In the classic venue that are the Drammen city sprints, it was a singular affair from start to finish during the men’s World Cup 1.2-kilometer classic sprint on Wednesday. In a race format that tapered from a field of 61 skiers to the winner, one only needs to track the skier in the overall World Cup’s leader bib to follow along.
The yellow-bibbed skier, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, didn’t surprise with his sprint win in Drammen as much as place another high performance stamp on his 2017/2018 campaign.
Klæbo won the qualifier in 2:49.32 minutes. Teammate Eirik Brandsdal skied to second in the qualifier, 3.5 seconds behind Klæbo. Russian Alexander Bolshunov skied the third-fastest qualifying time, finishing 4.48 seconds back. This puts some things in perspective, if anybody thought Klæbo would bloat in his post-Olympic gold medal glow — he won three golds in PyeongChang — you’d be wrong.
Klæbo would have have good reason to cash it in. What exactly does the 21 year old need to prove? Coming into Wednesday’s race, Klæbo had already captured the Sprint World Cup Crystal Globe. It’s the Norwegian phenom’s second-consecutive overall sprint title.
Yet Klæbo is also on the verge of sealing up his first Overall World Cup title. After the Drammen sprints, Klæbo leads the overall standings with 1308 points. Behind him, Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway (who did not contest Wednesday’s sprint), trails in second place with 980 points total.
“It was really important to me to get the 100 points today,” Klæbo told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after the race. “I need as many points as I can get against the other guys for the [overall] Crystal Globe. I will race the Holmenkollen 50 k this weekend and I know it will be tough. Also it’s great to win here in front of all the people. I was second here last season and I’m really happy to now have won Drammen.”
Let’s circle back to what Klæbo needs to prove, beyond padding his overall lead by another 100 points by winning the Drammen sprint. He’s proving at his young age, pending any monumental flameout, that he’s setting the stage for a historic international cross-country ski career.
This season alone, Klæbo has won six of nine individual sprint World Cups. He’s won 10 World Cup races in total. That win total puts Klæbo in rarefied company: in the men’s field, only Petter Northug (with 10 wins) and Sundby (16 wins) have won 10 or more World Cup races in a single season.
Winners want to win. Amidst the five-deep crowd surrounding the sprint course featuring Drammen’s iconic Bragernes Church, with his pink-themed flare, Klæbo proved once again he is a consummate winner.
There was his dominating qualifier. Then there was Klæbo’s quarterfinal, in which he looked less threatening. He won the first quarterfinal by 0.7 seconds in a photo finish with Brandsdal. That heat seemed to be a test run, as if Klæbo were feeling the course out and asking himself how it skied with five other bodies jousting for tracks and inside lines. There was never the hallmark Klæbo burst of speed or any real dominance. Klæbo kept in contact up the long initial uphill, and down through the tight and sinuous S-turns after the course’s highpoint.
If in fact the first quarterfinal was a dress rehearsal, Klæbo must have realized that any real podium threats would be drag racing up the final quarter-kilometer climb that finished nearly smack-dab in front of the church.
The first semifinal featured the day’s top-three qualifiers: Klæbo, Brandsdal and Bolshunov. (Bolshunov advanced by winning the second quarterfinal.) The three skiers finished 1-2-3 with Klæbo taking the win in another photo finish with Brandsdal.
Tactically, Bolshunov played his hand early. Determined to break Klæbo, the Russian led out hard and took the sharp end of the race in earnest. At the top of the course, Bolshunov had strung the five other skiers out behind him. Moments before the highpoint and entering the technical downhill S-turns, Bolshunov and Klæbo gave a burst of speed and distanced themselves by 10 meters. As Klæbo learned in his heat, even with speedy skis, the downhill is not decisive. It’s more a function of skiing out front, staying on your feet and entering the final straight with enough high-octane gas to turbo the finish.
Up the final climbing stretch, which seems as eternal as some flame burning inside the Bragernes Church, Bolshunov faded slightly, while Klæbo and Brandsdal pulled ahead.
Klæbo’s second takeaway: he already knew the course was won on the final straightaway climb. If he could match Bolshunov on the remainder of the course, Bolshunov could not mirror him in the final meters.
The final played out like Klæbo’s semi. Bolshunov punched it early. Klæbo sat behind the Russian, matching him pole for pole, stride for stride. Up front was as good a place as any for Bolshunov. Besides the Russian, it was an all-Norwegian final. There was Klæbo and Brandsdal, along with Sindre Bjørnestad Skar, Kasper Stadaas and Emil Iversen.
Bolshunov again led up and over the top of the course, through the S-turns and through the tucking downhill. Brandsdal trailed by 10 meters, but by the final turn before the uphill to the church’s front door, the threesome had regrouped. Again, as the double poling got down to business, Bolshunov faded, Klæbo pulled away and Brandsdal could only stay a second behind the day’s winner. And of course Klæbo was able to toe the line as he bowed to the frenzied crowd. Nothing to prove except he can win with panache and win in style when the Norwegian cameras turn out in force.
Klæbo won the final in 2:44.69 minutes. Brandsdal followed 1.04 seconds back in second place, Bolshunov finished third (+3.78), Bjørnestad fourth (+6.55), Kaspar fifth (+8.71), and Iversen sixth (+11.45).
Bjornsen Reaches Quarterfinals, 18th Overall
Erik Bjornsen was the lone North American who advanced to the heats, qualifying in 26th and finishing the day in 18th.
“I was feeling good,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier after the race. “It’s a tight course. It was a bit scrappy. … It’s my first time here qualifying for the heats, so I’m learning some things, for sure.”
Bjornsen skied in the fifth quarterfinal with Iversen, Russia’s Alexander Panzhinskiy, Finland’s Ristomatti Hakola, Emil Nyeng of Norway, and France’s Lucas Chavanat.
The American skied near the back of the group but avoided any real mishaps. Although the sport is not roller derby, Drammen’s tight-and-rutted corners offer up a close cross-country skiing cousin.
“I feel like – I kind of missed a few spots,” Bjornsen said. “At the bottom corner I was pushed to the outside. I was almost moving up into second, and looking back maybe I should have gone around him on the other side.”
Up the never-ending final straightaway, Bjornsen poled himself into a position to potentially advance to the semifinals as a lucky loser. However, that didn’t pan out for Bjornsen. Iversen won the heat in 2:51.96 minutes, Panzhinskiy placed second (+0.20), Hakola third (+0.99), with Bjornsen in fourth (+1.18).
Also for the U.S., Andy Newell missed the quarterfinals after finishing 33rd in qualification, 0.9 seconds out of 30th. Logan Hanneman and Kevin Bolger finished 49th and 50th, respectively, and Reese Hanneman 56th. The U.S. Ski Team’s Simi Hamilton sat out Wednesday’s sprint as he is recovering from an illness.
For Canada, Julien Locke finished 51st in qualifying, Alex Harvey was 54th, and Andy Shields 58th.
– Gabby Naranja and Chelsea Little contributed