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After a warm and rainy fall, temperatures dropped just in time for the athletes arrival in Lillehammer, Norway this weekend. The original program for Saturday’s competition was a 30 k skiathlon but low snow conditions forced a last minute change and the race became a 15 k individual start skate. Between last season’s cancelled races due to COVID and this season’s snow shortage, the athletes will have to wait another year to return to the iconic course out of the Birkebeineren Ski Stadium. Instead, the race was held in the former Biathlon stadium where saved snow farming was already in store, creating a 3.6 k loop to be completed four times for the men. In spite of this, the scene at the start line was one of winter as the athletes lined up, jumping out of the start gate to light snow and 18 degrees Fahrenheit.
While individual start races can often be about one or two skiers dominating splits from the start, today’s race was initially difficult to discern. For one, with fewer cameras on the course than this spoiled reporter has become accustomed to, the race was harder to follow visually. For another, after a concentration of Norwegian starters in the bib range of 31-42, many of the Russian men did not start for another ten minutes or more, with seeded red-bib wearing Alexander Bolshunov (RUS) starting a full fifteen minutes after the unseeded, and eventual winner, Simen Hegstad Krüger of Norway. As such, a rephrasing of the popular saying “don’t count your chickens until they’ve hatched,” to “don’t count on your position until you’ve crossed the finish line” aptly applies.
After the Norwegian men’s absence in the 15 k skate pursuit last weekend in Ruka, they appeared to be re-asserting their depth and strength in their home country, and it was clear through the early splits. But as more Russian’s headed out on the course it seemed that perhaps we would see a repeat podium sweep. At 3.7 k Sergey Ustiugov (RUS) had the fastest time, followed closely by Bolshunov (RUS) with another three of their compatriots in the top 10, while Hans Christer Holund and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo were the sole Norwegians in 5th and 10th respectively. At 6.1 k it was the Czech skier, Michal Novak, who held the lead while Krüger (NOR) had worked his way up, though the Russians still held places four through six, and nine.
However, as the race wore on the Russian’s began to fade quickly while the Norwegian wave rode to the front once more.
Skiing steadily Krüger (NOR) ticked off the kilometers, followed closely by his teammate Holund. At the 4.6 k mark, Krüger was in fourth, at 7.4 k he had the second fastest split, and by 9.8 k he had taken the lead. When early race leader, Ustiugov (RUS) crossed the finish line +1:08.7 behind the Norwegian for an eventual 24th place finish we saw Krüger flash a little grin to the camera from his place in the leaders chair. The only remaining question was Bolshunov (RUS) who started in bib 70.
Through 6.1 k Bolshunov was in sixth position, at 7.4 k he was in first though he dropped to fifth at 8.3 k. When he passed 9.8 k in 6th it seemed clear that Krüger would take gold and sure enough, Bolshunov was unable to gain anything over the last 5 k, finishing in 14th, +44.3 seconds back from Krüger.
“It was such a tough race with Holund [starting] thirty seconds ahead of me,” Krüger told FIS after the race. “We had to give everything we had, I know he’s in good form and I gave everything to be in front of him. It was a good battle.”
Hans Christer Holund held steady for a second place finish, just 1.6 seconds behind his fellow countryman. The dark horse of the day was Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget of Norway, who moved from 10th place at 9.8 k to finish third, his first outright World Cup podium. (Nyenget was third in the Classic Pursuit stage of the 2020 FIS Ski Tour in Östersund and had the fastest time of the day).
Thus it was another podium sweep for the men’s 15 k skate, this time the red, white and blue colors belonging to Norway. Indeed, if there were any doubts about their power as a nation, a quick look at the results would clear things up. With seven of the top ten places and ten of the top twenty, their presence is hard to miss. As Krüger said, “it was a good day for the Norwegian team.”
Leading the North American contingent, Gus Schumacher finished the day in 38th position, +1:39.6 behind Krüger but only about 18 seconds behind the 30th place skier. In a field with more Norwegian starters than a weekend hosted by a different country, this result is significant despite not being inside the FIS points.
Behind him was Antoine Cyr of Canada in 42nd who finished 11th in the classic 15 k in Ruka last weekend. In an interview with FIS before the race, Cyr said, “Ruka is always a hard weekend for us because we come from North America, it’s a long way from home. But, it’s a good course and yeah, I was so happy with the result.” When asked about the different courses for this weekend’s races in Lillehammer Cyr answered, “This weekend is going to be hard, skating is not my strong suit, I prefer classic but, it’s the World Cup, like any other World Cup we’re going to give one-hundred percent”.
Following Cyr, the Canadian men finished 56th for Olivier Leveille (+2:28.3), 57th for Russell Kennedy (+2:28.6) and 69th for Graham Ritchie (+3:44.2).
Zanden McMullen was the second US finisher in 48th place (+2:03.9). He was followed by Hunter Wonders in 63rd (+2:52.3), David Norris in 64th (+2:54.3), Ben Ogden in 67th (+3:32.2) and Scott Patterson in 70th (+3:35.8).
Today marked Patterson’s return to the World Cup following a recent surgery on his right wrist. While cleared by his doctors to race, Patterson still remains compromised and does not yet feel he is on form for World Cup racing. Here is some additional insight he provided via email.
“My wrist is improving, but is definitely still limiting my racing,” Patterson wrote. “I’m just over 5 weeks out of surgery. In order to protect the repair, I have been skiing in a brace and raced in that today. While this removes a lot of the stress from my wrist itself, it does modify my technique and make certain elements of skiing considerably more difficult. Today in racing, I felt that with the brace my wrist itself was ok, but the balance of my energy expenditure was thrown off. In racing, I was unable to really utilize my upper body. On a steady grindy course like today, that meant that I was working my legs way harder than necessary for the speed I was skiing. This resulted in the feeling of never aerobically taxing myself while still just skiing tired. I also feel that my recent training has been a lot of threshold and I’m not quite ready for race efforts.
Racing continues tomorrow a 4 x 7.5 k relay to finish out the long weekend in Lillehammer.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.