2018 Olympics (PyeongChang, South Korea): Men’s 50 kilometer mass start classic
Iivo Niskanen earned his gold medal.
The 26-year-old Finn, skiing in his second Olympics, broke away from a well-credentialed chase pack at the 17-kilometer mark of Saturday’s Olympic 50-kilometer mass start classic race, then skied a courageous race from there to take the gold nearly 90 minutes of racing later.
He had some company, as Olympic Athlete from Russia Alexander Bolshunov made an equally gutsy move to bridge the gap up to Niskanen by 36 k. But Niskanen used a well-timed surge on the final uphill to come round Bolshunov with 1.1 k to go, and take the convincing win by the finish. Behind him, Olympic Athlete from Russia Andrey Larkov made a similar move on the final hill 2 ½ minutes later to come clear of a chase group and take the bronze.
But let’s back up. A field of 69 racers began the 50 k classic at 2 p.m. local time under cloudy skies, which ultimately gave way to heavy mist and light snow as the floodlights came on around 3:30 in the afternoon. It was the 23rd running of a race first held at the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix. Boldface names such as Bjørn Dæhlie, Gunde Svan, and Thomas Wassberg are among its historical champions. A Finn had not won this race since Kalevi Hämäläinen in 1960.
Norwegian Martin Sundby led a 23-racer pack through the end of the second lap, roughly 17 k and 42 minutes into the race. Niskanen was in seventh at this point, 2.5 seconds off the lead.
Less than a kilometer later, with nearly two-thirds of the race still ahead of him, Niskanen headed to the front. Moving quickly, he soon opened up a small gap over much of the rest of the field. Roughly five minutes later, around the 19-k mark, he began pushing the pace in earnest.
The field began to spread out almost immediately. Niskanen was closely followed by Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan.
Niskanen and Poltoranin skied together throughout lap 3, their advantage soon growing to 20 seconds over the chase group. By 26 k, they had a gap of 25 seconds to Bolshunov in third.
At 27 k, Bolshunov set off on a courageous solo effort to reel in the two athletes in front of him, leaving Sundby to lead the chase group. Seven minutes later, Bolshunov had made up 25 seconds over less than three kilometers; he moved around Poltoranin, and set out to track down Niskanen.
Finally, at the 36 k mark, after roughly 10 k of solo work, Bolshunov had caught up to Niskanen. The two men skied together throughout the fifth and penultimate lap, Niskanen still in the lead until he finally moved aside, all but forcing Bolshunov to come round him and take the lead.
Bolshunov led through the second half of lap five, and appeared to be pulling away while Niskanen seemed to be tiring from the solo effort as well as fighting slick skis. As the two came through the stadium for a final time, 42 k into the race, they were over a minute clear of a fading Poltoranin, and more than two minutes up on the Sundby/Alex Harvey/et al. chase group. The final order of the medals was still up in the air, but gold and silver, in some order, seemed very likely to go to the two men in the breakaway.
Bolshunov led through the stadium the final time, where he did not avail himself of a final ski exchange. Behind him, Niskanen pulled over for new skis. Bolshunov, sensing the Finn’s absence, immediately put in a surge, and gapped Niskanen by roughly 11 seconds early in the final lap. But 8.3 k per lap is a long way, and Niskanen steadily worked to close the gap without panicking. By the 44 k mark, 2.3 k into the final lap and with a full 6 k yet to go, Niskanen had pulled back even with the Olympic Athlete from Russia.
The two men skied together for the next 4+ kilometers. Bolshunov appeared stronger, and is the better sprinter of the two, but Niskanen had experience. And fresh skis.
Suddenly, Niskanen went. With 1.1 k to go, going up the final hill for the final time, he surged hard, and immediately opened up a gap of several meters over his rival. Behind him, Bolshunov stood up as he crested the hill, nearly coming to a stop.
An exultant Niskanen skied in unchallenged, crossing the finish line in a final time of 2:08:22.1. A deflated Bolshunov followed 18.7 seconds later for silver, slamming his pole to the ground as he crossed the finish line.
Behind them, Poltoranin had been caught midway through the final lap, ultimately fading to finish 15th. Coming into the final uphill it was Sundby, fellow Norwegian Hans Christer Holund, Harvey, and Larkov, four men fighting for one final spot on the podium. Much as Niskanen had done 2 1/2 minutes earlier, Larkov pushed ahead on this hill, opening up a gap that he held all the way to the finish. He took third, 2:37.5 behind Niskanen.
On the CBC broadcast, former Canadian coach Justin Wadsworth, who had publicly questioned the validity of the Russians’ performance in Sochi soon after the 50 k skate concluded, exclaimed of Larkov, “I’m not sure where he got the power to run up that hill like that.”
A few seconds later, Harvey outlunged Sundby for fourth, +2:43.6 to +2:43.7. Holund was sixth (+2:50.1), Daniel Rickardsson of Sweden another minute back in seventh (+3:50.4), Czech Martin Jaks eighth (+4:10.5), Switzerland’s Dario Cologna ninth (+4:21.1), and Norwegian Emil Iversen tenth (+4:36.9).
One spot later, Scott Patterson led the way for the Americans in eleventh (+4:52.1), after consistently skiing in the teens throughout much of the race. It is the best men’s Olympic distance result in generations.
For the Americans, Noah Hoffman followed in 33rd (+10:42), and Tyler Kornfield was 48th (+16:14.4).
Harvey’s fourth led the way for Canada. He was followed by Devon Kershaw in 26th (+9:27.3), Graeme Killick one spot back in 27th (+10:06.7), and Russell Kennedy in 49th (+16:54.5).
The final race at this year’s Winter Olympics is the women’s 30 k classic mass start, tomorrow afternoon local time.