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By Ryan Sederquist
It was another very cold day in Ruka, Finland. Temperatures hovered between -19 and -23.2 degrees Celsius around the course, rising to -18.6C by the start of the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle pursuit. In response to the conditions, the Norwegian men’s team decided to pull from competition, which created confusion at the start line.
For context, the women’s event, which was scheduled to take place first, had been postponed because temperatures were below the legal cutoff of -20C shortly before their schedule start. It is unclear whether other teams or organizers were privy to conversations happening among the Norwegian team, however, coaches had made the decision along with athletes and team doctors to withdraw despite the thermometer showing a temperature above the cutoff at race time.
With little time before the start, the Norwegians were missing from the field and the individuals working the start gate were scrambling. Perhaps the only ones having no trouble keeping warm, the officials at the start could be seen waving their arms, jumping, yelling, and sprinting around in an apparent search for the Norwegian team. Ultimately, the stadium announcer notified the field that all members of the Norwegian team who were scheduled to race were missing, and eventually, the clock simply started without them.
“It is based on the fact that it is terribly cold here,” Norwegian coach Eirik Myhr Nossum told the Norwegian news source NRK about the decision to withhold the team. “It may be skiing that is just inside the rules, but they think it was terribly cold yesterday and felt it in their lungs. They know they have important weekends ahead of them. They did not want to take any chances in the cold here.”
Sprint coach Arild Monsen said Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, Pål Golberg and Erik Valnes wanted to get a feel for the course before making a call. In communicating with a doctor present, they all agreed to not go.
“It is too cold. It’s within the cold limit. But the long-term effects that it can have on the respiratory tract … Then we came to the conclusion that they try with a little breathing on the heating. But we did not want this, there will be many other matches later,” the coach said to NRK in justifying the decision. (NRK comments have been translated to English.)
Yesterday’s classic winner, Iivo Niskanen, also chose to withdraw from the competition, and felt the race should have been canceled altogether. When asked by NRK, he said, “Yes, it should be [cancelled]. It is 75 kilometers per hour in the descents here and it is completely safe above 20 degrees below zero. So it is not good for the athletes nor before the Olympics.”
With Niskanen out, the clock ticked away for eight seconds until Alexey Chervotkin blasted away from the start pen. Alexander Bolshunov, wearing bib three, was still putting on his skis when he slowly skated out of the gate without his pole straps on, three seconds after his scheduled start time. After the frenzy of action and realization that all systems were go, the race proceeded more normally.
However, the absence of this group of men paved the way for Russian dominance. The group of three Russians – Chervotkin, Bolshunov, and Sergey Ustiugov – quickly assembled upfront. By the end of the first of six 2.5-kilometer laps, Ilia Semikov and Ivan Yakimushkin had joined them.
Behind the group of red was a chase group of Canadian Antoine Cyr, Frenchmen Hugo Lapalus, the Czech Republic’s Michal Novak, and Germany’s Lucas Boegl. Cyr, who finished a career-best 11th yesterday, continued his strong showing in the skate, holding the sixth place position for the first quarter of the race.
While the Russians at the front appeared to be out for a steady-state workout – not altogether easy, but with an earnest threshold-like tempo perhaps for no other reason than to preserve warmth and get off the course as soon as possible – several chase groups emerged. Behind the five Russian leaders, fellow Russian Artem Maltsev was working to close the gap to within 29 seconds through the 5-kilometer checkmark. He towed Cyr, Lapalus, Boegl, and Novak along with him. Behind that peloton was another group of five athletes, led by Francesco De Fabiani. Finally, Gus Schumacher, who started in bib 31 but moved up throughout the race, was guiding a final group of 11 athletes.
The primary deciding move of the race came 16 minutes in when Maltsev pushed hard to bridge the gap to the leaders. He brought Michal Novak and Lucas Boegl with him, but the Canadian Cyr was fading and left behind.
This group was on the upswing, steadily gaining ground on the leaders. Among this pack was Schumacher, who continued to take advantage of the drafting effect.
By 10-kilometers, it was a group of six Russians plus Boegl and Novak in front, with Cyr and Lapalus holding on for dear life 16 seconds back, and the 10-member train, with Schumacher and Canadian Olivier Leveille at the caboose, just 19 seconds behind them.
Approaching the penultimate stages of the race, Bolshunov remained relaxed and seemingly content to let Yakimushkin lead, responding to his surges and allowing his teammate to block the wind.
The 25-year old Novak, who was 54th in the distance standings last year and 13th in the sprint standings, appeared strong and capable of disrupting a Russian sweep of the podium. 22 minutes into the race, wearing a Gunde Svan Swix beanie in lieu of a team cap – presumably for additional warmth – the Czech athlete went to the front.
Coming into the bell lap, however, it was Bolshunov who emerged to take the lead in the descent into the stadium. At this point, with pace increasing, the lead pack was down to seven, having dropped Chervotkin. The chase group remained 39 seconds back, but Schumacher, who started with a 1:42 disadvantage, had closed it to 47 seconds as he sat in 15th.
With 1.4 kilometers to go, Bolshunov turned up the effort, charging up a hill. Novak appeared unable to respond to this surge, leaving the four Russians to settle things for themselves at the line. The gap of 2.7 seconds would not hold, though, as all four contending upfront – Bolshunov, Maltsev, Yakimushkin, and Ustiugov – paused to decide who would lead out on the final, critical downhill. Taking advantage of the moment of indecision, Novak decided to make one final run at glory. He burst into the lead down the hill, but was caught again as the five men headed into the deciding final sprint uphill.
Bolshunov and Ustiugov demonstrated the purest and most efficient hop skating, and separated from the others. Looking for an inside line, Ustiugov just didn’t have the speed to overtake the 24-year old two-time defending overall globe winner. As they headed into the straightaway, Bolshunov glided comfortably across the line for the win, followed by Ustiugov (+0.5) and Maltsev (+0.7), who never faltered after charging hard to close the gap between racers. Yakimushin (+5.3) made it a one-through-four run of Russians, but a fifth place finish for Novak (+9.2), whose previous best individual finish to date was a 9th place sprint from Ulricehamn, Sweden last February, ruined the Russians’ ability to achieve a cross-country running “perfect score.”
At the finish line, Bolshunov spoke through a translator and discussed how the confusion at the start led to a few unknowns, but ultimately, when the race started, the game plan was still the same.
“I still made the task to do the best I could and I am really happy with the victory,” he said of the situation.
Surging in behind the initial group of finishers was American Gus Schumacher, who would climb all the way to 11th place (+58.2). He was only half of a second out of the top 10, as he was unable to overtake De Fabiani in the final sprint, but he did claim top North American honors, passing Antoine Cyr (+58.8) in the closing stretches. Cyr ended his day in 12th.
In a post-race interview, Schumacher explained his race plan, including how he considers the athletes around him as potential rides that he may use during the opening laps. He also discusses how he was able to lean on fast skis to take advantage of downhills and drafts, conserving his energy to hang onto the other strong men in his group. Having been in cold weather and on snow in Alaska before heading to Europe, Schumacher provides additional insight into his management of the conditions.
Completing a strong showing for Canada, Olivier Leveille (+1:00.7) finished in 17th followed by Russell Kennedy in 21st (+1:39.9).
The American contingent, largely made up of Alaskans, showed no fear in the face of the cold temps. David Norris (+2:35.1) finished in 37th, Zanden McMullen (+2:46.0) was 40th, and Hunter Wonders (+3:33.0) was 45th. Ben Ogden (+4:52) and Luke Jager (+5:38) rounded things out in 55th and 60th places, respectively.