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Traveling Northeast from Lenzerheide, Switzerland to Oberstdorf, Germany, home to last year’s FIS World Ski Championships, athletes lined up for Stage 3 of the Tour de Ski for a mass start 15-kilometer skate. Once again encountering conditions altogether different from those in the previous stage, the tracks in Oberstdorf were lightning fast, and icy, with bare earth scarring the landscape between the ribbons of white.
Given the conditions and the winding nature of the 3.75k loop, there was little separation in the first three laps of the four-lap race. Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) and Alexander Bolshunov (RUS) surged to the front to collect the Tour bonus points at the 4.4k checkpoint, with Klæbo keeping putting in just enough effort to slide his boot over the line 0.3 seconds ahead of the Russian’s, earning them 15 and 12 points, respectively. Ivan Yakimushkin (RUS) was next in line at the checkpoint for 10 points, followed by Pål Golberg (NOR) for 8, and Calle Halfvarsson (SWE) for 6.
Once the checkpoint was crossed, the men stood up, returning to a calm and relaxed state at the front of a massive pack of racers with little opportunity, or need, to break away just yet. Given the density of skiers on the course and the speed of the track, downhills were taken with care, with the leaders standing up, putting arms to the sides to indicate they were all on the same page – take it easy, keep everyone’s equipment intact, no unnecessary crashes.
This theme continued through the third lap, where the race for the podium finally began.
At 9.6k, just 12 seconds separated the top 30, who moved like a slinky through the woods, compressing on the climbs, stretching on the descents. Repeat, repeat.
However, by 12k, five men had dropped the masses, and by 13.4, this had dwindled to three. Led by Klæbo in the yellow bib, Bolshunov, Sjur Røthe (NOR), and Andrew Musgrave (GBR) quickly gapped the field to fight for the podium.
While one might expect Klæbo in such conditions to wait until the final meters to show off his acceleration, he started his kick much further out, pushing into the final descent and trusting his ability to race the following icy curves. Though his chasers began to catch him as they navigated tight bends that led into the stadium, Klæbo hop-skated over the final roller and held the others at bay, skiing into the finish lanes with plenty of space to earn a clear victory.
Racing all the way to the line, Bolshunov pushed to claim second place (+3.4) with Røthe securing the final podium spot just behind in third (+4.0).
Lacking the closing speed for a podium spot but still putting together a season-best day, Musgrave closed for 4th (+5.6). Perhaps well-suited to the style of racing in Oberstdorf, the Brit had been tenth in the event on the same tracks during last year’s World Championships in similar conditions. The 2021 World Championships 15k free had an all-Norwegian podium, led by Hans Christer Holund, Simen Hegstad Krüger, and Harald Østberg Amundsen, with Bolshunov disappointed at the line in 4th, and Røthe nearly a minute off the lead in sixth.
“It was a wee bit annoying to let a podium finish slip through my fingers on a day when I was feeling good and had amazing skis,” wrote Musgrave in a post-race email to FasterSkier. “It was definitely nice to be back racing better after a very tough start to the season though!”
Musgrave continued with a comment on a start to the season he deems sub-par, ending with some optimism.
“I’ve had a rough season so far, struggling to take World Cup points, and just generally not feeling in form. I took a week completely off training between Lillehammer and Davos, and that seems to have got me back on track.”
Though from afar, the race looked congested with the field of men staying tightly grouped through the first 11k, Musgrave painted a different picture, speaking to his approach to the course in fast conditions.
“The race today was a bit less chaotic than I thought it might be. With such fast, icy conditions I thought there would be a big group still together sprinting for the win at the end. My plan was to keep as far forwards as possible, to avoid any falls that might happen in the pack. It ended up being a good call- the group ended up splitting up quite a bit on the technical, icy downhill. I was far enough forward to keep myself on the right side of any gaps that opened up.”
