Saturday was the second day of World Cup Finals mini tour, held in Falun, Sweden, which conclude the 2017/2018 season. Friday’s first stage began with a skate sprint, while Saturday featured a 15-kilometer classic mass start for the men.
As the season is no longer young, the fitness for some athletes frayed, a mass start could offer the opportunity for some to hide in the pack and others to exploit. On a sunny and cold Saturday in Falun, the leading distance skiers on the World Cup were unable to separate. The terrain was World-Cup hilly, yet the pace was never decisive enough to shatter the field.
That field was 91-skiers full. 182 poles. 182 skis. Churning from the start, only those skiers in the front rows of the start pyramid could pole and stride away unscathed. As is the nature of 91 skiers fighting for classic-track scarcity — the lanes taper down in number — pile-ups are the norm. So while some skiers like U.S. Ski Team members Erik Bjornsen and Scott Patterson lost time in a starting-scrum spill, others were looking for brighter opportunities up front.
From the start the pace was hot. There was Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, Sweden’s Emil Jönsson, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Niklas Dyrhaug, Canada’s Alex Harvey, Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, Russians Alexey Chervotkin and Alexander Bolshunov, and Swedes Calle Halfvarsson and Marcus Hellner, all in either a strung-out or condensed formation 3.75 k into the race. Skiers were slowly slipping off the back. But even with the surging up front, the tactics playing out appeared to place a premium on safety in numbers.
Bolshunov surged at 4.5 k to snag the highest-value time bonus. Otherwise, for much of the race, identifying specific skiers was a task in itself. Coming down the hills a third through the race, the top-50 skiers were a sinuous and continuous line separated by 17.7 seconds. At the bottom of climbs, the compressive part of the accordion effect was in play. Skiers in front could push, those behind became a more dense cluster of lycra-clad athletes.
Despite the prevalent pulsing of pace, skiers like Chervotkin and Harvey had their moments of pluckiness. Each paced a long line of skiers through the 9.3 k mark. But clear at this point was that the pattern of this race would be defined by the collective mass of skiers that began the mass start. Yes, time gaps would balloon a bit by the finish, but at 12 k (the second time bonus), a gap of 1.7 seconds separated first through 35th place.
The move that mattered in this race came from the birthday boy, Halfvarsson. According to FasterSkier’s reporter on the ground, the Swedish crowd serenaded Halfvarsson, 29, with a happy birthday rendition prior to the start. Maybe it was birthday stoke, maybe it was an acknowledgment that with age comes fewer opportunities to seize the win, but with one kilometer to go, Halfvarsson ran like Klæbo. Up and over the hill, the Swede forged a small gap on the 30-plus chasers.
Again on the last short incline before the speedy descent into the stadium, Halfvarsson performed a masterful high-step run. Only Bolshunov at this point could suck up near the Swede’s tails. For a moment, rounding into the final straight, it looked like Halfvarsson’s icing on his birthday cake would be a Falun stage win.
Halfvarsson came into the straight out of the tracks. As he zeroed in to begin the double-poling finish, the birthday boy stumbled slightly slotting into the nearest lane. Bolshunov flew by with a supreme double pole and took the win in 36:59.8. Halfvarsson placed second (+1.3), Italy’s Francesco De Fabiani third (+3.1), Poltoranin fourth (+3.7) and Chervotkin fifth (+5.2).
For the 21-year-old Bolshunov, it was his first-career World Cup win. Prior to Saturday’s win, Bolshunov had stood on the podium six times in his first full season on the World Cup. (Bolshunov’s only World Cup start last season was in Drammen, Norway, in March 2017.) Along with Klæbo, also 21, Bolshunov has risen into one of the sport’s top athletes. He claimed three silvers and a bronze medal in PyeongChang. His two individual Olympic medals were a second in the 50 k classic mass start and third in the classic sprint.
“I have had many second and third place finishes this season so I am very happy to finally have a win,” Bolshunov told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after the race. “This feels good. I will do what I can tomorrow for another good result but for now, I will enjoy this win.”
Sunday’s final men’s race of the season and last race of the three-stage mini-tour, will be a 15 k freestyle pursuit. Bolshunov leads the mini-tour standings in first with a total elapsed time of 38:37 minutes. Klæbo, who finished 22nd (+13.6) on Saturday, sits in second (+38.0), while Halfvarsson is third (+39.2).
The Swede took away the positives from the day’s near-win in front of the home crowd.
“I tried today to get a win but it was too much,” Halfvarson told FIS. “Off the final corner, I was really tired. I am still happy with second place. I have been on a podium a few times this season and always third. So at least second place is an improvement even if I didn’t manage the win.”
Canada’s Alex Harvey was the best placed North American in 20th place (+10.7). He’ll begin Sunday’s pursuit in 18th (+1:16.1).
Teammate Devon Kershaw finished 26th (+14.6) for his fourth-straight race in the top 30 (including his 26th-place finish in the Olympic 50 k classic). Graeme Killick placed 41st (+1:13) and Julien Locke was 81st (+3:29) for Canada.
“I felt quite good today,” Kershaw said after the race. “I was a little disappointed with the last kilometer because I was kind of out of position a little bit after Mördarbakken and couldn’t quite get up through traffic, but it’s really close. And a little disappointed to be 26th again; it seems like that’s kind of where I’ve lived all year, but it was a good race for me.”
Kershaw, a 35-year-old staple of the Canadian team, has been seeking a return to top form.
“Just races like today where I feel good and can execute decently well,” Kershaw explained.
“To be honest this year I am super motivated after the championship. I’ve [been] having major, major asthma issues at the Olympics and that really really affected me and it took a long time to get a little better, but I felt like by the time I got to Lahti I was feeling quite a bit better. So that really helps, I mean, I can breathe again and I’m feeling good.”
Kershaw is expected to mull over the prospects of continuing his ski career in the coming weeks.
“We’re not sure, I’ll talk to the wife next week [Norwegian former elite skier Kristin Størmer Steira],” Kershaw said of his future plans. “You know there’s a lot of issues right now in Canada so I’ll have to think about it. A lot of guys are saying that they’re gonna call it a day. And I’m not getting any younger, but I still feel quite good, and I mean a race like today shows that I can still compete with the best in the world so that’s motivating, but we’ll definitely have to take some weeks to think about it.”
For the U.S., Erik Bjornsen finished 52nd (+1:47.1), Simi Hamilton 62nd (+2:06.4), Kevin Bolger 69th (+2:27.1), David Norris 70th (+2:31.2), Scott Patterson 71st (+2:40.6), Paddy Caldwell 75th (+2:52.7), and Andy Newell 86th (+4:47).
Patterson’s race did not go as planned.
“I was in a big pile-up right at the start,” Patterson told FasterSkier after. “I was the second-to-last one out of the stadium and then the first time up Mördarbakken, my ski fell off. So I skied halfway down, got my ski back on, just turned back around and then just like stupidly chasing the rest of the race. …
“I felt OK,” Patterson added. “[Without] those two stupid things it would have been a good race. But I was so far off and then it was really hard to get back to the pack and then it was like, ‘Well, I can’t get to the pack. I am here with those guys.’ ”
Lately, Patterson, 26, has been a highlight for the U.S. distance skiing prospects. The first-year U.S. Ski Team member notched three individual top-20 results at last month’s Olympics, including 11th in the 50 k classic. Last weekend in Oslo, Norway, Patterson proved that was no fluke, as he placed 16th in a traditionally deep field at the Holmenkollen 50 k skate.
World Cup Finals conclude with 10/15 k freestyle pursuits on Sunday.
— Gabby Naranja, Harald Zimmer and Alex Kochon contributed