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Cross country skiing’s most ancient, classic, weekend of racing in Norway (the Holmenkollen ski festival) began with a sprint through the center of Drammen, about 45-kilometers (30 mi) south of Oslo, and despite its best efforts, got caught up in these confounding and confusing times.
If you didn’t focus in completely, the scenes in Drammen looked pleasantly familiar in a way that could keep you in the timeless state of mind associated with Holmenkollen. It was reassuringly nice to see sprint racing return, after two years, to the type of venue that led to its exciting, spectator-friendly, rise in the first place. A genuine town-center sprint, trucked in artificial snow and all, with a genuine (and very enthusiastic) crowd.
Bring some focus into the racing though, particularly who was in the men’s field day, and you couldn’t help but see the upheaving forces of the moment doing their upheaving. COVID still had a heavy-hand in the field today, with the entire Norwegian men’s sprint team (who had raced in Lahti last weekend), including Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, having recently tested positive. Then, there was the FIS imposed ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes, which also went into effect this week in response to their government’s invasion of Ukraine. In all, 7 of the top 10 in the FIS Sprint Points Classification were absent from the field in Drammen. There was a spectral quality, something eerie, to just how much world events have managed to find and catch the quiet corner of nordic skiing in the past couple of weeks.
For their part, the FIS decked out Drammen in blue and yellow in a sign of solidarity with Ukraine. From bibs, to fencing boards, to the souvenir flags held in the crowd. Idealists will note the poignant gesture, especially in a country where, in a friendlier geopolitical sense, blue and yellow are the colors of neighbor and rival, Sweden. Regardless, it was a stunning way for the FIS to symbolize the implied meaning surrounding the policies they implemented surrounding Russia this week. Cynics, on the other hand, could also read it as the FIS trying to stave off some of the pointed criticism that’s been directed at larger international sport’s governing bodies like UEFA, FIFA, and the IOC surrounding their handling of Russia.
No matter the forces affecting skiing, the fact remained that there was skiing to be had. And without Norway’s top squad and Russia, it brought out the interesting prospect of watching racers who have navigated tactically around them to podium finishes all season – Richard Jouve (FRA), Lucas Chanavat (FRA), Federico Pellegrino (ITA), and Joni Mæki (FIN) among them – now represent the top of the field themselves.
In the qualifier, it was Jouve who took first place by an impressive margin, finishing in a time of 2:26.35, -2.07 sec over second place Ondrej Cerny (CZE). Following up on an impressive Olympic sprint in his home country, Chinese skier Wang Qiang took 3rd place (+2.66). Among North American athletes, the Canadian men had an impressive showing, sending three to the heats with Graham Ritchie qualifying 13th (+5.91), Antoine Cyr in 19th (+6.42), and Pierre Grall-Johnson 23rd (+6.85).
The American men were just outside the top-30 mark necessary to race the quarterfinals, with Kevin Bolger just +0.7 off the last spot in 35th (+8.90), Logan Diekmann 39th (+9.40), Logan Hanneman in 50th (+11.19), Peter Holmes in 53rd (+12.05), and Zak Ketterson in 54th (+12.26).
The heats then, were filled with a motley mix of familiar sprint stars and younger talent from the home country Norway.
The course they raced was a classic town center sprint – a long gradual stretch going out from the start that narrowed as they hit two technique-zoned uphills leading into a hairpin. From there, it was a gradual downhill into another tight hairpin that opened up to a 4-track wide sprint finishing straight that allowed the best sprinters to open up and hit top speed.
Despite his absence, Klæbo’s tactical maneuvering and push-and-pull with pace was still felt throughout the race. Richard Jouve raced out of the first quarterfinal, and the typically aggressive Frenchmen held steady at the front of the pack, before shooting around the first hairpin turn that returned to the stadium. From there, he held control of the race to advance comfortably to the semi-finals and win the heat (2:32.98). He was followed by Sivert Wiig (NOR) in 2nd (+0.61), who would escape a tangle earlier in the race that saw Canadian Pierre Grall-Johnson fall and break a pole.
