The World Cup made its final European stop in Falun, Sweden before the field heads across the pond to Quebec City for the final series. For the men, the weekend opened with a 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint, a last test before the freestyle sprint in Canada.
Heading into the weekend, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo sat comfortably in the lead for the overall sprint standings with string of six back-to-back wins, not including a win at the World Championships. The 22-year-old phenom had earned a remarkable 604 points and held a lead of 145 points over second place, his friendly rival from Italy, Federico Pellegrino. Klæbo had not lost a sprint since the second World Cup weekend in Lillehammer where a broken pole in the semifinal took him out of contention. He was also humbled in the first race of the season where he looked over his shoulder and laid off the gas too soon, allowing Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov to take him at the line.
While the top of the podium might be more memorable than the other positions, in reflecting on the season, one cannot overlook Pellegrino’s freestyle sprint results. The Italian has landed on the podium, most frequently in second, in all but one skate sprint event this season — the city sprints in Dresden where he was issued a yellow card for obstruction in his quarterfinal, leaving him in 30th for the day. Eirik Brandsdal of Norway sat in third, followed by his teammate Sindre Bjørnestad Skar in fourth, and Gleb Retivykh of Russia in fifth.
Despite Falun sitting roughly 60 degrees north in latitude, a fair amount of grass showed aside the ski jumps and between the folds of the ribbon of snow making up the course. Above freezing temperatures and plenty of sun quickly caused the windy course to become chewed up, especially on some of the downhills and corners. With variable weather leading into the weekend as well, the event coordinators reportedly kept the course closed, even to athletes, techs, and coaches in an effort to preserve a solid track. But despite their best efforts, the course was no match for the sun.
As athletes skied their qualifier, the course eroded; uphills became soft and piles of corn snow could be found on the outside of the curves. This made for an exciting day of races as the sprints became a test of both speed and surefootedness. With numerous crashes in the heats for both men and women, tactics had to include staying on their feet as the athletes’ primary goal.
As expected given their introduction, Klæbo and Pellegrino went one-two in the qualifier. The two then met head to head in the first heat of the quarterfinal, where they debuted their chosen strategy of hanging back for the first half of the race, then slowly moving into better position before the last 30 seconds where they fired on all cylinders. Klæbo made his move a bit sooner than Pellegrino, demonstrating his signature powerful jump skate as he climbed a granular hill. Pellegrino took things closer to the wire, blasting his way into second place with a no pole skate in the final stretch. The two finished just 0.4 seconds apart in a heat where less than 1.5 seconds separated first through fourth.
The remainder of the quarterfinal heats proved to be close as well, in particular, the third heat, which ended in a four-way photo finish between Skar, Francesco De Fabiani of Italy, Richard Jouve of France, and Andrew Young of Great Britain. As the heat did not prove to be the fastest, only Skar and De Fabiani advanced even though the men were only separated by 0.2 seconds in all.
The course continued to keep things interesting in the semis, where Klæbo and Pellegrino faced Martin Bergström of Sweden, Bolshunov, Skar, and Miha Simenc of Slovenia. Again, Klæbo could be found toward the back 1:30 into the race, but his tactic did not play out as smoothly for him as it did in the quarters.
Rounding a curve late in the long downhill that caused so many skiers to lose their footing, Klæbo found himself boxed out by Bolshunov, forcing him wide into the loose corn on a turn. This robbed the Norwegian of some of his momentum, making it harder for him to position himself with a jump to the front as he did before.
Charging down the final stretch, Skar held the lead with Pellegrino on his tails. Klæbo surged desperately close behind, battling for position with Bolshunov and Bergström. With a final lunge, Pellegrino slid his boot across the line first, just 0.11 seconds head of Skar. Klæbo crossed 0.27 seconds behind Pellegrino in third, holding his breath that the heat would be fast enough to allow him to advance to the final as a lucky loser. Bergström finished fourth 0.91 seconds back, with an unlucky Bolshunov only 0.03 seconds behind him in fifth.
While not as close as the first, the second semi still kept spectators on edge. A broken pole took out Lucas Chanavat of France who had qualified in fifth and was seen as a favorite to win the heat. From there, Emil Iversen and his teammate Brandsdal skied comfortably to take first and second in the heat respectively. Luckily for Klæbo and Bergström, the second heat was indeed slower than the first, so both were able to advance. This put Bergström, who skied for the University of Utah, in unchartered territory, as the 27-year-old had never before made the finals in a World Cup sprint.
Perhaps this fact made Bergström more inclined to take the plunge. At the top of the perilous downhill midway through the final, the six men who had skied as a group to that point stood up and exchanged glances, not wanting to lead until later in the race. While his opponents paused, Bergström charged down the hill in front, staying on his feet through the curves. His lead did not last long, as he was overtaken by the three Norwegians, Iversen, Skar, and Klæbo, and by Pellegrino.
Heart rates collectively increased for the racers and the crowd as Skar rounded the corner into the finish in first, just ahead of Pellegrino.
