Klæbo Strikes Back; Two Americans in the Semis, Three in the Top-30 in Lillehammer

Rachel PerkinsDecember 3, 2021
The men’s freestyle sprint podium in Lillehammer: Johannes Høsflot Klæbo takes the win ahead of teammate Thomas Helland Larsen and France’s Richard Jouve. (Photo: NordicFocus)

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Last weekend in Ruka, a new season of World Cup racing came in like a lion. Right off the bat, there were so many storylines to follow. Here, we’ll focus on those in the men’s sprint. 

The international cover story was the big upset: 22-year-old Alexander Terentev of Russia beat Norwegian sprint-champion Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, who has more World Cup sprint wins than any other athlete in the field. Even more entertaining: Terentev matched Klæbo’s signature run, which he typically employs to drop his competitors on a final climb, accelerating to the finish in a league of his own. Klæbo’s tactic failed. He was matched at the top of the final climb with a few hundred meters to go, and Terentev was strongest in the final stretch. This made one thing certain: Klæbo would be ready to throw down in his home country as the World Cup swung to Lillehammer. 

As evidence, Klæbo won the qualifier with a nearly two-second lead ahead of the next athlete, Lucas Chanavat of France, with Terentev nearly three seconds back in fifth. 

The FasterSkier cover story last weekend was the three American men – JC Schoonmaker, Ben Ogden, and Luke Jager – who qualified and finished in the top-20, led by Schoonmaker in 7th. The Americans proved they were fit, and ready for the tight and aggressive style of World Cup sprinting. Hope abounds as these men, along with those who fell just outside the top-30, showed they were capable of results that mirrored those of the women’s team, which has received the majority of the media attention over the last several seasons. 

JC Schoonmaker is the top-American qualifier for the second weekend in a row. Schoonmaker qualified in 15th today in Lillehammer. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Today during the 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint in Lillehammer, the Americans showed that last weekend was not a fluke. Three men qualified for the heats, led by Schoonmaker in 15th (+5.61). Kevin Bolger was 24th in qualification (+6.25), followed by Ben Ogden in 28th (+6.63). 

As the sprint featured in the 2022 Olympic program will also be freestyle, these events will be especially in focus as we move through the World Cup season. For the Americans, an athlete finishing in the top-8 (final results, not qualification) has met the objective criteria for team selection, essentially punching their ticket to Beijing. 

In the quarterfinals, Bolger raced in the stacked first heat along with the top-3 qualifiers, Klæbo, Chanavat, and Erik Valnes (NOR). For the first two minutes of racing, Bolger sat confidently on the Norwegian’s tails, keeping enough contact with the leaders to vie for a lucky loser spot in the final stretch. Despite rounding the final bend in fifth, Boger skied his way into fourth, in a photo finish with Chanavat. Given the depth of his heat, Bolger ended up with a fairly comfortable lock on a spot in the final as one of two lucky losers. 

Klæbo won this round comfortably, followed by fellow Norwegian, Thomas Helland Larsen.

Ogden raced in heat two, where he was not able to keep himself in contention with the leaders. Ogden skied to sixth in the heat, which was won by Håvard Solås Taugbøl and Richard Jouve in a photo finish. 

Ben Ogden stays in contact with the pack during the quarterfinal of the freestyle sprint in Lillehammer. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Perhaps surprising given his legacy in skate sprints, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino was also knocked out in the second heat of the quarters. Pellegrino had qualified in 19th, and finished the semi together with Jouve and Taugbøl, but was ultimately not fast enough for the lucky loser spot. 

Racing in heat five with stars and stripes on his suit, buff, and gloves, Schoonmaker tactically skied his way into the semis. The American was tucked into the leaders’ draft on early downhills, moving up on the final climb at roughly the two-minute mark. Here, Schoonmaker challenged the men at the front as they headed into the final hairpin before the closing straightaway. Coming to the line with Gleb Retivykh (RUS) and Sindre Bjørnestad Skar (NOR), Schoonmaker threw his boot forward to clinch second place in the heat, automatically advancing to the next round. 

