While a temperature in the upper thirties would not normally classify as cool to a ski racer, it was a welcome break from the blazing sun and upper 50’s that have been ever-present in the 2019 Nordic World Ski Championships in Seefeld, Austria. Light rain peppered the athletes in the 4 x 10-kilometer relay, continuing to keep things challenging for the wax techs.
The relay is a testament to both a nation’s depth and strategy, a chess match and a horse race. As was seen in the women’s relay, the selection and placement of athletes decide how the race will evolve, but these decisions are made without the knowledge of an opponent’s line up.
In their quest for a tenth consecutive gold medal in the event, Norway chose the line up of Emil Iversen, Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Sjur Røthe, and as the closer, their sprint champion, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. Røthe and Sundby sit in second and third respectively in the World Cup distance rankings, while Iversen has shown that he is an “all-arounder” who can respond to many dynamic racing scenarios. Sundby also brings experience to the team as he was a member of the gold medal team in both 2011 and 2017. After winning the overall Tour de Ski, Klæbo has shown that he can be a force in distance races but is most known for his closing speed and sprint prowess, which would come in handy should the race come down to the final meters.
As the race unfolded, it was unclear which nations’ tactics would trump the others. In the first leg, the men slowly began to string out, but the lead exchanged hands several times. Russia’s Andrey Larkov made an early run but was marked by Erik Bjornsen of the US who also spent time at the front. Despite slipping a bit on the climbs, Iversen, who was on harries, skied near the front throughout, entering the stadium first to tag his teammate. At the first exchange, Norway, Russia, and Germany were all within one second of each other, with the US in fourth fading into a chase pack with Sweden and France.
As the second leg began, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson surged to catch the leaders within the first kilometer, unwilling to lose sight of a possible 29th World Championship relay medal for Sweden. With him was Iivo Niskanen of Finland, Scott Patterson of the US, and Maurice Manificat of France.
While the rain picked up, Niskanen charged to the front and began to string things out in a fashion reminiscent of his performance in the 30 k skiathlon. Sundby stuck with the Finn, and was closely tailed by Alexander Bessmertnykh of Russia. The three skiers atop the podium after Wednesday’s 15 k reunited on the relay tracks.
Halfvarsson began slipping on the hills and was unable to hold onto the pace, falling back a few seconds behind the leaders at first, then fading to nearly 30 seconds back by the end of his leg. Likewise, France, Germany and the US began to lose touch, dropping behind by over 30 seconds by the next exchange.
However, as the first skate leg began, Jens Burman of Sweden followed Halfvarsson’s lead with yet another powerful surge to reconnect with the lead pack, closing the gap from 27 seconds at the exchange, to just two seconds at the 2.5 k checkpoint. Also rapidly making up ground, Clement Parisse of France gained 22 seconds on the leaders within the first lap. Unfortunately for Sweden, Burman seemed to burn a few too many matches in his charge, and in the second half of his leg, he fell back again almost as rapidly as he had advanced. He was overtaken by Parisse who did manage to light a fire for France, drawing to within eight seconds of the bronze medal before his final exchange to French sprinter Richard Jouve.
At the front, Alexander Bolshunov of Russia and Røthe hammered their final lap, separating themselves from the field in yet another Norway vs. Russia battle for gold. The men entered the stadium together with a gap of more than 20 seconds on the Finn who sat in third. Bolshunov tagged Sergey Ustiugov to face Klæbo for their final World Championship duel, mano a mano.
In their last matchup in the sprint at the onset of the championships, Ustiugov pushed Klæbo after a tangle in the semifinals robbed the Russian of his momentum. After the heat, the men were seen in a heated shouting match where Ustiugov again pushed Klæbo and gave him an antagonizing pat on the cheek. He was issued a yellow card for obstruction and was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct, while Klæbo went on to win the gold. The two were also rivals throughout the Tour de Ski, where Ustiugov nearly caught the exhausted Norwegian leader in the final hill climb, but ultimately ran out of time and finished second.
As they took to the course in the final leg, this much was clear: the Russian did not want to hand the victory over to his opponent. Ustiugov dictated the pace with the Norwegian tucked in behind him. They did not take turns, rather, Ustiugov held fast at the front. But, as they entered their third and final lap of the course, Ustiugov’s fatigue began to become evident, and Klæbo had plenty left in his tank to capitalize on the moment.
The Norwegian surged to the front and did not lay off the gas, leaving Russia trailing behind, desperately trying to keep it together for silver. Klæbo cruised through the lap with enough room to begin his celebration well before the finish. He stopped the clock at a time of 1:42:32.1, 38 seconds ahead of Russia.
“It was a really hard race, and I think the conditions now is really tough, but I think all of us had very good skis today and the waxing team and the guys helping us did a very good job,” Klæbo told the International Ski Federation (FIS) after the race. “So its very cool to stand here with those guys and take the gold medal. It’s unbelievable.”
For both Klæbo and Sundby, this is the second gold medal of the championships. Sundby earned the long-awaited first individual medal of his career in the 15k classic just two days prior.