As for Klæbo, today marks his 47th World Cup victory, tying the legendary and notorious Petter Northug, but remarkably, only his second win in a freestyle distance event. His last win in the 15k skate also took place in Oberstdorf, during the 2018/19 Tour de Ski. Of his five wins in the 15k classic, four have taken place in mass start races.
“The first round was pretty slow, then on the third lap it was starting to pick up a little bit,” Klæbo told FIS of his strategy after the race. “I was trying to be near the front today, the downhills were pretty sketchy. For the finish, I didn’t want to take the chance to be [second] in the last turn there, so I went for it.”
Asked what was the determining factor in the race, and where he found his advantage, Klæbo affirmed his plan of making a move on the winding downhill in the last kilometer.
“I was just trying to push really, really hard in the downhill, and just come through the downhills [safely] because, like I said, it was pretty sketchy.”
Surviving amongst the masses, Gus Schumacher led the American men, breaking into the top-30 to place 25th (+53.3) on the day. Bouncing back from a cold that he feels has impeded him in the first two stages, Schumacher explained he is feeling stronger and more energetic by the day, contributing to his improvement from his first two finish positions.
“[It was] super icy, and I was a little nervous about the dynamics of the first mass start of the year,” Schumacher told U.S. Ski & Snowboard cross country communications manager Tom Horrocks on-site after the race. “But the guys at the front were pushing the pace well enough that it sort of strung out, so it was actually fairly good skiing, except for some of those corners where you’d toss it into a power slide and just keep going forward.”
Though he felt the pace was faster than it appeared from the live stream, he acknowledged that the pack did begin to spread significantly over the final lap and a half, which he identified as an “ideal mass start” situation for him in most circumstances.
“As it strung out, I didn’t quite have the gas that I’ve had before to keep jumping up to the next person, but I think it went well.”
Full audio clip from post-race interview with Gus Schumacher, hosted by Tom Horrocks.
Just off the mark for Top-30, Zak Ketterson skied to 36th (+1:02.6), just 5 seconds shy of 30th. As this year’s Tour de Ski are the first World Cup starts 24-year-old Ketterson has earned, this result marks an international career best at the senior level. Having been pulled up to the World Cup as SuperTour leader following the opening races in Duluth, MN and Cable, WI, the Team Birkie athlete is using this opportunity to vie for a widely-desired sixth spot for American men, which currently is not guaranteed to exist, on the 2022 Olympic team.
“I’m really happy with that. The goal for anyone is to be in the top-30, that’s just the first stepping stone, so for me to be close to that, it’s kind of a dream come true,” Ketterson told Horrocks post-race. “Especially with some rough races at the start of this Tour, it’s nice to have some positive feedback.”
“What’s led to me performing my best in the past is just to focus on things I can control and just the process,” Ketterson explained in response to how he is mentally handling these circumstances. “I think that’s what got me here from the SuperTour, I didn’t think about trying to be in the top SuperTour spot, I just thought, ‘Let’s have a good race, and if that gets me where I want to go, great. If not, that’s life.’ So I just try to give myself the best chance everyday and the rest takes care of itself.”
Full audio clip from post-race interview with Zak Ketterson, hosted by Tom Horrocks.
Ben Ogden was the next American in 64th (+1:59.0), crossing the line with his teammate, Kevin Bolger, in 65th (+2:00.4). Luke Jager skied to 70th (+2:19.7), while Logan Hanneman rounded out the men’s squad in 75th (+3:54.1).
Looking to the overall Tour standings, with a one-minute time bonus for his sprint win, coupled with 4th in the 15k classic and a second win today, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo leads the overall standings by both time and points. By time, he is 45 seconds ahead of his teammate Pål Golberg, with Bolshunov moving into third with a 47 second deficit. By points, Klæbo has earned double that of the next athlete with 51, followed by teammate Erik Valnes with 26, and Bolshunov with 24.
Racing continues tomorrow with a classic sprint, where Klæbo will again be a favorite. Quarterfinals begin at 12:00 CET / 6:00 EST.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646