(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Canada’s Bob Thompson.)
Federico Pellegrino’s winning move in the men’s 6 x 1.2-kilometer freestyle team sprint on Sunday wasn’t exactly the same as yesterday when the Italian attacked on the final climb of the individual skate sprint.
“Yesterday on the right side and today I tried on the left side and it was OK,” Pellegrino said in a post-race interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS).
By “OK,” Pellegrino meant perfect.
“Today everything was perfect, even the sun was super,” he said after winning his second race in as many days with team-sprint partner Dietmar Nöckler. “We can continue like this to the Olympics then catch the gold.”
A number of teams were looking to do exactly as the Italians did on Sunday on a tightly woven city sprint course in the heart of Dresden, Germany. This race marked the last team sprint before the Olympics, which starts in less than a month in PyeongChang, South Korea. The Olympic team sprint, set for Feb. 21, is also freestyle. Sunday was the first team sprint so far of the 2017/2018 season.
Pellegrino locked it up after Nöckler came through the last exchange in fifth, 2.6 seconds behind Sweden’s Emil Jönsson in first. On the final lap, Pellegrino chased Sweden’s Teodor Peterson and Switzerland’s Roman Schaad, before Pellegrino made his move past Schaad in first heading into the final rise before the stadium. The attack was just slightly before the one he executed to win Saturday’s skate sprint over Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo.
“I had to use it,” he said of the move.
First over the top, Pellegrino pushed farther ahead of Peterson in second while Schaad, Russia’s Gleb Retivykh, Sweden II’s Karl-Johan Westberg, Klæbo, and American Simi Hamilton chased in third. Hamilton went down when he collided with Klæbo just before the finish line, but was able to get up and finish eighth, 14.28 seconds behind Italy in first.
Pellegrino sealed the deal in 12:18.31, and Peterson crossed 1.07 seconds back for Sweden I in second place. Russia’s first team, with Andrey Krasnov and Retivykh, placed third (+1.23), just ahead of Switzerland I (Jovian Hediger and Schaad) in fourth (+1.45), Norway I (Kasper Stadaas and Klæbo) in fifth (+1.93), and Sweden II (Johan Häggström and Westberg) in sixth (+1.94). Italy II (Stefan Zelger and Giacomo Gabrielli) placed seventh (+7.31) ahead of the U.S. (Erik Bjornsen and Hamilton) in eighth.
“When I arrived at the finish line, I could go slow and had some time to look to the people and say thank you for a great day,” Pellegrino told German TV broadcaster ZDF. “I had really good fun here in Germany!”
“He showed all the world that today he is the strongest athlete on the track,” Nöckler said while standing next to his teammate Pellegrino in a televised interview with FIS. “And today we were both on the podium so we’re really happy.”
Bjornsen, Hamilton in the Mix
The U.S. men were in contention to the finish, with Bjornsen putting them in third on the second-to-last leg. Norway’s Stadaas had been given a 1.3-second lead at the fourth exchange by his teammate Klæbo (who had previously made his way back into first after Stadaas tagged him in fifth). While Stadaas widened the gap for the first half of his last loop, Bjornsen led the chase, skiing several seconds behind him in second place.
In an in-person interview with FasterSkier, Bjornsen recalled being tentative in the semifinals, where he and Hamilton finished fourth but advanced as lucky losers with a fast-enough time.
“Going into the final, I was feeling good and I wanted to use my aerobic capacity,” Bjornsen said. “As soon as Simi handed off to me, I was kind of in the back end of that group and Norway had a good lead and I was like, I’m just gonna go for it.”
Hamilton had tagged him in eighth, 2.5 seconds behind Norway in first. About halfway through the next 1.2 k loop, Bjornsen had bridged the gap to Stadaas, but brought a large pack of racers with him.
“I went to the outside and was able to pass my group of like six or so, and I bridged up to Norway and tried to hit that corner pretty hard, then it kind of hit me,” Bjornsen said. “I was tired, that group had caught up to me and unfortunately I had pulled — some people jumped on the back of me, so then they kind of went by me, but I was able to hand off in third so I was happy with that. We were in the mix today.”
Sweden’s Jönsson took the lead over the last rise before the stadium, and Switzerland’s Hediger slotted into second, coming through the exchange 0.9 seconds after Jönsson. Bjornsen tagged third, 2 seconds back.
From there, Hamilton kept himself in contention in the top five, hanging just behind Pellegrino and Peterson as the large group approached the finish. In the middle with several races on either side of him, Hamilton went down, hard, but stood back up again and finished eighth.
“My crash wasn’t too terrible, but I did break Klæbo’s pole with my face and got a bunch of carbon fiber splinters in my upper lip. So once I got that cleaned up I was okay,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “Whacked my head a bit too, but I’ll be fine.”
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He explained that he and Bjornsen had made a game plan to “ski towards the front, stay out of crashes, and figure out how the semifinal was going to play out while racing,” he wrote. “I thought we both skied the semi well, although I think I could have been a bit more aggressive on my last lap and done more skiing that would have assured us a spot into the final. But it turned out okay.”
In the final, “Erik did an awesome job keeping us at the front and I just focused on doing the same for him,” Hamilton wrote. “He turned in a hell of a last leg, tagging me in 3rd for my last lap.”
Bjornsen was pleased with his last lap, but would have like to have been first through the final exchange.
“I wish I had a little higher speed that I could push past people quicker, but I find when I’m up against the best, my talent or whatever is to kind of press hard for a while,” Bjornsen said. “… So I just tried to send it hard for 45 seconds and it seemed to work out. I wish I could’ve handed off in first, but I’m happy to be in the mix there.”