Had Klæbo’s tactic failed him again? Just on the leaders’ tails, Klæbo and Iversen skied furiously to reel them in. With little room to spare, Klæbo battled his way to the front, throwing his foot to stop the clock at 2:52.38. Iversen too overtook the fading Skar and Pellegrino, sliding across the line just 0.1 seconds behind Klæbo, with Skar 0.18 seconds behind to close out the Norwegians’ podium sweep. Pellegrino was left with the wooden medal after crossing the line in fourth, 0.71 seconds behind Klæbo. Bergström took fifth (+1.97) and Brandsdal sixth (+2.18).
“It was a really hard race,” Klæbo told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after the finish. “The conditions are quite difficult, especially on the downhills. So it was tough, but in the end there, it was really good conditions and it was a fair fight to the finish. So a bit of struggle in the semifinal, but in the final, a bit better.”
U.S. skier Simi Hamilton (USST), qualified in 16th, but a hangup on an uphill early in his quarterfinal robbed him of his momentum and disrupted his plan, leaving him fifth in his heat. Hamilton ended the day in 22nd overall. Kevin Bolger (USST) advanced to the heats where he was eliminated, finishing in 27th overall.
Also for the U.S., Logan Hanneman (APU) placed 39th, and Ben Saxton (SMS T2) was 60th.
Alex Harvey of Canada ended his race in 31st. He was the only Canadian entered.
While two out of four entrants finishing in the top-30 is a positive result for the U.S., head coach Chris Grover explained that luck was not in their favor. In both the men’s and women’s races, crashes and tangles plagued the Americans throughout the day.
“Today was a day where everything started great, but it seemed like one version of misfortune struck followed by another, unfortunately,” Chris Grover told FasterSkier in a call. “But people were healthy, the service team made great skis all day long, so that was really good.”
Bolger had perhaps the best luck of the day.
“Kevin might have been the only guy who didn’t have a significant hangup or bauble out there,” reported Grover. He also felt that Bolger skied well technically, though Bolger felt his race left room for improvement.
“I’m very happy to have come here and qualified with such a strong field,” wrote Bolger in an email. “I was feeling very strong leading into the quarterfinal, unfortunately, a few mistakes led to me losing some time and positioning in my heat, so I can say I’m a little upset leaving the day not having moved on or finishing better. But every race is a learning experience, and I’m looking forward to the next race and applying new tactics!”
Despite feeling strong, Hamilton struggled a bit to feel powerful in the soft conditions during his qualifier. At the start of the heats, he felt poised for a good day but was struck by the poor luck Grover mentioned.
“In the quarter, I wanted to get up front, or as far up as I could, just so I could have the first line into those downhill corners and try to control the heat,” explained Hamilton in a call. “I got off to an okay start, not great, but I just kind of slotted behind Chanavat, knowing that he would probably ski pretty well and ski toward the front, so I felt like I was in a great position.
“At the end of the long straightaway at the start, there’s a hard right-hand corner that goes into the little steep climb, and I just got completely skied into by one of the Finns, Mæki,” he continued. “I almost went down, but kind of saved it, but lost some pretty valuable time there and ended up getting stuck at the back. I still felt good at that point, my energy felt great, but I couldn’t really make any moves past people on the two climbs. And the nature of how the course was holding up today, it was pretty much impossible to pass people on the downhill corners, just because there was basically one line through the corners today and it was incredibly sketchy.”
This experience was frustrating for Hamilton, who is known for his agility on skis. Typically, the downhills and corners would have played to his strengths.
“I’m still psyched about where my fitness and shape are right now, and I’m still mentally engaged with everything, so I’m looking forward to the races coming up in Quebec,” he concluded.
The season has left Hamilton with “mixed feelings” as he has not been able to achieve the results he has felt capable of. He has also faced his fair share of illness.
“I think there have been points in the season that I’ve been really proud of an happy about,” he reflected. “I feel like I’ve had quite a few races this year where I was really close to having a great day, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t quite get there. I’m thinking specifically about the two skate sprints in the Tour [de Ski], both of those were bittersweet because I felt great for both of those, and in Toblach, I had that weird fall on the uphill, and then in Val Mustair, I felt pretty good again but had a pretty tough heat with Chanavat and Pellegrino and couldn’t quite move on. So I’ve felt like in quite a few races, I was just ready to break through and it didn’t quite happen.
“But at the same time, I think that there were a lot of positive moments and positive signs,” he continued. “I knew that my fitness was quite good all season, so I have a little more confidence in that, and have just kind of tried to enjoy it. It was definitely a bummer to get sick in January and miss Dresden, and then January and early February were just not awesome for me with getting sick and missing some training, and then a pretty bad weekend in Lahti. There were some down moments for sure, but looking back on the good races, I’m pretty proud of those.”
After three Olympics and consistently racing on the World Cup circuit since 2010, the 31-year-old Aspen, CO native feels that he is in the twilight of his career.
“All season, I was debating whether I was going to keep coming after this year or not, and right now I feel pretty fired up still and pretty motivated. I know that there are some really specific things that I can work on, so I haven’t fully made a decision yet, but I am definitely leaning toward skiing one more year. So right now, I’m just trying to focus on putting together the best sprint in Quebec and the best weekend in general that I can and have fun there skiing with a big North American team and have a lot of friends and family cheering us on, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Racing in Falun continues tomorrow with 10/15k freestyle events.