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After a thrilling women’s relay event on Saturday, it was the men’s turn to compete, each athlete skiing the laps of 3.3-kilometers for a total of 4 x 10 k. In a surprising turn of events, more snow than has fallen in a decade came down in Zhangjiakou over the last 24 hours, altering the otherwise stable man-made conditions the men have raced to this point. Conditions being what they were, heavy snowfall and 11°F on challenging courses, this made for an especially long race.
The ROC proved to best handle the conditions, winning gold in 1:54:50.7. Norway skied to silver (+1:07.2), with France taking bronze (+1:16.4), while the American men skied to ninth (+8:05.6), with the Canadians in 11th (+9:10.4).
Men’s skiing for the past few years has been dominated by two nations, Norway and Russia (or as they are known at these Games, the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC)). When it comes to the men’s 4 x 10 k relay however, Norway has historically been in a class of its own.
Since Team Norway’s all-around poor showing at Sochi in 2014, which included the men’s team finishing 4th, they have not lost a championship relay. Indeed, looking at relay results from World Championships, you have to dig all the way back to 1999 to find Norway not winning gold, when Norway finished second to Austria in Ramsau. Their performances at the Olympics have been less dominant but most relevant for today’s race, they won gold in PyeongChang in 2018 with the same man, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, in the anchor leg.
As such, despite the Norwegian men’s struggles thus far at these games, it seemed likely that fans would be seeing another battle between Norway and the ROC for top spot. Fifteen nations were represented on the start line and as the first leg was underway Sunday morning, the race appeared to be playing out remarkably similarly to the World Championships in Oberstdorf last year.
A brief recap for those who don’t remember, in heavy snowfall, ROC athlete Alexey Chervotkin made an early move and ended his leg with nearly a minute lead on the rest of the field which was later eaten up and the win went to Norway. Today it was a different story.
Chervotkin was once again in the scramble position for the ROC and he put the hammer down right from the start gun. At 4.3 k he had a gap of +12.6 seconds to the rest of the field and that was the closest anyone got to the ROC for the rest of the race. Although it took three more athletes and another hour and forty-one minutes of skiing to seal the deal.
Making his first appearance at these games after some controversy regarding a start in the 15 k classic, Emil Iversen took the first leg for Norway. For the majority of his leg, Iversen did the work to pull at the front of the chase group, which was composed of teams Italy, Germany, Sweden and France. No doubt inspired by the German women’s relay performance, Janosch Brugger skied a strong leg for Germany, ultimately pulling away with Italy’s Federico Pelligrino in the final kilometers of their leg.
With Iversen fading fast on the final lap up the A-climb, Brugger and Pelligrino gapped the Norwegian by 10 seconds, coming into the first exchange +23.5 and +24.1, respectively, behind Chervotkin of the ROC. Next came Iversen, who tagged his teammate, Pål Golberg, with a gap of +34.4 to the ROC.
Despite the hard work put in by Chervotkin, the conditions were such that it took him 30:14.7 to ski 10 k, which is much slower than we might normally expect. Chervotkin had taken 5th place in the 15 k classic on Friday in 38:51.7 with stable conditions; five additional kilometers in roughly 8.5 minutes longer.
With the first leg complete, it was skiathlon winner Alexander Bolshunov who took over for the Russian Olympic Committee. Grinding out front on his own, Bolshunov continued to put time into the rest of the field, widening his lead to +37.8 through 13.3 k, up to +44.5 at 16.6 k and +59.5 at the completion of his three laps.
Behind him, Golberg worked quickly to close the gap to Italy and Germany, legs which were being skied by Francesco de Fabiani and Friedrich Moch. Over the course of his second lap, Golberg began to pull away, creating a ten second gap to the chasers. However, as the skiers completed the third, and their final, 3.3 k lap, things were shaking up.
Iivo Niskanen, having been tagged in 11th position and +1:47.5 behind, was executing another outstanding classic performance, gaining time on everyone in the field. With the Finn closing quickly, what had been two chase groups merged to one.
Moch for Germany, William Poromaa for Sweden, Hugo Lapalus for France and Niskanen for Finland were all battling for bronze medal position as de Fabiani of Italy faded off the back. Up the final A-climb that had been the undoing of Iversen one leg earlier, Golberg too began to slow.
This show of weakness was all Poromaa needed to up the pace, and by the time they entered the stadium for the second exchange, the Swede had caught the Norwegian.
