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In Oslo on Sunday, came another sign of the times.
The Holmenkollen Ski Festival, the beating heart and center of the modern sport of skiing since Torjus Hemmestveit won the first 50-kilometer cross country race held there in 1888, has only stopped for extraordinary interruptions in human and natural history. (Interestingly enough, the Hemmestveit family immigrated from Norway to Minnesota, marking the first and only North American connection to the Holmenkollen 50 k men’s podium until Canadian Pierre Harvey won the race exactly a century later in 1988.) The latter – a natural lack of snow – has been fairly harmless (but ominous), but the former has only ever been due to a World War. That is, of course, until the last two years, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced first no spectators at skiing’s most well-attended event in 2020, and then full cancellation in 2021.
After a three-year wait, the bustling, flag-waving, marching band playing (there was definitely a marching band!), Norwegian crowd was back out under the hot Oslo sun, in what seemed a matter of national pride.
They could only hope that the same sense of the matter extended to their countrymen doing the racing at Holmenkollen. Coming into today, it had been a full five years since a Norwegian had won the 50 k at Holmenkollen, when Martin Johnsrud Sundby did so in a 2017 classic mass start. With the Russian athletes who have been at the forefront of the event since then banned (the Russians completed a podium sweep in 2019, before Alexander Bolshunov won in 2020), Norway was poised to make a run at adding to the thirty-five champions it has seen at its most famous race. One of those previous 35, Sjur Røthe, was in the field on Sunday. Alongside him was Beijing Olympic 30 k bronze medalist Simen Hegstad Kreuger, Didrik Tønseth, and Hans Christer Holund.
Of course, in a 50 k classic, they would have to try and beat the best classic skier in the world. Iivo Niskanen was looking to revive another long Holmenkollen tradition – the Finns ruining the Norwegians national outing. Fresh off a pair of individual medals at the Beijing games in the 15 k Classic (gold), and 30 k skiathlon (silver), the 50 k Holmenkollen classic seemed like a perfect opportunity for Niskanen to add to his legacy as a modern giant of the classic technique.
The field was set to race six laps of an 8.3 k course that organizers billed as the toughest on the World Cup (see below). With temperatures at the noon start reaching 8℃ (about 47℉), the FIS camera couldn’t help but turn to the extra set of skis layed out in the stadium each lap, no doubt waiting to resupply skiers with the warm klister that was in demand today.
For a 50 k, the field began at a furious pace today, with much of the first 15 k led out by pulls from the skiers, mainly Norwegian and Finnish with the odd Andorran (Ireneu Esteve Altimiras) thrown in, that indicated that they were in control of the race and willing to give the long-burn attack a try today. Within the top group of twenty that eventually formed, however, there wasn’t one skier that looked strong enough to break-away and win by minutes in, say, the way that Marit Bjørgen controlled the Holmenkollen race in her heyday, or the way Therese Johaug did in her final Holmenkollen appearance yesterday.
By the beginning of the fourth lap (24.9 k), the lead group had narrowed down to about fifteen skiers. Included were a slew of Norwegians, including Sjur Røthe, Didrik Tønseth, Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget, and Harald Østberg Amundsen, Iivo Niskanen (FIN), Britain’s Andrew Musgrave, 2018 champion Dario Cologna (SUI), and young Swedish hopeful William Poromaa.
With the pack established, the group seemed to allow the pace to let up over the course of the next 8 k. The one exception was Iivo Niskanen, who throughout the whole day positioned himself at the front of the pack for a series of bonus points offered on course. They revealed a prescient concern for Niskanen – he is still in the running to win the distance World Cup this season, and came into today 3rd place behind two athletes, Alexander Bolshunov (1st) and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (2nd) who may not race again. He had every incentive to chase down the points, with the question arising whether having to maneuver to the front every 5 k or so to take the checkpoints would cost him the energy needed for a bid at the win.
