Is Johannes Høsflot Klæbo better than Petter Northug* was at his age? It’s hard to say, reigning Norwegian World Cup winner Martin Johnsrud Sundby told NRK. But his performance in the last two days is pretty unheard of, Sundby said after Saturday’s 15-kilometer classic.
On both Friday and Saturday at the Ruka World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland, Klæbo (who’s still a U23 athlete at just 21 years old, although he’s on Norway’s exclusive World Cup Team) won both races to start the 2017/2018 season. He didn’t lose a round in Friday’s classic sprint, then came out to take a 15-second victory over fellow Norwegian Didrik Tønseth in Saturday’s 15 k classic.
“There’s no doubt he’s a phenomenon,” Sundby said after placing eighth on Saturday, 30.7 seconds off Klæbo’s winning time of 33:38.8 minutes, according to a loose translation. “To race like he did yesterday, then do the same today. No, that’s amazing.”
Klæbo ended last season as both season-long U23 (under-23) World Cup champion as well as the Sprint World Cup champion. He’s started this season without a loss, and he led at most parts of the race on Saturday, except for the 3.1 and 5 k checkpoints, where Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov clocked splits that were 0.9 and 4 seconds faster, respectively.
But Bolshunov, who started 66th (out of 102) couldn’t hold it, and the young gun in bib 42 continued to hold his own in the leader’s chair at the finish. Klæbo ousted Tønseth from the top spot, putting Tønseth in second place. Finland’s Iivo Niskanen in bib 70 charged hard for the win, coming within three seconds of Klæbo around 6 k, but ended up 17.7 seconds short for third place.
“It’s unbelievable what Johannes did today, having raced four sprint rounds yesterday,” Tønseth emphasized, according to a International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
“I was surprised myself,” Klæbo told FIS. “My plan was to open hard. When you fight for the World Cup victory, you try to give everything.”
As for his reaction to Sundby’s praise, Klæbo told NRK he was trying to remain focused.
“It’s just two races, so we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “There is no one who is more of a favorite in the Tour de Ski than Martin. I will smile as long as I have the yellow shirt [as the overall Word Cup leader], but then he will get it in the end.”
Saturday’s 15 k classic, as Niskanen pointed out, wasn’t an easy one. New snow from overnight and the day before mixed with temperatures around freezing made for glazed tracks, where skis were prone to icing.
“It was a difficult competition and it was not easy to pick the right skis,” Niskanen told FIS. “Looking at the whole mini tour, third place today is good. I am still not where I would like to be, there are some good things but also some things I have to improve for the [Olympic] Games.”
He’ll start Sunday’s final race of the Ruka Triple, the men’s 15 k freestyle pursuit, in fifth place, 49 seconds behind Klæbo in first. Bolshunov, who finished fourth on Saturday (19.9 seconds behind Klæbo), will start the pursuit in second. And Klæbo will start first, 38 seconds ahead of the Russian.
Norway’s Pål Golberg will head out third, 6 seconds after Bolshunov, and Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson will start fourth, another 4 seconds later and 1 second ahead of Niskanen. Tønseth is slated to start sixth (+0:57) just ahead of fellow Norwegian Emil Iversen and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin (both 58 seconds back) in seventh and eighth, respectively. Russia’s Evgeniy Belov** is ninth in the tour standings (+1:05) and will start with Sundby in 10th (+1:05).
On Saturday, Poltoranin, an early leader in bib 12, placed fifth (+25.6) to move up the mini-tour ranks. He initially bumped Belov, who started 10th, out of the leader’s chair, and Belov ultimately slipped to sixth (+26.5), just ahead of Iversen in seventh (+30.2) and Sundby in eighth (+30.7).
Russian U23 skier Alexey Chervotkin placed ninth on the day (+31.2). Halfvarsson was 10th (+34.4) after coming within seven seconds of Klæbo’s time in the middle of the race but losing time on the last of three 5 k laps. For Norway, Golberg placed 11th (+38.1) and Hans Christer Holund 12th (+44.7), ahead of Canada’s Alex Harvey in 13th (+49.7).
Harvey, who started in bib 37, spent most of his race floating between 10th and 14th place, and did what he needed to get within striking distance of the top 10 for Sunday’s pursuit. He’ll start tomorrow’s race in 12th, 1:23 out of first and 9 seconds behind Chervotkin in 11th.
“I was just hoping to move forward a bit in the standings but more importantly to deliver another good race,” Harvey wrote in an email on Saturday. The day before, he reached the quarterfinals and finished 21st overall in the sprint.
“The conditions yesterday were quite different than today’s. Yesterday it was fresh falling snow and cold, then it warmed up quite a bit overnight so today was very glazy [sic] and shiny snow,” Harvey wrote. “Skis were good I think. Not the fastest but good kick in not-so-easy conditions to get grip.”
Like fellow Canadian World Cup Team member Devon Kershaw, who tied American Erik Bjornsen (U.S. Ski Team) for 26th (both 1:15.2 out of first), Harvey explained that he chose no-wax “hairies”, also known as “rub” skis.
(“I think a lot of guys went on rub skis,” Kershaw wrote in an email. “I went with rub skis and it was the right choice for me today. The techs were all pretty pumped because I have been very averse to rub skis in the past. The handful of times I’ve been ‘forced’ to race on them I’ve gotten completely destroyed, so today was fun to feel good and make the skis work for me.”)
Harvey recalled feeling strong on the climbs, using his grip to his advantage.
