If the Otepää World Cup = a World Championships tune-up, consider Martin Johnsrud Sundby primed and ready. On Sunday, the 32-year-old Norwegian put together one of his best races ever from start to finish, by his own assessment, which resulted in at 37.1-second win in the men’s 15-kilometer classic individual start in Otepää.
For the last four years, Sundby (the 2014 and 2016 Overall and Distance World Cup winner, who was stripped of his 2015 overall title for violating asthma-medication rules) has been the man to beat in World Cups. Yet somehow, he hasn’t won a World Championships gold in an individual race (he won with the men’s relay at 2011 World Championships and earned silver in the 30 k skiathlon in 2013). But Sunday was a good sign, he said.
It was the first time in years he felt really good and executed his plan for the entire duration of the race, Sundby told NRK.
“I have been in doubt this winter if I was going to get on the same level as last year,” he said, according to a loose translation. “I have not had the same feeling as I had occasionally had last winter. I’ve been looking for it, technically and physically, and today I am there.”
His first target race at World Championships in Lahti, Finland: the 30 k skiathlon on Saturday, Feb. 25.
With his first win in a month and fourth individual victory of the season (compared to 14 total wins last season), Sundby, the overall World Cup leader by 82 points over Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, is feeling much better about his chances.
“Last month has been really good for me training,” Sundby said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “It was a difficult race. I had amazing skis. I had to look for high speed on the snow and constantly change positions. I was mentally prepared for an 18 k race.”
He started 70th out of 82 men in the 15 k. Through all eight checkpoints on FIS live timing, Sundby not only posted the fastest times, but was leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else on the rainy Otepää afternoon — with one exception.
Between 3.8 k and 5 k, Sundby appeared close to Finland’s Iivo Niskanen in second place, with a 5 k time that was just 0.5 seconds faster than Niskanen’s. But by 7.5 k, Sundby was more than 8 seconds clear of the 25-year-old Finn, who started 3 minutes ahead of him. At the finish, Niskanen, in bib 64, bumped Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug (bib 56) out of the leader’s chair by 17.9 seconds. Another Norwegian, Hans Christer Holund (bib 66) came up 12 seconds short of Niskanen’s time after starting a minute ahead of him.
Dyrhaug had previously unseated Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, who started 21st and held the lead for close to 20 minutes, before Dyrhaug finished 6 seconds faster.
Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, who started 68th, a minute ahead of Sundby and a minute behind Holund, snuck in the mix with a faster time than Poltoranin. Despite crossing the finish line just ahead of Sundby, Heikkinen was still 58.1 seconds off the Norwegian’s winning time of 40:38.2 minutes. Sundby’s time pushed Niskanen to second place (+37.1), Holund to third (+49.1), and Dyrhaug off the podium in fourth (+55.3). Heikkinen ended up fifth (+58.1), and Poltoranin sixth (+1:01.3)
“I still need to improve my level to be ready for the World Championships,” Niskanen said after, according to FIS. “First three kilometers were OK, then it was skiing like on a glue. It was a very tough 15 k.”
Holund, 27, was thrilled with third, which matched his individual career best from two previous World Cups last season.
“The third place means a lot for me,” Holund said, according to FIS. “I had a difficult last year with the injury. In the finish I could not believe I was third. It was probably the hardest 15 k I have ever skied. The course was hard and snow conditions made it even harder.”
Harvey 19th, Bjornsen 36th
Canada’s Alex Harvey led the North Americans in 19th, 1:50 behind Sundby. Harvey started 42nd and posted splits that ranked around the top 10 for the first half of the race.
“I felt like I was skiing within myself for the first 6km, then I got caught by Sundby who was starting his first lap,” Harvey wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I followed him up the biggest hill of the course and it put me in the red, by 7.5km I had moved up from 11th to 5th in about 2km.”
There, Harvey’s time ended up being about 40 seconds slower than Sundby’s at 7.5 k, but within 10 seconds of fourth.
“Following Sundby like that who was on a crazy day and just starting his race proved to be too much for me, after that I blew up and just starting losing too much time,” Harvey wrote.
“I feel like if I played it a bit more conservative, i.e. not trying to get on Sundby, I could have held my position but I wanted a real hard session today since it’s the last one before Worlds so in that perspective it was a great day,” he added.
At World Championships later this week, Harvey, who’s currently fourth in the overall World Cup standings (97 points behind Heikkinen in third), will also be focusing on the skiathlon.
“My favorite race is the skiathlon,” Harvey wrote. “I’m excited for the two team events and of course the 50km. I will skip the 15km [classic].”
While Canada entered six men in Sunday’s race (including Len Valjas, who did not start), four finished outside the top 40, with Graeme Killick in 47th (+3:44.6), Devon Kershaw 49th (+3:51.3), Knute Johnsgaard 58th (+4:50.4), and Jess Cockney 72nd (+7:15).
Two Americans competed, with Erik Bjornsen placing 36th (+3:12.1) and 24-year-old Ben Lustgarten finishing 66th (+5:34.1) in his second World Cup start.
“I was really hoping for a top 30 result today so when I fell short of that I was disappointed,” Bjornsen wrote in an email.
With split times that consistently ranked in the mid-30’s, his finishing time was about 45 seconds back from 30th place.
“I’m feeling close to being in form. Hopefully in a week it will come around,” Bjornsen continued. “I’m focused on the sprint and the distance races, hard to pick one out. I’ll skip the 50k this year but I’m looking forward to the rest!”
World Championships begin on Wednesday with 5/10 k classic qualifying races for athletes from “non-skiing” nations that don’t have enough FIS points to qualify outright for the championships. Regardless of their result on Wednesday (they need a top 10 to start the distance races in Lahti), every athlete can race the freestyle-sprint qualifier on Thursday — the first medal race of the championships. The women’s 15 k and men’s 30 k skiathlons will take place Saturday, followed by classic team sprints on Sunday, Feb. 26, before six more days of racing the following week.