The exception to the relative care in pacing that many of the racers showed in the quarterfinals came in the third heat, where Wang Qiang from China shot out of the gate and went full bore throughout the race. By the time they hit the first technique zone, he had a comfortable gap on his competitors, who wouldn’t come back to him. In the process of taking the field out fast, Qiang had also made it by far the fastest quarterfinal at a winning time of 2:30.94. Second place Lauri Vuorinen (FIN) (+0.72), third place Pål Trøan Aune (NOR) (+0.99), and fourth place Harlad Østberg Amundsen (NOR) (+1.08) all advanced to the semi-final with two lucky losers coming out of the heat.
The 4th heat saw Joni Mæki (FIN) and Federico Pellegrino (ITA) follow early moves from Renaud Jay (FRA) and Ludek Seller (CZE) before reminding observers of their well-earned reputations as two of the best top-end speed racers in a finishing straight. Mæki advanced in first place (2:34.44), with Pellegrino in second (+0.62).
The semi-finals brought a similar field to the one that had advanced to the quarterfinals, with the familiar names of Richard Jouve and Lucas Chanavat joined by the young Norwegian pairing of Wiig and Amundsen, Swiss skier Jovian Hediger, and Wang Qiang.
Qiang again attacked from the start, with a lesser, but still commanding, gap established by the time he hit the first corner to head back towards the stadium. Jouve was the only skier that covered the gap off of that corner, and was able to pull along his countryman and Wiig with him before they all came together for the final sprint. There, the Frenchmen both showed their sprinting prowess, with Jouve winning the heat in 2:31.94 and Chanavat in 2nd (+0.74). Qiang’s early attack again proved to shape the field beyond his own racing, again making sure that both lucky losers, he and Wiig, came from the first semi-final.
Qiang’s attempts to force a semi-final with two lucky losers was aided by the way that the second semi-final raced, starting out at a steady pace before halting to a crawl around the first corner. George Ersson (SWE) got caught in front before Federico Pellegrino took charge on the downhill going into the stadium. By the time he rounded the corner into the finishing straight, he was in control of an otherwise tight pack. Pellegrino crossed the line in first (2:42.16) to advance to the finals, along with Norway’s Aune, who finished second (+0.16).
That set up a final with French pairing of Richard Jouve and Lucas Chanavat, the Norwegian pairing of Sivert Wiig and Pål Trøan Aune, Italian Federico Pellegrino, and Chinese Wang Qianq.
Qiang was subdued in the final compared to his previous heats, but then again, Richard Jouve had also stepped up the pace earlier in the final. The result was a tight pack with Jouve and Qiang at the front, with a quick but controlled pace through the early two climbs on course. Jouve took the pack into the first corner, and it was there, again emulating the absent Klæbo, where he chose to shoot around, concealing his burst of speed from the back part of the pack so that by the time they knew they needed to respond Jouve was already well on his way down the long descent.
Their positioning in second and third, respectively, allowed Wang Qiang and Lucas Chanavat to try and match Jouve’s move, but as the pack hit the final stretch it became clear that Jouve hadn’t just made a move, he had made a move and followed it up with a burst of speed that left him peerless on the day.
Jouve crossed the line comfortably in first (2:32.84), with a lightly-packed sprint for the podium behind him.
Leading that, after having shown tenacity and panache all day, was the Chinese skier Qiang Wang, who crossed the line in second (+1.59), with poles raised and a shout that stood at the end of a half-decade journey for his country. China, weeks off of having hosted the Olympic games, has earned a World Cup podium in nordic skiing, with Wang showing real promise for what may come from that country’s program.
Lucas Chanavat crossed the line in third (+2.32) to round out the top 3, while Sivert Wiig finished in fourth (+3.14), Federico Pellegrino in fifth (+5.34) and Pål Trøan Aune in sixth (+11.25).
It was an appropriate podium for a particular moment in skiing where the world’s motion on all scales has upended the familiar rituals that come with the final stretch of the World Cup that Holmenkollen traditionally marks the beginning of. The world’s best skier out in quarantine, his closest competitors removed from the competition, and the schedule for the last month of the season in flux as we enter it.
At once, we saw something familiar – Richard Jouve with a commanding performance alongside his countrymen – and something wholly new – a Chinese skier not only at a European World Cup race, but at the front. A strange, but moving race, for a strange and moving time.
Once the final results were determined, Antoine Cyr led the Canadians in 19th after finishing fourth in quarterfinal four. His Olympic team sprint partner, Graham Ritchie, was next for Canada in 21st, with Pierre Grall-Johnson 27th.
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, politics, and skiing (not necessarily all related) while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.