Imagine for a moment that only months ago, at about 33 years old, you were in your prime — with World Cup globes on the mantle, six World Championship medals presumably in a drawer somewhere, and four Olympic medals (three of which are from the 2014 Games and will be awarded post-Sochi since the Russians that cheated have been scrubbed from the results sheet). And of course, there’s the iconic beard adorning the iconic Sundby — a technical master with a lung capacity like a blue whale.
But there’s the problem with the human condition of always wanting more. One more win, one more piece of hardware to reaffirm the legacy before the inevitable decay of Father Time.
On a sunny bluebird Sunday in Lillehammer, Norway, on the final buckling climb 28.65 kilometers into the men’s 30 k skiathlon, it looked like Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby would satisfy his need to win. A need that’s been satiated since his first individual World Cup victory in Kuusamo, Finland, in 2008.
When Sundby made his move, he shattered a pack that included fellow Norwegians Hans Christer Holund and Simen Hegstad Krüger, France’s Maurice Manificat and Canadian Alex Harvey. And yes, the relatively new kid on the block from Norway, 21-year-old Johannes Høsflot Klæbo.
The Sundby move that historically would have been a kill-shot turned out to be a slight misfiring. Holund and Klæbo both looked mortal, but the bleed-out wasn’t terminal.
As Sundby glided down the rolling terrain towards the finish. It appeared to be another coronation.
But the roar from the crowds began rising as Klæbo worked the slight ups and the double-polable sections. With his skis running fast, Klæbo dropped Holund and reeled in Sundby by the finishing straight.
It was a Klæbo win as he claimed his fifth World Cup win this season in as many races. Sprint or distance, no doubt it is Klæbo-time.
The sport’s cliches could be in play. The older, once-dominant lion in Sundby licking his wounds. But these are humans after all. Winning ends for everybody, just not in such a public forum.
Amidst the Klæbo victory, this much was palpable: Sundby’s championship mantle has been usurped. During the concluding seconds of the skiathlon, Sundby saw his racing mortality sprint past with a hair-gelled coif and pink Oakleys.
Klæbo’s winning time was 1:16:47.1 hours.
Sundby placed second, 1.3 seconds back, and Holund third (+6.8). Krueger skied to fourth place (+10.9), Manificat fifth (+11.3), and Harvey sixth (+13.1).
Harvey was the best placed North American, proving once again his deserved reputation as one of the World Cup’s best. After five races, Harvey is ranked fifth in the overall World Cup standings.
“I am really happy — top 10 was the goal, so yeah, it’s really good to fight for the podium until the last three minutes of the race and it’s really good,” Harvey told FasterSkier in Lillehammer. “I felt good. Good skis. I was missing some at the last part of the long climb. The Norwegian guys were the best as expected.”
Harvey’s plan was simple. Tap into a huge training base, keep pace and mark the Norwegians on the skate leg.
“Kind of hide in the classic and then position myself well for the skate, just to be able to cover an attack that was going to come,” Harvey said of his tactics.
In the longest race of the season before February’s PyeongChang Olympics, it was an opportunity for Harvey to test his endurance, but also choose wisely when it came to skis.
“I went for easy kicking skis in classic and that was good,” Harvey said. “I saw Holund especially slipping a lot in the classic. I was just relaxing, and in skate, I wanted a ski that was feeling free on the climbs, because I know on the downhill you have such a big draft, it is not so much about the skis.”
The classic leg offered a more bunched-up group as the primary pacing surges transpired amongst the leaders. That changed quickly after the classic to skate exchange.
“Then the skate, right away on the first lap, Holund and [Sundby] went to the front and they tried to make the first selection,” Harvey said of the first pacing challenge. “I think for the first or second lap of skating it was down to six guys. Then Manificat was pushing super hard on the long uphill. But then we kind of started chilling a bit at the end of the third lap.”
The perceived “chill” pace was simply a momentary lull. Sundby is never one to wait for a sprint finish to decide a distance effort.
“From then we went hard again on the last lap,” Harvey said of the turn of pace on the fourth and final skate lap. “Just steady pace from the stadium just fighting for position. We knew it would happen on the big back hill. So it was just about the best position. I entered there in second place behind Klæbo. So really that is hard to be better than that for starting the last hill. And then it was just man on man.”
We know how this race ended. But Harvey’s summation of the final chapters of this skiathlon was keen.
“Sundby was the strongest, but Klæbo was the most clever,” Harvey said of his old and new rivals.
Harvey also reflected that, in terms of results and physical sensations, he is exactly where he’d like to be. Sustainable high output efforts are doable; it’s the 1 percent of the top high speed gear he’s waiting to access.
“Just the punch — I cannot dig super deep yet,” Harvey said. “It’s like that for me before Christmas. It is not unexpected. I think the base is better than in the past, so I can rely on that. So when it is time to really go, I am not there yet, but that is the training, the training is meant for that, too.”
Canada’s Devon Kershaw finished 19th (+2:59.7), just ahead of the U.S. Ski Team’s (USST) Erik Bjornsen in 20th (+2:59.9)y. Although finishing a place apart, their race tales only merged after the transition to the skate leg.
Kershaw must have felt good on the initial classic leg. Six kilometers into his kick-and-stride effort on what was described a quintessentially beautiful hard wax day, Kershaw was positioned 15th in large scrum of skiers, only 4.5 seconds off the lead. The Canadian World Cup vet then played more cat than mouse.
