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In the sport of cross country skiing, the Olympic 15-kilometer individual start classic might be considered the “granddaddy of them all.” The technique was classic, as was the race against the clock, and even the weather on Friday morning seemed to harken to the pitch perfect idea of a ski race we all have in our minds; mid-20s Fahrenheit, -3.5℃ to be exact, and with some sun too. This race, in this discipline, had been raced in 1924 at the first winter Olympiad in Chamonix, when a pair of legendary Norwegians and a Finn graced the podium.
More recent history too, had plenty of threads that this race could potentially follow suit when it played out on Friday. The last 15 k classic World Championship race in March 2021 had seen a Norwegian sweep. Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo has won two of the last 15 k distance events on the World Cup, with Finland’s Iivo Niskanen winning the third. Alexander Bolshunov of Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) stood on two out of three of these podiums.
So which one to follow? Well, it turns out that sometimes, recency bias is the best bias.
Following the thread of history in big, bold, strides was Iivo Niskanen. In doing so, he not only followed, but also made, history too.
Getting there though, was the matter of following a field that showed the complexity and nuance involved in the simple task of racing against the clock for 15 k. The men’s race entailed two laps of a 7.5 k course that included rolling terrain, and plenty of steady, long uphill pitches seemingly perfect to test the ability of skier’s to mix glide and tempo in classic strides.
“It was a brutal, brutal course,” said American JC Schoonmaker in an interview with FasterSkier. “There’s so many long, gradual, working sections, and when you get to the top you don’t get a lot of downhills that have much speed…there’s two especially long climbs and a whole bunch of medium grinds in between.”
“Whether this day goes well or not, this course makes this a really big day, the hills are so steep, and the trick is that kick is even more critical because of the pitch of some of these hills.” said US Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb.
For their part, the men’s field went out to attack this hard course with a smile. Or at least, Ben Ogden (USA) did. The American wore bib number 1, fresh off his historic sprint finish, and gave a wink and grin to the camera before dashing out of the start gate, and settling into a powerful double-pole that would allow him to set the pace for the field in the early part of the race.
Ogden said on his early start “I’ve never been in that position [going out in bib 1], so it was fun to go out and try and stay with the really fast guys on the second lap.”
Ogden eventually finished 41st overall (+3:35.0), notching another impressive result for the 21-year-old Vermonter, and reason for fans to look forward to a bright Olympic future from him.
Ogden’s 1.8 k split was surpassed by Canadian Olivier Léveillé, who wore bib number 5, before the French sprinter Richard Jouve put down a split that seemed to be a good barometer of what going out hard on this course looked like.
When the field’s favorites came through, Jouve’s split gave away how different competitors were approaching the pacing of the 15 k course. Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR), wearing bib 32, came through the 1.8 k checkpoint way back in 28th place, +28.6 seconds off of Jouve. His teammate Pål Golberg came +6.4 off of Jouve as well. The Norwegians seemed to be taking the early part of the race conservatively.
Dario Cologna (SUI) too, was back in 26th place after 1.8 k (+26.1), but it seemed clear from the early part of the race that the reigning Olympic champion was out on one last run, an homage to his legendary Olympic career.
When Jouve’s mark was eventually surpassed, it was by Iivo Niskanen, wearing bib 64, who skied through the 1.8 k mark with a 2.3 second advantage over the entire field. Eyes then turned towards the skier who had outdone Niskanen in last Sunday’s 30 k Skiathlon, Alexander Bolshunov (ROC), wearing bib 70, who came through the 1.8 k mark +8.4 seconds off of Niskanen’s time.
Their proximity early in the race couldn’t help but recall the women’s race yesterday, where Niskanen’s sister, Kerttu ultimately missed the gold medal by just 0.4 seconds. The two are now one of just four sibling pairs to win medals at the same Olympic Games, and looked to be able to do it in the men’s and women’s equivalent of the same event.
For a second time in two days, a Niskanen would be in a grueling duel against the clock.
By 6.3 k, the tension hadn’t subsided. Klæbo had picked up his pace, coming into the checkpoint with a 12 second advantage over the field. His teammate Golberg followed, besting Klæbo by 20 seconds. Niskanen then came through and bested that mark by 20 seconds. Bolshunov, though, couldn’t top the feat. He had managed to stay with it, coming through the 6.3 k mark +13.7 seconds off of Niskanen.
Half-way through the race then, four skiers seemed to be vying for three medal spots in a muddled mass of splits that kept them within a minute of each other. Niskanen had the advantage in 1st place, Bolshunov 2nd, Golberg 3rd, and Klæbo 4th.
The decisive portion that would sort out the field came quickly in the early part of the 2nd lap. That portion included a series of two climbs, the latter of which was a veritable wall up to the 10.5 k mark. This played to the strengths of those with a strong, smooth stride.