JC Schoonmaker skis his way into the semis during the quarterfinal of the freestyle sprint in Lillehammer. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Guaranteed a top-12 finish, Schoonmaker was one step closer to his Olympic goal, and would race in the semi-final in back-to-back sprint races. Without a deep dive into the stats here, let’s just say: it’s been a minute since an American has done that. And he’s only 21. 

The semis were half-Norwegian: four in the first heat with Bolger, and two in the second heat with Schoonmaker. 

Bolger skied in the middle of the pack during the opening kilometer of his semi, again marking the leaders and staying in good position for the final push. Rounding the bend into the stadium, Bolger ended up just off pace at the back of the pack as Klæbo led the way to the finish with enough room to stand up before gliding across the line. 

While Klæbo was comfortable in his position, the three men heading to the line on his tails were not. Again in a photo finish, Taugbøl and Jouve fought for the second spot, with Larsen alongside. Taugbøl edged out the Frenchman in the boot slide, with Larsen setting a fast time in fourth, awaiting results from the second round to determine lucky losers. Bolger finished the round in sixth. 

Kevin Bolger marks Johannes Høsflot Klæbo during the semifinal in Lillehammer. France’s Lucas Chanavat races on the left in bib 2. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The second semifinal was a nail biter. With numerous lead changes and a spread of just 0.5 seconds at the finish, it was anyone’s game. Schoonmaker again looked confident pushing the pace, staying in the mix with leaders throughout the meat of the course. Rounding the bend and heading into the final straightaway, he was in excellent position on the tails of Sweden’s Marcus Grate. 

Charging down the final straight, Grate and Finland’s Lauri Vuorinen pulled ahead slightly as the remaining four men remained matched. These men went 1-2, while the remainder of the field crossed the line a ski length behind in a four-way photo finish. Ultimately, the order was determined to be: Alexander Bolshunov, Erik Valnes, Finn Hågen Krogh, then Schoonmaker, all separated by 0.1 seconds. 

To the line, JC Schoonmaker fights for millimeters, crossing in a four-way photo finish in the semifinal.  Marcus Grate (Bib 12) holds the lead. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Take a moment to let the names of the men finishing around Schoonmaker sink in. 

As fat flakes began to fall, the athletes kept their warm-up layers on until the two-minute warning, springing up and down and running sprints to stay warm and sharp for the final go. On home turf, the closing round was half-Norwegian, with Klæbo, Taugbøl in their national team suits and Larsen racing in his leopard-print club suit. 

Leaving nothing to chance, Klæbo held his ground near the front of the pack, tucking in Grate’s draft in the early downhills, and putting his foot on the gas as the men headed up the final climb with less than a minute of racing to go. Pulling ahead as they headed into the straightaway, Klæbo looked like he was on cruise control, powering through the first half in V2, before looking over his shoulder, then raising his arms in celebration as he cruised across the line alone for the win in 2:52.48. 

Redemption: Johannes Høsflot Klæbo takes the win in the opening sprint stage of Lillehammer’s mini tour. Norway’s Thomas Helland Larsen (Bib 30) edged out France’s Richard Jouve for second and third, respectively. (Photo: NordicFocus)

A couple of ski lengths behind him, Larsen and Jouve fought to the line for the final podium spots. The Norwegian pulled ahead as he slid across the line for second (+0.58), with Jouve just behind for third (+0.78).

“It was a really tough race today, and it’s been quite a week from last week,” Klæbo told FIS at the finish line. “I’m really satisfied to cross the finish line first, and it was a special day.” 

Commenting on the new course used today in Lillehammer, which, at roughly 1.6k, was nearly 200 meters longer than the previous one, Klæbo spoke favorably of the change. 

“I think it’s really cool that we have changed the tracks a little bit. It’s something different and I think they have done an amazing job here to make this happen, and to also have this nice track. So I’m really satisfied.”

Johannes Høsflot Klæbo congratulates countryman Thomas Helland Larsen after the two went 1-2 in Lillehammer’s freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Rounding out the top-six, Taugbøl took fourth (+1.68), ahead of Vuorinen in fifth (+4.43) and Grate in sixth (+20.73). 

