shadowed by Niskanen (FIN). To the soundtrack of much excited shouting from the coaches, the pair closed in on the exchange zone, with Russia now off the back.
Wednesday’s 15 k skate champion, Hans Christer Holund, contended the first skate leg for Norway. His lead over Russia being +23.6 seconds at the tag zone. Followed by Perttu Hyvarinen, Finland’s third leg, Holund broke trail out front through deep snow as behind him, Artem Maltsev for RSF turned on the burners, starting to forge the gap. At 23.3 k there was just six seconds between them and the Finn was fading fast. At 24.7 k Holund was alone out front, +12.1 ahead of RSF and Finland now in third. As the athletes battled through their last loop, the wheels seemed to come off for Maltsev (RSF) and Clement Parisse of France and Jens Burman of Sweden moved to the fore.
Into the final exchange Holund handed team anchor Johannes Høsflot Klæbo a +25.5 second lead over France and Sweden (virtually neck and neck), and a +35 second lead to Russia, for whom Alexander Bolshunov would be taking anchor.
With Klæbo (NOR) out on his own in deep snow, Bolshunov was on the hunt. The ten second lead over Russia held by Sweden and France was immediately absorbed and once again there was a pack of five teams in contention behind Norway. At 31.4 k Bolshunov had only gained 0.5 seconds on Klæbo but that was soon to change. By 33.3 k he had broken away from the chase pack and was +15.8 behind. Each of the two athletes played to their respective strengths, Klæbo cruising easily while he waited for his ride to catch up and Bolshunov grinding away with metronomic consistency.
By 34.7 k the duel was on – the world’s best playing hot and cold as they ticked away the kilometers toward the finish line. With Norway absent for much of the Wold Cup season, these two rivals have not had many head-to-head opportunities this year up until this moment. For his part, Bolshunov never moved to pull away from Klæbo who boasts a peerless finishing kick. Once atop the course’s final major run up the Burgstall climb, when Bolshunov had gained no ground, this chess march was all but done.
Entering the corner into the final sprint hill before the finish there was virtually no gap between the two skiers, though in reality the game had tipped in Norway’s favor. While Bolshunov may dominate the distance races, Klæbo remains king of the sprint and once he made his up-skate move, there was nothing the Russian could do. The decisive moment came half way up the hill as Klæbo catapulted himself away with an unmatched turn of pace, setting up for an easy cruise down the finish straight, sealing the deal on gold for Norway once again in a time of 1:52:39. Twelve seconds later, Bolshunov crossed the line, meaning silver for RSF.
Rewind a bit and the fight for bronze was unfolding on the Burgstall climb as Jules Lapierre of France made a break, gaining ten seconds of advantage over Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.
Though that advantage shrunk on the descent, it remained enough to give France third place, finishing + 1:12.6 behind Norway and four seconds ahead of Sweden in fourth.
For team USA, David Norris raced the scramble, handing over to Scott Patterson in 11th position at the first exchange.
Patterson remained steady through his laps and tagged Simi Hamilton, still in 11th. Over the course of his 10 k, Hamilton gained one position and tagged Gus Schumacher in 10th place.
“It was awesome,” Hamilton said of the racing and wild Oberstdorf weather. “It was, I mean a pretty crazy, bizarre, different weird day with the conditions. You know like, you never really know what to expect when you wake up and its basically 32 and dumping all day. It’s going to make for a pretty different race but I’m super proud of our team.
“I think we put together just four really good consistent legs. Our skis were awesome, my boards were running really really well. The climb was tough for me, as kind of a “sprinter” when you mix in a four-minute climb its always tough for me but thankfully I was able to kind of rely on some good glide to recover from the top down to the stadium each time so that was great. But yeah, these boys are… it was maybe the most fun relay I’ve ever skied on, on the World Cup or World Championship just because, I don’t know we had a really good energy going today. We all came out and fought hard and I think this is the type of energy that you know eventually will land us on the podium. I won’t be on that team, but it’s cool to be a part of it. I’m stoked, it was a great way to end the championships for me and it was a fun day.”
Schumacher and Friedrich Moch of Germany battled it out, the advantage ultimately going to Germany who finished in 7th, Schumacher crossing the line 8th for the United States.
Team Canada, who posted a strong start by Graham Ritchie, ended the day in 10th place. Skiing leg two for Canada was Antoine Cyr, followed by Russell Kennedy with youngster Remi Drolet holding the anchor position.
This year’s World Championships conclude for the men on Sunday with a 50 k classic mass start event.
Results: Men’s 4×10 k Relay