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Racing continued in Lahti, FIN with the men’s 15-kilometer classic individual start. The field was smaller than usual, with just 68 starters contrasting the 104 racers in the 15 k skate Davos in December, the last World Cup prior to the Tour de Ski. With the seeded athletes wearing the even-numbered bibs 40 and upward, the race would be watching the final starter, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) to see if he will be able to hold off crowd-favorite, Iivo Niskanen (FIN).
That Finland was happy to have its Olympic champion back to race a 15 k classic on home turf was readily apparent as he strode through the wooded course. Chants of “Iivo! Iivo! Iivo!” matched his metronomic tempo, while Finland’s flag waved him along.
Starting near the front of the seeded group in bib 46, Niskanen set the bar through his first lap, holding a narrow lead of 0.4 seconds over Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget of Norway at the 5 k mark. Ilia Semikov and Alexander Bolshunov of Russia crossed in third (+0.8) and fourth (+1.1), while William Poromaa of Sweden rounded out the top 5 (+2.4).
Starting 11 minutes behind the Finn, Klæbo lucked into a ride as Niskanen lapped through the stadium just as the Norwegian took to the course. Accelerating to catch the Finn early, Klæbo and Niskanen pushed the pace at the top of the standings for the next 10 k, Niskanen making the winning pace clear from 5 k ahead.
At the 10 k checkpoint, Klæbo was able to match pace with Niskanen to put himself in the lead with a +7.5 second advantage. Niskanen pulled away from Klæbo at the 11 k mark to make his final push toward the finish. Poromaa was sitting in third (+7.6), with Nygent and Bolshunov rounding out the top 5 in fourth (+9.2) and fifth (+10.1).
As Niskanen made his way to the finish, the crowd erupted. His name echoed through the packed stadium, as he threw his boot to stop the clock at 33:06.5.
With each subsequent finisher, the crowd increased its energy while Niskanen waited in the leader’s chair, a local win looking more and more likely. The final domino was seeing where Klæbo would fall as he crossed the finish line.
Fading in his final lap, Klæbo quickly lost his advantage, sliding behind both Niskanen and Poromaa at the 13.7 k checkpoint. Starting the lap 7.5 seconds ahead of Niskanen, Klæbo had already lost nearly 23 seconds, now sitting 14.7 back on the Finn with just over a kilometer of racing to go. The question then became, can Klæbo get Poromaa?
Sipping a Red Bull and watching the clock, Niskanen watched Klæbo enter the stadium well off the Finn’s mark. Reveling in the excitement of his eighth 15 k classic victory on the World Cup, this time in front of his home crowd, the Finn hopped down and raised his arms into the air for a cacophony of cheers, before congratulating his opponent, Klæbo, on an exciting and hard-fought race.
Klæbo held narrowly held on for second place (+17.6), just ahead of 21-year-old Poromaa who finished in third (+18.0). Alexey Chervotkin (RUS) crossed the line in fourth (+22.0) after sitting just outside the top 5 for a majority of the race. His teammate, Bolshunov rounded out the top five (+24.4).
“It was great,” Niskanen told FIS at the finish. “Couldn’t believe that it’s so nice to ski in front of this audience, so I enjoyed every moment of the course. It was one of the most emotional races, I have to say, because there are so [many] spectators here in Lahti today.”
All of Niskanen’s World Cup victories in the 15 k distance have been in classic, and he’s gone four for four this season. He is now an Olympic champion in the event, adding to his collection of Championship gold medals in the event which began with a win in the 15 k classic at the 2017 World Championships on this course in Lahti.
“I get a bit nervous during the race, because I fell down in the first lap,” Niskanen said of his confidence in today’s race. “Then we skied together with Johannes, and I think he spent a little bit too much energy in the first lap, so it was a tough finish, but at the end I was feeling quite fresh, so it was a nice last lap. We have done a lot of work with the skis now and it seemed that they worked really good in Beijing, and now it’s continuing [here] in Scandinavia. So really happy at the moment that I could make the races like this.”
The FIS interviewer gave a nod to Niskanen’s hard work through the season, but he smiled as if to say this week may not have matched that ethic.
“I have to say, I have been so tired after the Games. We have partied too much so now it’s time to focus more on sport, and let’s see. Hopefully I can manage to win again next weekend [at the Holmenkollen].”
The Canadians had a strong day with two in the top 30. Antoine Cyr finished in 23rd (+1:46.5) while teammate Olivier Léveillé crossed the finish line in 29th (+1:59.1).
On the heels of a strong classic team sprint performance in Zhangjiakou, Cyr was fighting in and out of the top 20 all day. Through the 5k mark, Cry was 19th (+19.3), sliding back to 24th (+1:03.1) at the 10 k mark. Cyr was 11th and 12th in the opening distance races in Ruka in November, and won the 15 k classic during the Canadian Olympic Trials in January.
“[It was a] good day for me today,” Cyr wrote to FasterSkier in a post-race email. “It’s a really fun course and such a historic venue. I felt good and skied well. I thought I had a little bit more in me, but it was a competitive field out there and I missed the top 20 by not much. I am really happy with the result and will see how the shape is going to be for the races to come.”
Also racing for Canada, Rémi Drolet finished in 42nd (+2:41.9), while Philippe Boucher crossed the line in 59th (+3:26.9) and Leo Granbois took 62nd (+3:38.9).
The top American was Scott Patterson, who was just outside the top-30 World Cup point margin finishing in 33rd (+2:11.4). Zak Ketterson was 41st (+2:41.1), while Kevin Bolger took 49th (+2:59.9), and Zanden McMullen skied to 51st (+3:04.5), returning to the World Cup following races at the ongoing 2022 U23 World Ski Championships in Lygna, NOR. The first weekend of World Cup starts for Logan Diekmann saw him cross the line in 65th (+4:30.7).
Following the races, US Ski Team head coach Matt Whitcomb provided insights into both the men’s and women’s races in Lahti, as well as sharing the news that Östersund, SWE may become the host to the initially cancelled World Cup Finals that had been scheduled for Tyumen, Russia. Whitcomb also speaks to the “Olympic hangover” that can make hard for athletes to perform at their best the weekend following the Games, and gave a shoutout to the athletes racing at World Juniors in nearby Lygna.
– Rachel Bachman Perkins contributed
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.