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With Christmas decor lining a ribbon of snow providing a better indication that we are nearing the end of Period I and heading into the holiday season than the surrounding green grass in Dresden, Germany, athletes took to the track in the city for yet another iteration of its thrilling sprint weekend. Humid conditions well above freezing made for fast racing on the two-lap course, which often sees spicy turns and tactics, without a significant climb to separate the field in a deciding manner.
If you’d like a throwback from January, 2018, here’s a video clip from Instagram where Simi Hamilton painfully face-plants, just after having broken the pole of Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. This left Hamilton with a lip full of carbon-fiber splinters and plenty of abrasions from the harsh granular track. Good times.
After the first three weekends of racing, 21-year-old JC Schoonmaker sat in second place in the U23 World Cup standings, and 27th in the overall World Cup ranks. Showing he was ready to build on this platform, Schoonmaker smashed the qualifier, finishing third, 1.16 seconds behind Norway’s Håvard Solås Taugbøl and roughly 0.3 behind Richard Jouve of France, who qualified in second.
In an episode of Nordic Nation recorded earlier this week, Schoonmaker, along with teammates Ben Ogden and Gus Schumacher, discussed how their results in the early season races have encouraged them to raise their limits and take chances in their sprinting as they transition into their senior racing careers. Instead of choosing heat four or five, which they explained shows that one is limiting their potential on the day to the semifinal, they wanted to begin racing in earlier heats with the top qualifiers. Thus increasing their risk of being knocked out early, but also learning what it takes to advance further through the rounds.
Today, Schoonmaker raced in heat one alongside Taugbøl and Jouve, along with Even Northug (NOR), Johan Häggström (SWE), and teammate Logan Hanneman, who qualified in 7th, 28th, and 30th, respectively.
The first lap of the race, the pace was fast but the men looked cool, each carefully navigating the hairpin curves and not racing aggressively. As they accelerated in the second lap, Schoonmaker kept himself in contact with Jouve, who was not in the lead, but still racing in a position of control at the front with Taugbøl. Dropping into a tuck coming off a roller and safely rounding the hairpin, Schoonmaker headed to the final straight behind Jouve. As they powered through the final lanes, it was Taugbøl and Jouve at the front for a photo finish, with Northug finishing just ahead of Schoonmaker close on their tails for third and fourth.
As the remaining quarterfinals progressed, it became clear that Heat 1 was the fastest, allowing both Northug and Schoonmaker to advance to the semifinals.
Hanneman also stayed in contact through the round, finishing 1.88 second behind the leaders, but sixth in the heat. After the final rounds were decided, Hanneman’s position was 30th overall on the day.
Also racing in the quarters, Canada’s Graham Ritchie qualified in 16th and raced in the fifth quarterfinal heat. In a competitive position throughout the second lap, Ritchie came into the final hairpin on the inside of the curve, looking to slide up in position heading into the final stretch. Perhaps lacking real estate along the v-board, Ritchie went down, losing his position and ability to advance further. He ended his day in 26th.
A post-race Instagram story posted by Ritchie’s coach Erik Bråten captioned “sh*t happens” showed his ski tip had broken off and the base had delaminated — not ideal.
Racing in the first semifinal, Schoonmaker looked comfortable and smooth, approaching the round in a similar way as the first in terms of his positioning heading into the second lap.
At the front, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, last year’s winner, set the tone alongside Taugbøl, with Jouve in a strong position on their tails.
Putting faith in his boards and catching a quick draft, Schoonmaker again dropped low coming down the last roller and into the final curve. Once again, he was following Jouve and in contact with the front of the pack, however, as they headed into the final lanes, he was only in position to take fifth in the heat, unable to advance into the final round.
Still a very strong overall result, Schoonmaker ended his day in 9th overall.
In a post-race interview, Schoonmaker discussed his decision to select heat one, along with his rollerski warm up, maintaining the headspace needed to perform between rounds, and what’s next for him over the next few weeks. A quick note, we had some trouble with WiFi connection, which interrupted some of Schoonmaker’s comments. The trials of remote reporting from eight time zones away.
Taugbøl took the win in the first semi, with Pellegrino narrowly staying ahead of Chanavat in second and third. Jouve was just 0.3 seconds behind his teammate, leaving the two Frenchman in wait to see whether they would advance as lucky losers.
Lead changes and tight racing developed the plot line of the second heat of the semis, which featured Northug and his teammate Sindre Bjørnestad Skar fighting for position at the front with two Russians, Gleb Retivykh and Alexander Terentev, who beat Klæbo in the opening sprint in Ruka and currently ranks just ahead of Schoonmaker in the U23 standings.
Each unable to break away at the front on the fast and flat tracks, Northug, Skar, and Retivykh came to the line in unison, throwing their boots for a three-way photo finish. Though their times were indistinguishable, it was determined that their finish order was just that: Northug, Skar, Retivykh, with Terentev a ski length behind in fourth. Men crashed in every direction crossing the line, falling to the ground and gasping for air to evidence the intensity of the effort.
By the clock, Jouve and Terentev were on the wrong side of the cusp for lucky loser. They ended their day in the semis, while Retivykh and Chanavat advanced to the final.
More lead changes and thrill, Chanavat took the lead in the first lap of the final. Lapping over the finish line for the first time, Taugbøl moved to the front while Pellegrino lurked on their tails. Down the backstretch, the Italian moved up alongside Chanavat, skiing powerfully on Taugbøl’s tails as they safely rounded the first hairpin. Not looking to cede space, Taugbøl held himself in a position of command at the front.
Around the final curve, Pellegrino tried to sneak around the outside of Taugbøl, but could not quite gain enough ground to find the lead. Heading into the final straightaway, Pellegrino was attacking the track with a powerful V2, but it was still Taugbøl with the advantage at the front, crossing the line just 0.15 seconds ahead of the Italian.
In pursuit, France’s Lucas Chanavat crossed the line a ski length behind Pellegrino for the third step of the podium (+0.68), with Northug, Skar, and Retivykh crossing a few meters behind to close out the final round in fourth (+1.22), fifth (+2.01), and sixth (+6.15).
Today’s result marked Taugbøl’s fist career World Cup victory.
“It feels pretty good,” he told FIS humbly after the race. “It’s of course a goal I have tried to reach my whole life, and to do that in Dresden in a show sprint venue, it’s really fun and I’m proud of myself today.”
Taugbøl also spoke to his highly-respected opponents with whom he shared the podium.
“Of course to beat guys like Pellegrino and Chanavat, it’s a dream come true. If you try to count how many podiums and victories they have, I can’t count so far. So it’s amazing to be there with them.”
Despite not adding another win to his resume, today’s result perhaps marks a turning point in the start of Pellegrino’s season. The Italian, who has been a force in skate sprints for many seasons now, had not raced in a final yet this season.
In an Olympic year that features a freestyle sprint, Pellegrino will be looking to find his peak form in February. The Italian was 11th in the event at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and took second in the classic sprint, his weaker discipline, in PyeongChang in 2018, just behind Klæbo.
Outside the top 30, Kevin Bolger, who was 6th in the individual sprint in Dresden last year, qualified in 42nd (+7.97). Bolger was roughly two seconds outside the top-30.
Following Bolger, Ben Ogden finished 51st in the qualifier (+9.37), with Luke Jager in 63rd (+10.73).
Racing for Canada, Russell Kennedy took 48th (+8.85) in qualification.
The weekend of city sprinting continues tomorrow with men’s and women’s team sprints.
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