OSLO, Norway — Thumping house music. Thousands of raucous fans, who, if not waving Norway’s flag, had their faces painted in their national colors of red, blue and white. If the American Super Bowl translated to cross-country skiing and snow, the Norwegian Holmenkollen is as close as it gets.
Saturday saw the 116th edition of the annual 50-kilometer men’s event, a race that totals roughly 6,574 feet of climbing for those who complete it in full. Camped along the course fence, spectators adorned in Mariusgenser sweaters, many with koozied Carlsbergs in hand, were not crazy for having hauled coolers and chairs through the snowy trailside. All said and done, racers would pass by six times on their way around the famed 8.3-kilometer loop.
Leading through the first 8.3 k, Norwegians Didrik Tønseth and Niklas Dyrhaug set the pace, followed by two Frenchmen: Clement Parisse and the World Cup distance leader, Maurice Manificat. Alex Harvey of Canada, who won last year’s World Championships 50 k, skied 2.3 seconds off the lead pace in 17th.
Eight skiers ahead of Harvey, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby skied side by side in ninth. With the past two Holmenkollen titles in his name, Sundby was certainly in search of another on Saturday.
Through the next lap, Norway and France continued to push from the front led by Sjur Røthe and Robin Duvillard, respectively. As they passed the 16.6 k mark, a pack of 51 skiers still remained within 21 seconds of one another.
France was three-strong in the front on the third lap, with Jules Lapierre, Adrien Backscheider and Manificat taking charge. Sundby and Harvey skied 20 seconds off the Frenchmens’ pace in 17th and 18th, respectively. Seventeen seconds ahead of them was Cologna in 12th. Three laps down, three laps to go and just over an hour of racing complete.
In another lap, France had faded from the front, while Norway subsumed the the lead. At 33.3 k, six of the top ten skiers were Norwegian, with Hans Christer Holund at the helm. Less than a second behind Holund was Sundby in second.
Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin followed in third, then Harvey in fourth, Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krüger in fifth, Tønseth in sixth, Norway’s Daniel Stock in seventh, Dyrhaug eighth, American Scott Patterson in ninth, and Sweden’s Daniel Rickardsson in 10th. Only 10 seconds separated first from 17th.
At this point, anyone who had watched the dual-skier showdown in last year’s Holmenkollen — which had broken around the 22 k mark — began to wonder how much longer the 17 skiers in Saturday’s lead pack would stay together.
The answer came with about five kilometers to go. Patterson, who had been skiing in the top six through the fifth lap, locked up with Manificat. The Frenchman dropped off the pace, along with 10 others.
“I was skiing right behind Maurice Manificat and one of the steep sections he just died, and that was right when that lead group pulled away so I missed the move,” said Patterson, a U.S. Ski Team member. “I didn’t quite have a strong enough group to pull back up to the leaders.”
The lead group was reduced to seven by 46 k, with Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave, Vylegzhanin, Sundby, Cologna, Russia’s Denis Spitsov, Holund, and Røthe all still in the hunt for the podium.
Harvey was in 11th, about 15 seconds behind the lead group and 10 seconds ahead of Patterson in 14th.
“I wanted to see how my skis were doing compared to the other guys,” Harvey reflected, “And then after that just try to see who is looking strong and try to think ahead and think of the last lap, whose going to be a good bet to follow when the moves are going down.”
In the last half lap, Musgrave put in a surge to the front. But he was soon swallowed and spit back into seventh. Rounding into the stadium for the final time, all seven remained together, though Sundby and Cologna now skied in the front. The two cornered back toward the final 100 meters and a head-to-head distance sprint finish ensued.
In a photo finish, Cologna outlunged Sundby for the win, before a somewhat silent, predominantly Norwegian-filled stadium. Cologna didn’t seem to mind. The 31 year old tossed his poles to the side, all smiles as he accepted his first 50 k Holmenkollen victory — the ultimate distance race of a given season (outside of the Olympics or World Championships) — in a time of 2:01:48.1 hours.
