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By Rachel Bachman Perkins and Ian Tovell
During a brief reprieve from racing, the top tier of international racing made its way from the high desert of Zhangjiakou, China to a venue tucked into snow-capped pines and nestled amongst the lakes of southern Finland. With more start spots per country than during the Games and some athletes choosing a weekend away from the World Cup, a number of new faces appeared on the start lists in Lahti for the 1.6-kiilometer freestyle sprint.
For the U.S., these names included Logan Diekmann (BSF Pro Team) and Bill Harmeyer (SMS T2), both of whom earned their first World Cup starts this weekend via their performance on the SuperTour circuit this season. These athletes joined Kevin Bolger, Logan Hanneman, and Zak Ketterson; the Team Birkie athlete also earned his first World Cup starts earlier this year at the Tour de Ski.
Diekmann currently leads the SuperTour sprint standings with 119 points. He was second in the freestyle sprint during the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Soldier Hollow in January and skied to 5th in the sprint in both Duluth and Lake Placid.
Harmeyer was ranked third in the sprint standings with 83 points, behind Noel Keeffe who is currently racing at the 2022 U23 World Ski Championships in Lygna, NOR. Harmeyer has consistently posted top-five times in qualification during the SuperTour sprint races, and has raced into the final in three out of six SuperTour sprints. A fall in the quarterfinal during US Nationals left him in 24th after qualifying in fifth.
Lucas Chanavat (FRA) was the top qualifier finishing the course in a time of 2:57.85. All five of the Americans finished outside the top-30 in qualification, but Canadian Graham Ritchie cracked into the heats for North America in 27th (+7.73).
The quarterfinal rounds played out mostly as expected, with Chanavat and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) advancing from the first round after a close finish. Norway’s Håvard Solås Taugbøl and Olympic silver medalist Federico Pellegrino of Italy crossed the line first and second in heat two, spread by just 0.06 seconds. Winning the third heat, Andrew Young (GBR) crossed the line in 3:04.32, just ahead of Russia’s Gleb Retivykh (+.20).
The fourth quarterfinal heat saw a close finish, as Sindre Bjørnestad Skar (NOR) took the race to the line alongside Richard Jouve of France and Alexander Bolshunov of Russia were right at his heels. Skar won the closing sprint with Jouve +0.01 behind and Bolshunov in third (+0.07). Michal Novak (+.49) of the Czech Republic finished in fourth, with both Novak and Bolshunov narrowly missing out on lucky losers.
Fast racing in the fifth heat saw four competitors advance to the next round. Janik Riebli (SUI) won the heat in a time of 2:59.56, while China’s Qiang Wang finished second (+.10) to move onto the semis. A top prospect for the Chinese ski program, this is Wang’s first World Cup appearance since the pandemic began. Wang was fifth in qualification during the Olympic freestyle sprint in Zhangjiakou, where he took second in his heat to Norway’s Erik Valnes before being issued a disqualification for obstruction and being relegated last in the heat.
Following the pace of the leaders, Maciej Starega (+.64) of Poland and Arnaud Chautemps (+1.61) of France crossed the line third and fourth to advance into the semis as lucky losers.
In the first semifinal, five skiers all remained close coming into the finish to vie for the two automatic spots. Pellegrino was able to hold the field off and win the semi with a time of 2:59.57, however, he was later disqualified, pushing him to sixth place. Klæbo crossed in second (+.07), guaranteeing his spot in the final, while Chanavant and Taugbøl were third (+.21) and fourth (+.37), respectively. Due to Pellegrino’s disqualification, Taugbøl was able to make it through to the final as a lucky loser.
In the second semi, Retivykh held off a push from Skar to win in 2:59.67, with the Norwegian 0.02 behind. Wang crossed third (+.34) with a time fast enough to earn the second lucky loser spot in the final.
In the final, an early tangle between Wang and Retivykh as the two rounded a corner sent the Chinese athlete to the ground, losing contact with the pack.
The remaining five men stayed close as they powered through the course. Rounding the bend into the final 100 meters, four skiers remained in contention for the podium, but it was Klæbo who slingshot from the outside, putting his closing speed on display as he threw his boot to win a photo finish with Chanavat in 2:58.34, Skar and Taugbøl on their tails.
The Norwegian had advantage at the finish, with Chanavat just 0.04 seconds back in second place. Skar held off his teammate for the final podium spot in third (+.23), while Taugbøl took fourth (+0.58). Retivykh crossed a few meters back in fifth (+0.90), while Wang rebounded from his crash to finish 7.77 seconds behind in sixth.
“It was amazing,” Klæbo told FIS after the race. “It isn’t so many days since we competed in the Olympics, but still, it’s always fun to race.”
Klæbo commented on the excitement of racing in Lahti, which has hosted many championship events including the 2019 World Championships. He added that the racing on these tracks is often tight, which keeps it exciting for spectators – of which there were many today. When asked about racing in front of a crowd after nearly two years of empty stadiums, Klæbo smiled.
“It was amazing. I think what they have done, and finally seeing the end of the COVID situation – I think it’s amazing. It’s always great to compete against a big crowd, and it was amazing today as well.”
After finishing fifth in a tightly spread third quarterfinal heat, Graham Ritchie bumped up from his bib rank to finish 24th.
Kevin Bolger was the top American qualifier in Lahti in 33rd (+8.90), just 0.41 seconds off the mark needed for the top-30. On his tails was Diekmann in 34th (+9.14), with Hanneman close behind in 39th (+9.79). Ketterson was next for the U.S. in 49th (+12.13), with Harmeyer next in 50th (+12.28).
Outside the top-30 for Canada, Antoine Cyr was 40th in qualification (+9.99), with Olivier Léveillé next in 46th (+11.79), followed by Phillippe Boucher in 55th (+14.02) and Rémi Drolet in 58th (+15.87).
Racing continues tomorrow with a 15 k individual start classic.