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Most-often the champions of the event, the Norwegian men’s program has been waiting for another crack at the 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay on home turf for the last two years. In 2019, Russia not only won the 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay in Lillehammer but the Russia II team took second as well. The World Cup in Lillehammer that was scheduled for 2020 was first postponed, then cancelled, to manage the nation’s COVID-19 cases. With the opportunity to take back their title at home in 2021, Norway was ready to throw down on the modified tracks in Lillehammer today.
Hoping to be in the mix was the young American team made up of Luke Jager, Ben Ogden, Gus Schumacher, and Zanden McMullen. Each currently 21-years-old, Jager, Ogden, and Schumacher were part of the World Junior Championship back-to-back gold medal teams.
From the Canadian World Junior team who earned a silver medal during that relay in Oberwiesenthal, Germany, Olivier Leveille has moved onto the World Cup and raced today as a member of the Nordiq Canada relay team. Leveille would race as the third leg, following teammates Russell Kennedy and Antoine Cyr, who skied the classic legs. Graham Ritchie would ski the anchor leg for Canada.
A second U.S. team was also entered. This team included Hunter Wonders, David Norris, Kevin Bolger, and JC Schoonmaker, racing in that order.
From the first leg, it was no surprise to see both teams from Russian and Norway leading the pack, separated by only 1.2 seconds. Team France (+9.7) was sitting in fourth place while Jager (19:40.9) was able to keep the U.S. within striking distance in sixth at the first exchange (+10.2).
The United States II team sat in ninth (+25.8), with the Canadians close behind in 13th (+28.1).
During the second classic leg, the lead group compressed. Iivo Niskanen (FIN) closed a 17-second gap for Finland to take the lead at the second exchange. Niskanen won the 15k classic distance opener last weekend in Ruka.
Russia I (+0.4), Norway I (+11.9), Russia II (+12.4), and Norway II (+14.2) rounded out the top 5 as teams made the second tag to begin the final two skate legs of the race.
U.S. I was sitting in 12th place (+27.9) after a strong leg from Ogden, with Cyr passing off for Canada just ahead in 8th place (+22.5) .
As teams entered the stadium after their first 7.5k skate leg, the Norwegians and Russians were back on top, separated by only 1.3 seconds. Skiing the 6th fastest time for his leg, Schumacher was able to move up 5 spots to leave the U.S. I team in 7th (+29.0) (18:11.9). This effort brought the Americans back into the mix at the front of the lead chase group. Canada dropped down to 11th place (+33.5) after the third leg.
As teams made the final exchange, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR I), Sergey Ustiugov (RUS II), Harald Østberg Amundsen (NOR II) and Ivan Yakimushkin (RUS I) took off in a group.
The two Norwegian and Russian teams stayed together as a pack over their last two laps, conserving their energy for a final sprint. This lead pack of four continuously grew their gap from the chase pack, building suspense for moves that might determine the podium.
With 1.5k to go, the lead pack began to accelerate. Moves were made by each team, but all moves were quickly answered. It remained anyone’s game.
Once the lead pack hit the stadium, Klæbo looked to take control, initiating his top gears in hopes of creating separation from the pack. Bringing it down to the wire, Ustiugov followed this attack as the group turned the corner for the last 100m.
In the head to head sprint into the finish, Klæbo showed an edge over Ustiugov, gaining ground and throwing his ski at the line for the win. Sealing the deal on a Norwegian victory, Klæbo stopped the clock at 1:14:58.7 to reclaim the relay at home.
Still in the hunt, Ustiugov brought Russia II home in second (+0.2), with Norway II just behind in third (+1.2). Also edged out at the line, the Russia I team finished fourth (+1.4).
Looking excited and proud, Klæbo shared his thoughts on the day with FIS after the finish.
“It was a really tough one,” Klæbo said. “It was a nice fight and it was for sure really fun to cross the finish line first and to win as a team.”
Emil Iversen, who had raced the second leg, praised Klæbo for his sprinting ability, adding the value his prowess added to the relay team.
“We know we have the best man in the finish. It was a pretty exciting sprint today. It’s nice to have him in the last leg of the relay – he is the best sprinter in the world.”
Closing for the Americans, McMullen skied a strong anchor leg for the U.S. I, finishing 9th overall (+1:02.5). McMullen raced a steady leg to hold the American position near the front of the first chase group, hovering in sixth or seventh position throughout the leg. In the final push, McMullen was overtaken by athletes from the German and first Swedish team.
After the race, Matt Whitcomb provided insight into selection for each of the American teams, along with insights into their performances, conditions in Lillehammer, and the overall team dynamic after the second consecutive three-day race weekend.
At the finish, Canada was just behind the U.S. I team in 10th (+1:15.5), while the United States II team crossed the line further back in 15th (+3:20.9).
After a fantastic weekend of racing in Lillehammer, teams are headed to Davos, SUI for a weekend of freestyle racing. The program includes a freestyle sprint on Saturday, followed by a 15k distance race on Sunday.
Growing up in New England, Ian found his love for cross country skiing and running at a young age. As a lifelong lover of the sport, he fostered his connection to skiing as a coach for a local high school in Maine and a board member for the New England Nordic Ski Association. He's also a regular at the Birkie. In his free time you can find him on the running trails, ski trails, or just enjoying the New England outdoors with his son, Bear.