In this field, that was Niskanen. He seemed to reset a classic track muddled by a field where most had to herringbone up to the 10.5 k checkpoint, and when he came across it, he had built a decisive gap of 51 seconds over the field.
When Bolshunov came through, showing signs of slipping up the climb, he had lost an additional 15 seconds to Niskanen, putting him +28.8 seconds back but still in second place.
Golberg had lost his advantage on Klæbo, and would continue to fade through the rest of the race, eventually ending the day in 11th (+1:52.6).
At 13.8 k, the gaps at the top had only expanded. Niskanen had held his lead over Bolshunov at 29.1 seconds. His final push up the gradual climb leading to the checkpoint putting the image of a picture-perfect stride to the notion that has become clear over the course of his career; Niskanen is his generation’s best classic skier, the proprietor of glide and stride in a sport that’s increasingly turned its attentions to the temptations of tempo and power.
There was little in doubt when Niskanen crossed the finish line. He had won gold, done it decisively, and along with his sister’s result yesterday, etched the name Niskanen into Olympic history and Finnish national pride.
Bolshunov came through in 2nd, with the final margin +23.2 seconds, to claim his second medal of these Olympics. Following him in the results and in that feat was Johannes Høsflot Klæbo in 3rd (+37.5).
Now holding an individual gold and bronze medal, earned in the 30 k skiathlon earlier this week, Niskanen has established himself as the dominant 15 k classic skier on the world’s stage. The Finn has seven World Cup victories in the event, and holds a gold and bronze World Championship medal in the event from 2017 and 2019, respectively. He had matched today’s silver medalist, Bolshunov, stride for stride in the 15 k classic half of the opening Olympic skiathlon event, before Bolshunov skated away with the win leaving Niskanen fading into third.
Also holding one gold and one bronze from this Olympiad, Bolshunov youngest male athlete to hold six Olympic medals. Individually, Bolshunov earned silver in the 50 k classic in PyeongChang in 2018, along with a bronze in the classic sprint. And he supported the ROC team to earn silver medals in the 4 x 10 k relay and the freestyle team sprint.
“I wanted to win today but Iivo was stronger, I knew that after starting into the race,” Bolshunov said through translation in the press conference. “Getting a silver medal, however, is a nice treat as well, especially at the Olympic Winter Games. And there are more races coming where I will fight for Gold again”.
Today also provided glimpses of the young North American athletes from both Canada and the United States gaining valuable experience that points towards an exciting Olympic future for years to come.
Ogden, for instance, found an opportunity to ski with the world’s best on the world’s biggest stage, “I was surprised when Klæbo passed me on the second lap on that climb, he wasn’t going a totally inhuman pace. I think one day I’ll be able to ski a larger percentage of that race at that speed.”
Meanwhile, Gus Schumacher is focused on regaining a sense of feeling good on skis, saying to FasterSkier that “today was pretty flat, not a lot of aerobic power…you don’t feel like yourself, and I think we’re pretty grounded in physical feeling in this sport, so when those are weird you don’t feel like you have an anchor. I don’t want to rest at the Olympics, but I’m focused on coming around again this season.”
Leading the way in the North American contingent was Canadian Olivier Léveillé in 29th (+2:57.2), followed by countrymen Rémi Drolet in 33rd (+3:12.9), and Antoine Cyr in 37th (+3:22.9).
American Scott Patterson was close behind in 38th (+3:28.3), Ben Ogden was 42nd (+3:35.0), Gus Schumacher was 48th (+3:58.6), and JC Schoonmaker was 66th (+5:36.8).
“That was tough,” Patterson told FasterSkier in the mixed zone. “It was a hard race day – wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I think we could have done a bit better with skis. I was slick to start and worked my arms pretty hard for the first lap. I think I kind of held it together, but the second lap hurt, and I was struggling out there. I was herringboning in most of the hills and trying to doublepole what I could, but it definitely felt like things were falling apart by the second lap. ”
During this second lap, Patterson began to recognize that the 15 k may not match his historic result from the skiathlon, where he finished 11th as the top American in the event, the best result in Olympic history for the men’s program. He shared what was in his mind as he worked through the discomfort and frustration of under-performing skis.
“Keep hanging on. Keep fighting. I never like to be the one to kind of call it quits, so it’s tough. I mean, you know, other people are hurting out there too…I was turning my eyes back and head down on this final hill trying to pick up a few spots.”
The American and Canadian contingents will now look ahead to the next two races of this game, when they come together to race under their nation’s respective banners. Sunday will see the 4 x 10 k team relay, before the team sprint next Wednesday.
For more on how the U.S. team is approaching selection for those races, read here.
– Rachel Bachman Perkins contributed
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.