Golberg tagged Hans Christer Holund, +59.5 behind Bolshunov who had given way to Denis Spitsov. Poromaa handed over to Jens Burman, +59.7 behind the ROC. Behind them, Niskanen had moved his team from 11th to 4th and gained 36 seconds on the ROC as he tagged Perttu Hyvarinen. Lapalus of France handed off to Clement Parisse, +1:09.7 back.
Having switched to freestyle technique, the third leg was underway and suddenly there was a pack of five nations vying for silver and bronze position, the ROC nearly a minute ahead and all but secured the gold.
Despite the deep snow, Spitsov (ROC) seemed to have no trouble maintaining his advantage as Holund (NOR) took up the mantle of the chase. Through 23.3 k, Holund led the train, still trailing +51.4 behind the ROC.
After Niskanen’s effort, the Finnish team was dropping quickly with Hyvarinen at the helm and was soon out of contention. Florian Notz, skiing for Germany, was also beginning to fade, seeming to drift off the back on each uphill and regain time on the downhill. Eventually, as the chase group entered the stadium for the final lap of their leg, Notz lost contact, bringing the group down to three nations, Norway, Sweden and France.
Spitsov still clear off the front, Holund continued to lead the chase. With each section of downhill it became clear that the skis of Parisse (FRA) were not gliding like those of Burman (SWE) and Holund (NOR). In spite of this, and perhaps thanks to the trailside encouragement of his teammates, Parisse dug deep to stay in contact with the Swede and the Norwegian.
With 1:27:09.3 on the clock, Spitsov tagged off to Sergey Ustigov, still well clear of the rest of the field. Gaining a few meters on the Frenchman, Holund and Burman tagged their anchor legs with virtually no time between them, +44.9 and +45.4 behind the ROC. A few seconds later, Parisse gave way to the veteran Maurice Manificat, +49.2.
This lengthy battle now in its final stages, Manificat worked to close the gap to Sweden and Norway, making the chase pack a group of three once again.
The skis still looked to be a challenge for France as Norway’s anchor, Klæbo, pulled away from the other two by thirteen seconds on the descent towards the stadium, in a move that appeared to be largely unintentional. Not letting up, Manificat took on the task of closing on Klæbo once again, pulling Sweden’s Johan Häggström with him. The second time up the last A-climb of the 3.3 k loop, Manificat busted away from the Swede, catching Klæbo, who appeared to be out for an easy distance ski.
Through the stadium for the final time with 36.6 k complete, Ustigov and the ROC was +1:04.3 clear of France and Norway.
To put it bluntly, the last 3.3 k were hard to watch. Knowing he had no chance of beating the Norwegian in a sprint finish, Manificat continued to push to his limit, his ski speed not doing him any favors. Klæbo was all too happy to sit in behind, drafting easily as Manificat tried his best to shake him. In the end, Klæbo did not even have to reach into his bag of tricks, he simply out-glided the Frenchman, who could do nothing about it.
Many meters ahead, Ustigov cruised into the stadium, grabbed an ROC flag and waved it triumphantly as he crossed the finish line before any challengers had even entered the stadium. Finishing in a time of 1:54:50.7 the men secured the second relay gold medal of the Games, after the ROC women brought home gold in the 4 x 5 k yesterday.
Chervotkin, who gave the ROC such a strong start, said of winning gold, “we were aiming for this. We tried to achieve it, and for several years we haven’t been able to. Today everything aligned. Everything was super. The weather seemed to be hard and there was snow but it was in our favor so everything was great.”
Despite the consistent strength of the Russian team, they have not won a 4 x 10 k relay in over forty years. The last time they topped the podium in this event it was under yet another name, as the Soviet Union, at Lake Placid in 1980. Of course in recent years, they have consistently been runner-up, earning silver in 2021 Obserstdorf, 2019 Seefeld, 2018 PyeongChang and 2017 Falun.
Today the positions were reversed as Klæbo skied slowly across the line for silver, having simply glided away from Manificat in the closing stages. He was met by rather somber congratulations from his teammates, particularly in comparison to the French who celebrated their bronze as if it were gold.
After the race, Klæbo said, “when you’re doing a relay, you’re doing it as a team and that is the beautiful part of it, so it’s always fun to race the relay and do it together. We all need to be satisfied with today’s result, and I guess we’re going to celebrate it in the evening and then some of us need to start preparing for the next race. But still we’re going to enjoy this evening.”