“It was a suspenseful race, something was always happening even though a large group stayed together for a long time,” Cologna said in an interview with Swiss broadcaster SRF, according to a translation. “Around the bonus sprints there were the most Norwegians so I was a little afraid to get attacked, but I got back fairly quickly. And in the end I felt very well. Maybe I could have risked something already earlier on the long climb, but I trusted in my finish and knew that I would surely have a good opportunity. But I didn’t expect Sundby would be quite as strong, he made my life hard on the last kilometer and then it really became very close, but thankfully it went well.”
Sundby finished second, one-hundredth of a second behind. The 33 year old has reached the podium in all but one of the Holmenkollen races he’s finished.
“I dreamt about the third in a row here for sure, but I think Dario has also been a few centimeters behind in this race a couple of times, and I think he deserved this one,” Sundby said at the press conference. “I wasn’t good enough in the sprint and Dario seemed to be the stronger one out there today. … I am not disappointed. I am on the podium here in the 50 for my seventh time in a row, so I think that’s OK.”
In his first World Cup race since November of last year, Russia’s 35-year-old Vylegzhanin took the final podium spot in third, 1.1 seconds back from Cologna.
Rounding out the top 10 was Røthe in fourth (+4.2), Spitsov in fifth (+4.4), Holund in sixth (+4.5), Musgrave in seventh (+15.1), Germany’s Florian Notz in eighth (+25.9), Harvey in ninth (+32.4) and Duvillard in 10th (+33.5).
“I felt good, I have been really sick in Lahti, I was on antibiotics up until Thursday, so I really didnt know what to expect heading into today,” Harvey said. “I started back with a very bad result in Drammen, very close to last. So yeah I did not know what to expect but it was good, just missed a little bit on the last 500 meters over the top… but overall it was a good race.”
Following Harvey, Patterson was the second North American across the line, finishing in 16th (+56.3). Saturday was his third time racing at Holmenkollen and first time racing its freestyle format.
“It’s all just about staying relaxed,” Patterson said. “Kind of felt like five pretty easy laps and then one real hard one out there. … Actually I struggled a little bit on the third lap, my skis slowed down quite a bit and was able to switch on the fourth [lap] and then really had some rockets out there.
“I had one quite interesting moment when I was trying to thread the needle and got taken out by a Russian and had a Sweden next to me just somersault over top of me,” Patterson added, referring to a tumble he took in his fourth lap. “But we were able to get up pretty quick and rejoin the group.”
Canada’s Devon Kershaw finished in 28th (+3:43.6). When the Holmenkollen race veteran was asked why he continued to return to the challenging course, Kershaw, who lives with his family near Oslo, was bare bones in his response.
“After the Olympic 50 k, I promised myself I wouldn’t do a skating 50 k. Two weeks later, here I am. Kershaw said. “But I think the biggest reason for that is that it’s such a magical place to race. And I feel really grateful and honored to be able to race such at such a fabled venue … there is no better place in the world to do a ski race.”
Two more Canadians competed on Saturday, with Graeme Killick placing 34th (+4:55.1) and Andy Shields finishing 47th (+8:13.6).
Also racing on Saturday for the U.S. was David Norris in 37th (+6:19.7), Paddy Caldwell in 46th (+8:12.3), Noah Hoffman in 51st (+10:27.9), and Kevin Bolger in 52nd (+12:44.2). Simi Hamilton did not finish.
Before crossing the finish line in what would be his final Holmenkollen race, Hoffman pulled to the side of the course to give his father, who was present at Saturday’s race, a hug. Hoffman has been racing the Holmenkollen since 2011.
“The last one of my career so it’s a special one for sure,” Hoffman said of his last career race. “Pretty awesome to have my dad here and Zach [Caldwell] here. It was a little emotional on the last lap, but pretty fun.”
— Harald Zimmer and Ian Tovell contributed