With the Norwegian women taking the top two spots earlier in the day in the 4×5 k, the Norwegian men had the bar for success set high for their four-man relay effort.
As always, Petter Northug Jr. was anchoring Norway I, supported to Eldar Roenning and Finn Haagan Krogh on classic skis, while Lars Berger, biathlete, brother of Tora Berger, and occasionally cross-country relay selection skied third in the 4×10 k race in Sjusjøen, Norway, on Sunday.
Held on 2.5 k loops of man-made snow, the tracks quickly became extremely icy and hard.
While Norway I had a slight advantage in the form of Northug’s traditional anchor-leg superhuman efforts, it was obvious that the men were not going to have as clear a path to the finish line as their female counterparts.
Ultimately, the result was the same, as Norway I took the gold medal in a tight finish. In a surprise turn of events, Norway III emerged from the finish-line sprint with silver medal, while the Swedes picked up the bronze, narrowly edging out the French.
Russia I and II as well as France pushed the pace on what is usually a fairly sedate opening leg of the relay, forcing the field to work, and whittling away several teams.
As they rounded the corner into the exchange zone, the main pack was down to just six, with another six teams hanging close inside of 15 seconds, including the Americans, kept competitive with a strong leg by Andy Newell.
The major players on the outside were Switzerland, where Toni Livers dropped 46 seconds to the leaders, while Germany I employed Andy Kuehne — who could be seen running up hills on his skis — to finish the leg dead last, over a minute and 30 seconds back of the lead.
Under strong efforts by a variety of teams including Russia I, using Maxim Vylegzhanin, the French who tapped Maurice Manificat, and Finlands’ Sami Jauhojaervi, the main pack was reduced to six teams, including Norway I with Krogh.
Norway III, up until that point in the hunt, was let down by unknown quantity Ronny Fredrik Ansnes who dropped them out of the lead group and almost 30 seconds back of Russia I when the teams switched to the skate leg.
Russia I, France, Finland, Norway I, Sweden and Italy all came into the exchange within five seconds, while Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, the Czech Republic, and American Kris Freeman making up a smaller chase pack, around 30 seconds off the pace.
It took a massive effort for Cologna to draw back into the group – he skied the fastest second leg of the day by 13 seconds, blowing by Canada’s Ivan Babikov who broke a pole and was struggling as a result.
With Sweden’s Daniel Rickardsson tagging off to Johan Olsson, winner of Saturday’s 15 k skate, fireworks appeared in the offing for the third leg, especially with the history between Norway and Sweden in the relay.
But the Swede who was so strong on Saturday didn’t seem to be in the same world-class form. After leading for the first 5 k, Olsson could be seen looking around and motioning for someone else to come to the front.
However, Olsson was mostly ignored, until Lars Berger of chief rival Norway I stepped up at 7 k and turned up the pace. Berger was matched by everyone, especially Roland Clara who was skiing third for Italy. Clara, who picked up a bronze medal on Saturday finishing just shy of Northug for silver, put in an attack in the last 700 meters on a steep uphill, managing only to shake Russia I in the form of Sergey Turychev before the third and final exchange.
Roughly 30 seconds back of the lead pack, USA’s Tad Elliott attacked his small group of Morten Eilifsen (NOR III) and Remo Fischer (SUI), and then was attacked in turn, as Norway III and the Swiss handed off 44 seconds back, and Elliott handed off to Simi Hamilton 53 seconds behind the leaders.
Heading into the fourth leg, it was clear that Northug hadn’t had a sudden urge to change his tactics. Immediately after taking the tag, the firebrand Norwegian pulled up to let the five others go by, slotting himself in the pack second from the back.
The pace then dropped considerably, letting Curdin Perl (SUI) and Sjur Roethe (NOR III) claw back their considerable deficit. It was obvious for a long way out that the race had turned into an 8-way shootout at the finish line for just three medals.
At that point, Northug does what he does best, unleashing his unparalleled finishing kick to get clear of the pack to pick up the gold medal for Norway I.
But the surprise was Roethe, who stormed from 8th and a 44 second deficit to deliver a silver medal for Norway III, and secure the one-two finish for the second relay of the day.
“I’m happy to be on the podium today,” said Roethe in an interview after the race.
“The last leg was a tactical one but at the end I pushed hard and could take the second spot for our team.”
Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson made a valiant effort to break up the Norwegian party, but the young Swede – who opened his season with a career-best World Cup finish in 4th on Saturday – couldn’t find enough speed to get past the red suits.
“In the last uphill I was behind and lost a bit the connection,” Halfvarsson said in a post-race interview with FIS Ski.
“I had to pass all for the finish sprint and that was not so easy… I am satisfied with my race but for sure I was a bit nervous before and during it.”
Left empty-handed at the finish line were the French, who finished fourth, just ahead of Russia I. Finland finished sixth, barely holding off the hard-charging Norway II, who placed biathlete Emil Hegle Svendsen on the anchor leg. Svendsen came from 12th spot, nearly two minutes back to have a shot, which gives you an idea of just how slowly the lead pack was going on the final leg.
USA anchorman Simi Hamilton dropped just two spots, one to Ilya Chernousov (RUS II) and the other to Svendsen, to end the Americans day in a solid 11th.
Canadian opening-leg specialist Devon Kershaw appeared strong in the early going, until a collision popped his ski off his foot, and put him to the ground.
Kershaw has provided plenty of first-leg fireworks in the past, but his fall and resulting time loss put the Canadians in a deep hole early, while Babikov broke a pole and never managed to find his rhythm. Graham Nishikawa skated the third leg, but by the time he received the tag they Canadians were out of the running, and the Canadians failed to start their fourth skier, sprinter Len Valjas.