His teammate Pål Golberg spoke about the challenging conditions, saying, “The course was tough before and with the snow and wind today, it was even tougher. So I mean, with altitude and everything it’s challenging but we did our best today. The four Russian guys were better so just take the hat off to them and try to be satisfied with the silver.”
If Norway has held a monopoly on gold in the men’s relay, then the same can be said about the French and bronze. This is the third consecutive Olympics that France has earned bronze in the men’s 4 x 10 relay and Maurice Manificat has played a part in all of them. Similarly, in the last four World Championships, France has collected bronze in three of them.
When asked about winning another medal at the Games, Manificat replied, “four Olympics for me and some medals in the relay since Sochi, so for sure it’s an amazing feeling.”
Regarding the challenge of trying to drop Klæbo he said, “I tried, in the big uphill and I give my best, I give all I had. Medal in relay is the best medal. Because you share it together. We thought all the year about the relay, it’s our soul.”
With three teams lapped out of the race and the spread between the ROC and 12th place finishers, the Czech Republic at +10:07.1, the day was evidently a tough one.
Improving on an 11th place finish in PyeongChang, the American men skied to 9th place today, +8:05.6 behind.
Luke Jager took the scramble leg for Team USA, putting the team in 13th, +2:39 behind at the conclusion of his leg.
“I felt kind of like I’d become sort of aware of some of the subtleties of how scramble legging in skiing works in the last years, but it was sort of like, all that went out the window,” Jager told FasterSkier from the mixed zone. “For a lot of reasons: the course is really hard, the altitude was really hard, and 10 k versus five or 7.5, was a really big difference. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t fit enough to be where I want to be and there was no hiding to be had. So, I feel like I learned a lot from it, but I just feel like I need to go home and train a lot more.”
While Jager chalked it up as a disappointment, he contrasted the statement it with: “that’s obviously multifaceted. There’s pros to it all, and I’m really thankful to be here.”
Up next was Scott Patterson, who started the Games with an impressive 11th place finish in the skiathlon. Patterson bumped the team up into 11th place, though the time gap continued to widen at +4:23.2.
“I think as we’ve seen in every race this week, those courses are pretty unforgiving,” Patterson explained. “I felt like I had to go out and ski my own race and not really think too much about what everyone else was doing, just go move into the race and try to ski well. It was a little bit interesting place where Luke tagged me off, but I think I picked off some people and put us in a good spot, so I’m happy with that.”
Patterson tagged Gus Schumacher who maintained their position in 11th place and finished his leg +6:04 behind. In the anchor position, Kevin Bolger moved past both the Japanese and Czech team to put the team in 9th place.
“I’m proud of us for coming together the team,” said Schumacher after the race. “We’ve all had some tough races here… It hasn’t been easy for us. I think it’s a little bit hard especially to have the girls’ success – there’s some pressure there.”
While the team was seemingly unanimous that this pressure was self-imposed and that it had been a relief to feel they had “nothing to lose and everything to gain,” the Americans also affirmed that they brought hopeful energy to the day, looking to take a step forward as a team, regardless of what that looked like on paper.
Over the last four Olympic cycles, the Americans have been 11th place in the last two Games, along with 12th in 2006 and 13th in 2010. It might not be a medal, but it was, in fact, a step forward for the program.
“I think we all really put it out there and yeah, good energy,” Schumacher concluded.
The Canadian team was led out by Graham Ritchie who ended his leg in 14th, +2:42 behind. Antoine Cyr took the second classic leg and moved up one position to 13th, +4:23.2.
In the transition to skate, Olivier Léveillé skied Canada’s third leg, again moving the team up one position to 12th, +6:44.6. Rémi Drolet anchored to bring the team home in 11th position, +9:10.4.
“The relay is really a game of staying in contact,” Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier in the mixed zone. “When you lose contact, it becomes a different race. Time expands immeasurably. So I’m very proud of the way that these guys tackled the project that they’re handled today. There’s also – and I say it with a Canadian over my shoulder – this is one of our favorite rivalries: our northern friends. And it really is a friendly and very fun rivalry, where we’re always giving each other splits back and forth, and I’m proud of both teams today. And I’m also excited for our guys to come out just a little bit on top.”
The next Olympic cross country ski event will be the men’s and women’s team sprint, happening on Wednesday, February 16th.
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.