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If Saturday’s individual sprint race was a return to the archetype for this era of World Cup skiing, then Sunday marked something completely new. Part by design, part by necessity, the men’s field raced a 20 k classic mass start for the first time on the World Cup since the 2012 Tour de Ski (when Eldar Roenning (NOR) won over 2nd place Alex Harvey (CAN) and 3rd place Dario Cologna (SUI).
The part by design: FIS has moved to the 20 k mass start as part of equal distance racing for men and women on the World Cup, replacing the 15 k that had become the standard classic distance event. The 20 k is an odd distance that has rarely been raced (by either men or women) on the international scene . . . though it does seem to represent a good compromise for both the women’s field, and the men’s.
The part by necessity: this race was originally slated to be a 30 k skiathlon, but operating on man-made snow all weekend in Lillehammer, the organizing committee had to scratch plans and lay a classic track on a 3.3 k snowmaking loop where the field would ski 6 laps. The course chosen was the Biathlon loop, which meant that homologation standards usually present on the World Cup were not present on the course today.
In an interview with FasterSkier after the race, US National Team member, Gus Schumacher, said that the course led to a clear expectation of how the race would play out. “We were kind of expecting a bunch sprint, because the course was missing those long, sustained climbing sections that most of our World Cups have. There were guys out there today who probably had higher aerobic capacities that weren’t necessarily able to flex it.”
Then there was the glaring fact that the best classic distance skiers at 15 k in the past year —all three Olympic medalists in the 15 k —weren’t on the start line. Iivo Niskanen (FIN) was absent, Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo (NOR) scratched after his sprint win yesterday, and Alexander Bolshunov (RUS) is not participating in FIS World Cup events due to Team Russia’s suspension. In their place was a group of contenders who raced as a sustainable pack, through six tightly wound laps.
In the end, the only signifier that might have distinguished one of the competitors in that pack was the yellow FIS World Cup overall leaders bib, worn by Paal Golberg (NOR). A marked man throughout the day, Golberg nonetheless moved to the front of the pack as they entered the Birkebeiner stadium, applying extra force to his double-pole, and opening up a gap that saw him pull away to his first race victory of the season. A pack of his countrymen followed close in his wake with Norway taking the top four spots on the day: 1st) Paal Golberg, 2nd) Sjur Roethe, and 3rd) Martin Loewstroem Nyenget, 4th) Didrik Toenseth.
The 20 k Classic Mass Start
Racing all the way to that Norwegian-heavy conclusion, however, was a tight-knit and colorful affair. The first kilometer of the day’s course featured its major climb, which from the gun saw Andrew Musgrave (GBR) move to the front in an unflinching double-pole. Musgrave didn’t relent as the rest of the field turned to striding, a pattern that would repeat through the early laps of the race. Musgrave would move off the front before each major climb, having discovered that the other skiers’ transitioning from double-poling to striding impeded the momentum he needed to double-pole the course. Best just to get off the front, then pay for it at the top of the climb.
Musgrave animated the field through that early part of the race; with the rest of the pack able to keep pace on their classic skis, there was little reason for them to push the pace. Who got to the front of the field wasn’t a question of strength or fitness through most of the race, but rather how well skiers could find the little pockets of space or snow needed to move up through the pack. For the Americans, Scott Patterson and Ben Ogden were able to move up within the first 2 laps of the race. Gradually, though, more and more blue suits with stars came into picture—Zak Ketterson, then Gus Schumacher, and then Hunter Wonders, until the whole US contingent was present somewhere in the pack. In particular, Gus Schumacher stood out, adorned as he was in a pink cap that he said, “Was for my mom, she likes the pink hat.” Two Canadians—Antoine Cyr and Olivier Leveille—also weaved purposefully through the field.
On lap 3, the field began to settle into the contours of the course, and anxious competitors started to test where they might be able to break the race open. The first main animator was Martin Loewstroem Nyenget—champion of the 2022 50 k Holmenkollen—who moved to the front of the pack on the climb that covered the first kilometer of the lap. The field quickly bunched up over the top of the climb; through the halfway point, the race remained a stalemate.
Having not found the pressure point he wanted on the climb, Nyenget looked for it on the rolling terrain of the last two kilometers of the course. Again, the field picked up the pace; but again, no definitive gap developed as they hit the climb entering Lap 5. A similar move came from Finnish skier, Markus Vuorela, but the only effect was to stretch the lead group a bit, with skiers slowly fall off the pace.
Going into the final lap, all that had built was anticipation. Thirty skiers still jockeyed for position within the pack, with Americans Gus Schumacher and Hunter Wonders among its ranks.
It was the Swedish skiers who initiated a long attack. William Poromaa and Jens Burman ran to the front on the last big climb and continued to push the pace over the top. No doubt, the pair sensed that the new race format gave new life to the long-awaited hope that the Swedish men could re-establish themselves as elite distance skiers. That hope for a win now stretches back nearly a decade, since Daniel Rickardsson won the Holmenkollen 50 k in 2014. However, like most Swedish attacks in nearly every race since then, the ambitious pair were soon swarmed by a who’s-who of Norwegians. As the contenders entered the stadium, the sudden appearance of Golberg in the yellow leader’s bib was unanticipated, yet not at all surprising. Then came Roethe, Nyenget, and Toenseth, with Iversen and Krueger within striking distance too.
Even during the sprint the field remained tight, with the top 30 finishing within the span of 10 seconds. Gus Schumacher held his own in the sprinting pack, placing 17th—his highest finish in a classic distance race since the Tour de Ski in 2021 (where he was 8th). Hunter Wonders also finished in the charging pack, finishing 31st.
A pair of Canadian’s had also held strong in the pack: Antoine Cyr finished in 12th place, while Olivier Leveille came across the line in 27th.
Gus Schumacher said that the fast field sprint reflected the general experience of being in the pack, “It was pretty chaotic throughout the race, jockeying for position without expending too much energy. I was definitely aware [the race] was getting more strung out and I was finding myself more up near the front as it went on, but there wasn’t a specific moment [where someone attacked].
In a new race format with a classic, old-school feel, the World Cup moved on through Lillehammer with a weekend full of homegrown success for the home country, and some promising glimpses for their rivals ancient (Sweden) and new (USA). For the latter, the momentum is building in a unique way. Gus Schumacher said to FasterSkier that the distinguishing feature of this season for the team so far is, “We’re getting good results in a wide variety of races. It’s sprints and distance races this year, and the wax team is doing really well too. It’s really fun as a team right now, we’re building good momentum.”
That momentum will certainly carry the US Ski Team, and the road show that is the Cross Country World Cup, to Beitostolen, Norway next week.
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.