Smack dab in the heart of the nordic sport world in Lillehammer, Norway, the World Cup began its second weekend of the 2017/2018 season with a kick-and-glide bang on Saturday. The men contested a 1.5-kilometer classic sprint on a course featuring a flat run into and out of a three successive climb-descent combo.
At 21 years old, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo remains peerless.
Is it the lungs? His up-tempo, high-output running style? For all the winning since his World Cup debut in 2016, Klæbo must be prematurely aging his rivals.
As last season’s overall Sprint World Cup winner and last weekend’s Ruka Triple dominator, 2017/2018 is starting off as a continuation of the nascent Klæbo era.
Klæbo has four wins in four races this season as he out-toed Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov by 0.83 seconds to win Saturday’s sprint. Another Russian, Alexander Bolshunov, was third (+1:29). Calle Halfvarsson from Sweden placed fourth (+1.64), and off the back were Norwegians Emil Iversen in fifth (+8.20) and Sondre Turvoll Fossli in sixth (+17.30).
Ustiugov’s exploits are well documented — he skied to five medals at 2017 World Championships, three silvers, and two golds. But like Klæbo, Bolshunov appears to be an authentic, albeit young challenger for future podiums and overalls on the World Cup. He’ll turn 21 on Dec. 31. Bolshunov won the 30 k skiathlon and 15 k freestyle and placed second in the classic sprint at last season’s U23 World Championships. After the Lillehammer sprint, Bolshunov is positioned second in the overall World Cup standings with 252 points — 22 points ahead of Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby in third. (Sundby did not race in Saturday’s sprint.)
But the narrative has been all Klæbo.
With 400 points, Klæbo’s foundation for building an early season hold on the World Cup overall is strong.
From the start on Saturday in Lillehammer, it was another stellar performance from the Norwegian in the qualifier: Klæbo won in 3:28.99 minutes with 4.31 seconds on Bolshunov, the next closest competitor.
Klæbo’s winning margin was slimmer in the quarterfinals, but it only amounted to a tease. He bested Ustiugov in the first quarterfinal by 0.17 seconds. In semifinal 1, there was a flip-flop: Ustiugov won, besting Klæbo in second place by 0.25 seconds.
Saturday’s conditions in Lillehammer featured fresh snow, which placed a premium on remaining in the skied-in tracks, maximizing glide without stepping into the slower snow. The final hill and descent into the finishing straight played a key part in Saturday’s winning tactics. Klæbo was mindful of the endurance aspect for Saturday’s sprint and tried tempering his effort until it mattered.
“I changed the plans a little bit in the final and tried to be second in the last downhill,” Klæbo said during the post-race press conference. “And then Ustiugov came before the last uphill there and it was going pretty fast I was just trying to keep up with him and be second on the last uphill there and to push hard and finish.”
With his latest win, Klæbo becomes only the second male skier to win the first two World Cup sprints of the season. In 2008/2009, Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestad won the first three sprints that season. Klæbo remains the youngest World Cup sprint winner, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS).
Alex Harvey was the lone North American to qualify in the top 30, placing 22nd, 11.89 seconds in back of Klæbo.
At last weekend’s Ruka Triple in Kuusamo, Finland, Harvey finished just off the podium for fourth place in the pursuit and in the overall mini-tour standings. In the first of the three stages there, the classic sprint, Harvey placed 21st. After placing 28th overall in Saturday’s classic sprint in Lillehammer, Harvey stated he was unconcerned about his early season sprint speed.
“I am not really tired, I just don’t have enough speed at that time of the year, but it’s like that every year,” Harvey said. “I am slow before Christmas. I have good endurance but not much speed so that’s what I had today … I feel good about going into tomorrow’s race, it is a totally different race, a 30 k [skiathlon]. In Kuusamo it was kind of the same in the sprint, I was kind of shaky, but then the distance races were good. I am looking forward to the 30 k.”
Harvey’s day ended in the quarterfinals when he placed sixth in the fourth heat, 3.06 seconds behind Norway’s Pål Trøan Aune, who won that quarterfinal.
For the U.S. Ski Team (USST), Erik Bjornsen skied to 35th, 13.61 seconds behind Klæbo in the qualifier and 1.06 seconds out of 30th. Andy Newell finished 38th (+13.89), and Scott Patterson finished 74th (+27.99).
“Disappointing to not make it past the qualifier,” Bjornsen emailed. “The Norwegians were on one today, qualifying 12 guys in the heats, leaving only 18 spots for the rest of the world. Warming up I could feel I didn’t have the snap I needed. I’m excited for a mass start race tomorrow though. It will be great to go head to head in some distance racing.”
Notably absent from Saturday’s sprint was USST sprinter Simi Hamilton.
“It was a disappointing day for the guys,” USST coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone. “Andy and Erik were close. They were not flanked by Simi who has been battling GI issues since Kuusamo. He has had quite a bug. He skied 30 minutes yesterday and about an hour and a half just walking around on his skis today. We are trying to build him back to strength. But he knocked down very hard by a bug.”
For Canada, those skiers outside the top 30 were Jesse Cockney (Canadian World Cup Team) in 57th (+17.59), Len Valjas (World Cup Team) in 59th (+18.24), Julian Locke (National U25 Team) in 61st (+19.99), and Russell Kennedy (Team R.A.D.) in 63rd (+20.98).
Racing continues Sunday with a 30 k skiathlon for the men and a 15 k skiathlon for the women.
— Aleks Tangen, Harald Zimmer and Gabby Naranja contributed