“This is a different kind of emotional,” Sundby told FIS as he compared his wins. “But for the team, this is the most important. This is the race we’ve been thinking about since we started training in May, so for the team and for Norway, I think this is emotional for the nation. And for us, we are such good of a group, so to be able to do this together and of course for Johannes to destroy Russia on the last leg, that was amazing.”
Behind the racers in red, a battle for bronze was underway between France and Finland. With a gap ahead and behind, Jouve and Perttu Hyvarinen had duked it out for nearly 8 k. With less than a kilometer to go, the men came to a standstill, neither willing to break the wind for the other in the last descent. Not wanting to be caught by the teams chasing behind, Hyvarinen conceded and took the lead. Rounding the last corner into the stadium, Jouve rocketed around the Finn, no pole skating with lightning fast tempo toward the line to win bronze, 1.8 seconds ahead of Finland.
After a strong start, the American team fell back in the pack. Patterson tagged David Norris in 7th to ski the first skate leg for the US, and the team was in 9th at the final tag to Kyle Bratrud. The team ended the day in 9th (+4:06.4).
Canada’s Alex Harvey, Scott James Hill, Evan Palmer-Charrette, and Lenny Valjas placed 12th (+7:05.5).
“We started off the morning on the wrong foot because Simi, who was going to be our anchor, woke up with a sore throat,” explained Chris Grover in a call. “After that, it went pretty well. Awesome opening leg for Erik… had a really great leg, had really good skis, felt like glide was excellent.”
“We were excited that Erik was able to put together yet another really strong classic leg, and also another really strong lead off relay leg,” he continued. “He’s almost always our lead off person in the relay, and this time might have been the closest he’s been to the leader coming in. So that was great.”
Bjornsen was also pleased with his leg; despite a less than ideal starting position, he was able to advance through the pack into a better position to execute his race plan.
“I was trying to make sure to be in position for when the pace kind of turned up,” explained Bjornsen in a call. “And it actually took a little longer than I was expecting, but then on the last lap about halfway through on one of the big hills it started notching up and Russia made a big surge and I was able to jump right behind Larkov and kind of chase him on the big sprint climb. So I felt like I was able to play with the group and ski near the front, didn’t have the attack that I wanted on the last climb, but I saw by the splits that I was 5 seconds off the leader at the end, so I was pretty happy with that. I felt like I was able to compete with the best.”
While Patterson could not maintain contact with the leaders, he skied his leg with grit
“Another really solid leg out of Scott [Patterson], to go out and kind of close that gap that was presented to him,” said Grover. “At one point he said ‘Yeah, I got a little bit caught behind when the leaders broke.’ But at the same time, I think we recognize that the guys that broke away, Sundby, Bessmertnykh, and Niskanen, were the three guys that were on the podium in the 15k classic a few days before. So I think Scott recognized it was really hard for him to keep that pace. But he did a really good job when he was at his max really holding technique together and skiing really well.”
Though he lost additional places, Grover also felt that Norris skied a strong leg.
“For a while, he was catching a ride with Dario Cologna who was skiing up from behind him, and David [Norris] held with him for a little bit, but then that pace was too hard for him. He fell off that and had to regroup a bit.
“By that time, the spread between teams was so big that Kyle started a minute or so behind, and had a minute or so to go to the person that was behind him,” Grover continued. “So, unfortunately, he skied by himself the whole time, which is not that conducive to having a fast leg, but he skied really well. Seemed like he was moving pretty good and skiing with great technique.
“Overall, it was a really solid day for those guys with some absolute highlight coming at the beginning,” he concluded.
The 9th place finish marks improvement for the team, as they finished 11th in the event two years ago in Lahti.
“I think for the most part the relay team is satisfied with our performance today,” wrote Patterson in an email. “Unless we win though, there are also little things that each of us wished had gone a little better. Erik skied a great leg and I am proud of the performances of our whole team. While there were 8 teams in front of us that I would have like to beat, we also did manage to beat some good teams. It is always fun to come together as a group and see what we can do.”
While the weather might not have been well received by all parties, the Americans didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they felt it may have been a benefit in many ways.
“Honestly, I’m a little excited about the rain,” Patterson told FIS before the race. “Everyone else gets miserable and you just have to enjoy the other’s misery.”
After the race, he still had an overall favorable opinion on the weather.
“It was a nice variation from the heat of the 15k,” he wrote. “However, I will also admit that I was pretty cold and miserable myself while hanging out in the rain for the skate legs of the relay.”
Bjornsen also shared that he enjoyed the rain and thought it helped speed up the tracks.
“Once you start racing in the rain, you don’t even notice,” he laughed. “It was fun.”
From a waxing perspective, it was felt that the grey skies and moisture affected the course evenly. So while it was still a challenge for waxers, it was at least consistent conditions throughout the course.
“It was a bit more uniform than in the past where we had a sunny side and a shady side,” Grover shared. “The cloud cover helped make things more uniform out there, which may have helped some of the teams get closer in the hunt for the right wax. Because, unfortunately, it just seems like a lot of the days we’ve seen some big discrepancies in skis, where some of the bigger nations just have incredible skis and everyone else is trying to figure out how to solve the puzzle with not quite as much manpower.”
The World Championships in Seefeld conclude with a women’s 30k Saturday, followed by the men’s 50k on Sunday.