When the lead group came into the stadium to complete their 4th lap (33.2 k), Sjur Røthe made a move towards the second set of skis layed out for him with a fresh kick zone of wax. The whole field followed. That is, save Amundsen, who flew past the transition zone and into the steep climb that led away from the stadium.
Whether it was the ski swap itself, or the fact that the race was now 15 k out from the finish, the move going into the 5th lap seemed to blow open a pack that had been subdued for the last 15 k. Amundsen didn’t try and ease up to allow a larger pack to reform, but instead tried to drive onward. The effect was that the field, led by Andrew Musgrave, had to increase their pace to try and cover Amundsen’s move. Musgrave didn’t pack such a punch in his acceleration that the top skiers couldn’t follow, and as they came into the final lap, the Norwegian hopefuls of Nygenet, Røthe, and Tønseth, along with livo Niskanen and William Poromaa, were the skiers left to vie for Holmenkollen 50 k crown.
The home country, as if its skiers sensed a special mix of history combined with a perfect Oslo day, got to see one of the oldest, most impressive sights in ski-sport. Three Norwegians, led by Didrik Tønseth, then Martin Løwstrøm Nyenget and Sjur Røthe, moved together towards the finish line. Iivo Niskanen and William Poromaa stayed in the frame, but by the final 2 k, they were out of the picture.
In a scene that thousands of Norwegian spectators had dreamed about since their most famous race had been thrown into disarray two years ago, they were treated to the end of a Holmenkollen weekend with three Norwegians at the front, vying for the podium, a rare landmark for the treasured and iconic event.
Tønseth led the pack as they moved into a long downhill that went into the stadium. From there, Røthe out-glided his two teammates, with Nyenget in behind them. At the end of a long downhill straight, one final hill led around and down again to the final stretch. As Røthe approached the hill, he positioned himself outside of the tracks, which seemed an indication that his great glide into the stadium may have also foreshadowed a want of kick wax. He was forced to run up the last hill, searching for every little bit of klister left in its zone (in a dance very familiar to many of us skiers), while Nyenget was the picture of perfect classic technique, driving through to go over the top of the hill in first place. Røthe stumbled slightly, Nyenget burst into the final stretch, and they came across the line like that. Nyenget the winner (2:03:27.3), Røthe second (+0.6), and Tønseth in third (+3.5).
The three Norweigans completed the first podium sweep for the home country at Holmenkollen since 1985, and the first since the event has been held as a World Cup. The center of Norwegian skiing, after two years where it has stumbled through, has held, and held firmly. Nyenget, Røthe, and Tønseth doing their home nation proud on a sunny Oslo day that seemed to foreshadow brighter times ahead for Holmenkollen, and the sport that is ski racing the festival energized over a century ago.
The US trio of Scott Patterson, Adam Martin, and Zak Ketterson that started the day came away with great results as well. Martin, who was recently pulled up to the World Cup based on his results in the SuperTour, came in 26th (+5:03.2). Scott Patterson, coming off an 8th place finish in the Beijing 30 k, finished 31st (+6:05.5), and Zak Ketterson finished in 41st (+7:14.8).
“It was a beautiful day today,” wrote Martin after the race. “It was warm, and it did get slushy on some of the climbs, but most of the course held up really well. I think we had great wax.”
On his approach to the day, Martin continued, “I suspect pretty much every guy out there starts with the same strategy: hang on to the lead group until the finish or it’s no longer possible. That was my strategy, at least. I think I managed two laps or something, and then I skied the rest of the race with a smaller group of skiers who also fell behind.
This is Martin’s third time racing at the 50 k at Holmenkollen, with today marking a step forward, after taking one backward in his last appearance. “I placed 31st in 2019 with a smaller field after World Champs, and I finished last (but did finish) in 2020 after Ian Torchia and I erroneously opted for zeros.”
Canadians Remi Drolet finished in 48th (+10:27.1), while Philippe Boucher came in 54th (+17:36.0). Staying in Norway following the U23/Junior Ski World Ski Championships, Tom Stephen also started for the 50 k, however, he withdrew following the third lap and did not finish.
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.