He skied well towards the front by 11 k moving into fifth. At 11.1 k he bolted ahead and won the bonus points. From that point on, Kershaw faded a bit and came through the technique-exchange zone in 18th and 36.2 seconds out of first; his first 15 k were done in a total of 39:58.5 minutes.
Bjornsen’s race took on a different tone early on. He skied conservatively in a technique in which he’s known to thrive. Bjornsen’s classic leg took him 40:28, and he came through the exchange in 23rd, 1:05.7 behind the leaders.
Bjornsen proved on Sunday his race tactics have matured as he’s rounded into a constant World Cup points threat this young season.
“The skiathlon here two years ago, I was feeling great and I charged into the top 10 on the classic and just paid for it on the skate leg,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier in Lillehammer after the race. “So today I tried to be a little smarter.”
Two years ago at the Lillehammer skiathlon, Bjornsen’s early efforts cost him places. He faded from what looked liked a top-20 effort to a sufferfest in the skate portion. After the skate leg, Bjornsen placed 42nd overall, over five minutes back from Sundby, that day’s winner.
Bjornsen’s strategy paid off on Sunday. In a post-race phone call, he explained that at one point on the classic leg, he had the leaders in sight.
“There were times in the second and third lap where the leaders were right there,” Bjornsen said. “But I think it would have been costly to close the 50-meter gap they had. … I think it’s just growing up in the U.S., I didn’t race a lot of 30 k’s. I have had more chances in the last few years over here to see what that race feels like. The 30 k, you can’t make those short sprints to gap up or you pay for it in the end.”
Although his relative position after the exchange did not change considerably, Bjornsen did draw skiers back towards him with his skate effort.
“I think I gained about five spots on the skate leg,” Bjornsen said. “Most of those guys were moving backward. I don’t think we were making any moves towards those front guys, but I was with a good group [including Kershaw]. I could see a pack of ten guys behind us, so my group was motivated to keep charging as well. It was a good plan for me.”
Bjornsen’s 20th place was a career best in a World Cup skiathlon: he placed 27th in the 2016 World Cup skiathlon in Lahti, Finland. Sunday’s result is also Bjornsen’s best in a World Cup race longer than 15 k.
Bjornsen’s former USST teammate, Noah Hoffman was in the points for the first time this season. Hoffman placed 28th after starting in bib 49. Like Bjornsen, he moved up in the standings as the race progressed.
Hoffman finished the classic portion of the race in 41:17.7 minutes and was ranked in 40th place. Kilometer by kilometer, he picked off places. He was 34th at the 19.55 k mark, and in the closing moments had locked into 28th, finishing 3:37.8 behind Klæbo.
Finishing 46.4 seconds outside of the points on Sunday was Scott Patterson of the USST in 36th (+4:56.1).
“Prior to the race, I was quite looking forward to this event,” Patterson emailed. “However, the Norwegian courses and the extra competition of the Norwegian nations group are never things to take too lightly.”
The newly minted USST member has skied against the Norwegian juggernaut before. In last season’s Holmenkollen 50 k classic in March, Patterson placed 28th for the best American result that day. Yet this is Patterson’s first full season on the World Cup and his first time racing World Cups before late January. (Patterson’s first World Cup race was two seasons ago.)
Undaunted, Patterson did keep a top-30 spot as his goal. He began the day in bib 39.
“My approach was to try and move up from my starting position through the classic but also really focus on conserving energy,” Patterson wrote. “I know my skating is a bit more on form currently. From the start things were not going my way. Early on I decided to defend my place in track rather than running up the side. This put me in almost last 500m into the race. For the first two laps I gradually made up some ground but was struggling to ski fast and relax the whole time. I found a little more form for the 3rd and 4th lap, but by that time I had lost a lot of ground.
“The skate leg was better, but I took things a little conservative early,” he continued. “While I was moving up, I was not able to close the gaps to get a good group to work with. Thus most of the skate was trying to catch a few small groups and move through them. Most of the time I felt that I was working on my own. I think I salvaged an ok race from a pretty rough start, but again this one is leaving me wanting more. While I was close again, I still am running with 0 world cup points.”
Paddy Caldwell (USST), who began the day as a seeded skier in bib 19 after his 19th fastest time of day last Sunday, finished 56th (+7:43).
“It was really cool to start 19th today,” Caldwell reflected in an email. “I didn’t put the early bib to great use but it was a good learning experience and great practice skiing in a big, aggressive pack.”
As the USST’s youngest male World Cup skier gains valuable starts on what is projected as a long World Cup career, Caldwell, 23, did have a moment to reflect in the learning takeaways from the day.
“Mass start races are always fun and a good chance to learn from other skiers,” Caldwell wrote. “I was really impressed with how relaxed the top guys skied on the big climbs. Everyone is hammering but the best guys are so on it technically, really cool to see.”
Canada had three finishers outside the points: Russell Kennedy in 53rd (+7:30.7), Graeme Killick 54th (+6:41.3), and Knute Johnsgaard 60th (+9:49.0).
Racing continues next Saturday in Davos, Switzerland, with a freestyle sprint and a 10/15 k interval start skate race on Sunday.
— Aleks Tangen, Andrea Potyondy-Smith, Harald Zimmer, and Ian Tovell contributed