“From our more detailed splits it seems I was losing a bit on the flats which is usually my stronger terrain but nothing too dramatic,” Harvey wrote. “I’m happy to be within reach of the top ten, that was the goal for the weekend. Tomorrow I’m looking forward for 2 things. 1: chasing guys ahead of me. 2: skating!”
Kershaw, who started 13th and had fewer men to chase ahead of him, explained that he paced his first lap so that he’d catch someone like Harvey, and the plan worked.
“I was going to take my risk and start really slow. Almost level 3 effort,” Kershaw wrote of his pre-race strategy. “I knew I should be able to lap through with either Alex, [Finland’s Matti] Heikkinen, or Dario [Cologna of Switzerland] – and it just so happened that it was Alex. I ended up having great energy after my pedestrian start and was able to ski 10km with him, which obviously allowed me to ski into the points. Perhaps I should have been more aggressive out of the start, but I played it safe and it worked out decently well for me.”
“That was sweet to have someone there,” Harvey said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “It was good for both of us and really helped pull us both around.”
Kershaw wrote that he was “decently happy,” with his race. “I know that 26th doesn’t sound earth shattering or anything, but to start the first distance race of the World Cup tour in the points is fine. I’m a notoriously slow starter throughout my career before Christmas, so I’m just looking for some solid races and to hit the points more often than missing them is good.”
On Sunday, he’ll start 28th, one second behind Cologna in 26th and Russia’s Andrey Larkov in 27th. Bjornsen, the U.S. Ski Team’s leading man in the Ruka tour, is 7 seconds ahead of him in 23rd.
“I think the celling is probably 20th,” Kershaw wrote of his aspirations for an overall finish for the mini tour. “We have a good group of about 10 guys all starting within 9 seconds of each other. I will hope to stay in that group and have the energy and punch to have a good last lap. You never know what happens in these pursuit starts too – so guys could blow up, but there’s a break at around 20, and then behind me there’s a break at around 30. Will be fun.”
Bjornsen, who placed 24th in Friday’s sprint, started Saturday’s 15 k in bib 69, just 30 seconds ahead of Niskanen. In an email, Bjornsen described catching a “great ride from Iivo” on the second lap.
“He’s just amazing here,” Bjornsen wrote. “I’m pretty sure he was disappointed with his result. He comes to Ruka with a mission. I jumped on him for a lap in the middle. It felt very controlled in the double pole sections but he was just striding up the hills no problem. The herring bone was not nearly as efficient. I had to let him go after skiing with him for 6kms.”
Bjornsen explained that he took a chance and went for glide over grip.
“I’ve only raced here four times but tricky classic conditions seem to be the norm. The hills are big and steep!” he wrote. “I had a pair of rockets under my feet but I didn’t stride in the tracks once. My double pole is feeling great right now so the tactic was to hammer double pole as far up the hill as I could, and then just get out of the tracks and run/herring bone.”
After finishing in the top 30 to score World Cup points in the first two races of the season, Bjornsen explained he was feeling “psyched”.
“I didn’t have the best feelings the last couple weeks, so I wasn’t expecting to be in the points right away,” he wrote.
“Of course yesterdays race was fun for me, but for sure the highlight of the day was watching Sadie absolutely dominate the heats!” he added of his older sister Sadie Bjornsen placing second in the women’s sprint. “She’s been looking great this year and I think she has a lot more success to come. Personally I believe she was strong enough to take the win, it’s only a matter of time before that happens..”
On Sunday, he hoped to chase a top-30 overall tour finish.
“I’m starting around some legends, so it will be a great experience!” Bjornsen wrote.
U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said he was impressed with Bjornsen’s ability to contend with “some of the best skiers in the world” on Saturday, including Niskanen.
“[He] kind of took the approach, ‘I am going to swing as hard as I can and hope to connect with the ball,’ and it worked for a large part of that race,” Whitcomb said on the phone. “He was skiing up into the top 20, and then Niskanen on the final lap turned things up a little bit and popped him off … It was a gutsy race, so psyched for Erik. It is so fun to watch him figure out a project, some sort of challenge in the race and go after it. … Twenty-sixth is a hell of a race in Finland.”
American Noah Hoffman raced to 43rd (+1:58.4) on Saturday, Andy Newell finished 59th (+2:29.6), Paddy Caldwell was 72nd (+2:53.5), Scott Patterson 86th (+3:17.7), and Simi Hamilton 96th (+3:43.4) for the U.S. Ski Team.
Five other Canadian national-team members competed, with Len Valjas finishing 48th (+2:08.0), Graeme Killick 58th (+2:23.4), Knute Johnsgaard 87th (+3:19.8), Julien Locke (U25 Team) 100th (+3:56.4), and Jess Cockney 109th (+5:20.7).
* Northug, 31, who made his World Cup debut in 2005/2006 and has since accumulated 13 World Championships golds and two Olympic gold medals, has started his season this weekend with non-World Cup International Ski Federation (FIS) races in Gålå, Norway, after skipping Norway’s opening FIS races in Beitostølen, Norway, last weekend. Per team rules, he was not allowed to start the Ruka World Cup as a result of that decision. So far in Gålå, Northug finished 17th in the 15 k freestyle on Friday and was eliminated in Saturday’s classic-sprint quarterfinals to place 19th in that race.
** Belov, 27 is one of six Russian skiers currently banned from competing at future Olympics as a result of doping at the 2014 Olympics. He and the five others are allowed to compete in FIS events, like the World Cup, unless FIS decides otherwise.
— Gabby Naranja, Ian Tovell and Harald Zimmer contributed