Once the final round was settled, it was concluded that Schoonmaker ended his day in 11th, followed by Bolger. Ogden ended his day in 30th. None of the Americans would hit the Olympic qualification standard today, but it remains clear that they are well within reach. 

After returning to their hotel down in town, Schoonmaker provided the following feedback on his pacing and strategy today relative to last weekend in Ruka:

“This course was a lot longer than Ruka, so I had to think a lot more about pacing especially in the qualifier. I tried to take it out fairly conservative so I could finish strong on the last section. In the heats, I actually had a pretty similar strategy to Ruka of trying to relax in the pack for as long as possible before trying to push to the front in the end. I tried to pick a heat that had guys who were closest to my time in the qualifier so that I would be able to hang in the pack easier than if I had chosen quarterfinal #1 with all the top qualifiers. I felt like I followed the plan well and was really happy with the way I skied.”

Remarking on his day and racing in the semis on back-to-back weekends, Schoonmaker gave a very process-oriented response.

“It was an awesome experience to race against so many big names and to feel like I was in the mix. I wish I had had a little bit more to give in the end of that semi to move on but still really happy with it. I’m pumped to have made semis twice in a row now because each time I get past the quarters, I’m doubling my heat experience and getting a step closer to making the final.”

In his post-race email, Bolger explained that he found the course used today in Lillehammer to be “really cool, really fun, and very hard.”

“I think it allowed a lot of good spectating, and I think coming into the weekend we all thought it was going to be an easier course, but we all soon found out that it it was a very challenging course — very physically demanding, and a lot of work… its also nice to do something new, instead of the same courses all the time.”

On his approach to the day and heat selection, “It was a bit scary picking heat 1 for my quarterfinal,” Bolger wrote. “I did something similar back at world champs in Seefeld, but I knew if i could put together a good race that I could compete with those guys, and talking with [Chris] Grover, we both decided it could be a great heat to get into the semis either by qualifying out right or as a lucky loser.”

He added that he would have preferred the second semifinal heat, but this was out of his hands.

“Tactically though, not much changes [with heat selection], especially on a course like today where I don’t think there were so many tactics. I just wanted to ski big and own my space, I was lucky enough to take the back of Klæbo and follow him for a while, which was brutal but great. Also, I think having killer skis played a big factor in today and helped me advance as far as I did so a huge shout out to our wax crew and my tech Oleg!”

Last weekend, in Ruka, Bolger qualified in 57th, well outside the heats. He explained that he was “searching for more this weekend”, while recognizing that racing in Norway, which allows the home country to enter additional athletes, would make it an even harder job. He equated it to narrowing the Top-30 down to a Top-15 in terms of the density of fast times and percent back needed for qualification today.

“Coming here and putting together a really strong day and having a high result definitely boosts my confidence in myself and my training,” Bolger continued. “But it is just one race. t+There is a lot of racing to be done yet and I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to get in another good race next weekend in Davos and to hopefully have an even better day! Lastly, I think how this men’s team is vibing together and how we are all feeding off each other’s success — I owe a lot to them. Being out there today in the heats with Ben and JC gives me a lot of extra fighting strength. We all believe in each other and and get each other super hyped. I think that helps a lot on a sprint day!”

There were several near-misses outside the top-30, including Luke Jager, who was just 0.7 seconds off the time (2:52.31) needed for qualification in 33rd. 

Just missing the top-30, Luke Jager skis to 33rd in the qualifying round of Lillehammer’s freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Gus Schumacher qualified in 41st, just over a second out of the heats, followed closely by Canada’s Russell Kennedy and Graham Ritchie in 42nd and 43rd, respectively. 

Rounding out the North American men’s squad, Logan Hanneman (USA) finished 45th, with Olivier Levielle (CAN) 48th, and Antoine Cyr (CAN) 56th. 

In a post-race interview, Matt Whitcomb shared insights into the new course in Lillehammer, as well as how athletes selected their tactics for the two-lap course, his perspective on the men’s racing, and a detailed explanation of why qualification for the heats in World Cup sprinting is a unique skill that athletes need to hone.

Leading the way for Canada, Russell Kennedy skis to 42nd in the qualifying round of Lillehammer’s freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)


Qualification | Final

Rachel Perkins

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

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