On the final lap, Hamilton recalled “a decent sized gap up to first and second, I think mostly because those were the only two teams that had perfect tags on that last exchange,” he wrote.
Unsure whether to ski all out on his last of three 1.2 k efforts, while simultaneously pulling along competitors like Pellegrino and Klæbo, Hamilton focused on skiing fast, but not to his max.
“On the far end, Pellegrino went by me and by that point we were really close to making contact with the top two,” he wrote. “I thought we were totally in the hunt for a podium until somehow I lost a second on the plateau [after the last hill] with about 15 seconds of racing left. “I don’t know how I lost it, if it was just entirely my fault or if something happened like I got punched from my line, but I am pretty bummed about it because that was where I felt like I let the podium slip through our hands,” Hamilton continued. “Coming in to the finish lanes, I got tripped up with Klæbo and my skis got clipped as were skiing for the same lane. It wasn’t intentional and he’s a very clean racer, but it was definitely a bummer to not be able to sprint it out for 3rd, 4th, or 5th with those other guys.”
As for Norway, Klæbo told Germany’s ZDF he was out of the race at the start of that last lap: “After the last exchange it was too difficult, the gap was too large to the guys in front,” he said.
Overall, Hamilton concluded that it was a great and interesting weekend of racing at a new venue in Dresden.
“I think they could make some big improvements to the course with making it more technical, flowy, and wider, but I hope they continue to hold sprints here in the future,” he wrote.
While the Bjornsen and Hamilton as the U.S. Ski Team’s first team on Sunday were the lone North Americans to reach the men’s final, Canada came close with Bob Thompson and Julien Locke.
“The main points of our plan was make sure we stayed in the lead group and to take any easy opportunities to make up positions whenever we saw them,” Thompson, of the National Team Development Centre (NTDC) Thunder Bay, wrote in an email. “I started first as we were confident I could hang on to the pace and then after Julien’s excellent performance yesterday we felt he would have good speed to finish.”
In Saturday’s individual sprint, Locke placed 15th for a career best.
The two ultimately finished seventh in the first team-sprint semifinal, just one place behind Great Britain’s James Clugnet and Andrew Young. The Brits advanced to the final as lucky losers in sixth, 1.85 seconds behind Norway’s Stadaas and Klæbo in first, becoming the first team from Great Britain to reach the final in a World Cup team sprint. (In the final, they finished behind the U.S. in ninth, 14.68 seconds out of first.)
After Thompson tagged Locke (Canadian National U25 Team/Black Jack Ski Club) in eighth in the last exchange of their semifinal, Locke picked off one place to finish seventh, 0.39 seconds behind Great Britain’s Young.
“The third leg just started going from the exchange and I was able to hang on to the back and then dodge around the French teams who both crashed,” Thompson explained. “So I was able to tag off to Julien solidly in the mix of the lead pack. Julien had a pole break on the small hill with just 200m to go and had to free skate in, so the .15 seconds from making the final hurts a bit.
“I’m happy with how we raced,” he continued. “We both stayed controlled and I think we had the pace well enough. I believe I skied it as well as I could have and being right up with those guys feels great.”
The Americans’ second team of Andy Newell and Ben Lustgarten crossed the line 0.57 seconds later for eighth place (+2.81) in that semifinal. Newell had put them in second place at the last exchange, just 0.11 seconds out of first.
“I felt good on my last leg and was able to make some moves and tag Ben in the lead going into the final lap,” Newell wrote in an email. “He skied really well to stay close to the leaders. If we were even less than a second faster I think we would have moved on as [lucky losers] instead of Sweden 2 and USA 1 from the next semi. So we were a bit unlucky there but it was a fun race.”
Previously, Newell had tagged Lustgarten in fourth at the first exchange, then Newell found himself back in 10th and almost 2 seconds back after his second leg.
“Ben and I tried to ski up toward the front half of the pack but had a small crash on our second tag,” Newell explained.
“The [second] handoff wasn’t clean but I got Newell just in time,” Lustgarten, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, recalled in an in-person interview with FasterSkier. “But there is so much happening and I obviously don’t have that much experience in this event, so it was just like a learning experience and trying to ski well. … On my last lap, Klæbo and Pellegrino went by and I am not really at that level yet so I didn’t really expect anything. I just tried to go as hard as I could.
“I haven’t done a team sprint in eight years maybe, so it was a whole new kind of experience,” Lustgarten explained. “And obviously all these guys are so fast and strong that it was just an insane event.”
Canada’s second team of Antoine Briand (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre) and Dominique Moncion-Groulx (Alberta World Cup Academy) finished 13th in the first semifinal, 26.20 seconds out of first. Notably, Moncion-Groulx skied the fastest second leg of the race to bring them from 12th after the first exchange to sixth.
The World Cup has two more weekends of racing before the Olympics, with all-classic races next weekend in Planica, Slovenia (classic sprint and 10/15 k classic individual starts), followed by freestyle races in Seefeld, Austria, on Jan. 27-28 (skate sprints and 10/15 k freestyle mass starts).
Bjornsen said he was unsure whether he’d race next weekend in Planica, potentially opting for a training block before the Olympics instead.
“I still have to talk to [U.S .SKi Team Head Coach Chris] Grover about which races I’m going to start at the Olympics and so if it looks like I’ll have a full schedule at the Olympics then I’ll try to do a training block,” Bjornsen said.
Hamilton wrote that he was planning on racing the classic sprint in Planica, and was headed to Ramsau, Austria, with his teammates for a couple days of training first.
According to Thompson, the four Canadians that raced in Dresden were also on their way to Ramsau, Austria, where they’ll train until Tuesday and then continue on to Planica.
— Gabby Naranja, Ian Tovell and Harald Zimmer contributed