Stands crowded with 50,000 cheering spectators. Bibbed athletes clad in shorts and T-shirts clicking by on rollerskis. Competitors representing various countries dousing themselves with bottled water as they cross the finish line.
These were among the sights and sounds of the world’s largest summer rollerski-race series, Norway’s Blink Ski Festival.
Celebrating its ninth year, racers and fans kicked off the 2017 four-day festival in Gjesdal and Sandnes, Norway, with men’s and women’s classic distance rollerski races on Wednesday.
Toeing the start line for the elite men’s 60-kilometer were well-known Norwegian World Cup racers, such as Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Petter Northug and Sjur Røthe, as well as Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, Germany’s Lucas Bögl, and American Andy Newell.
In the beginning, it appeared Ustiugov was gunning for the lead, charging the group of 58 rollerskiers with 46 k to go. But within another 9 k, a pack of six had broke off the front, including Sundby, Røthe, Niskanen, and Norwegians Øystein Pettersen, Simen Hegstad Krüger, Anders Aukland, and Simen Håkon Østensen. Ustiugov was now in the chase group close to 45 seconds away.
With less than 30 k of road left to race, the front group had dwindled to three Norwegians and a Finn: Sundby, Røthe, Krüger, and Niskanen. Newell had caught up to the chasing group, now almost two minutes back from the leaders.
Given 20 more kilometers, however, Sundby and Krüger had pulled away, Niskanen working to hold onto third 30 seconds back. The two Norwegians battled together until the final kilometer, when Sundby surged for the final city sprint to secure the victory in a time of 2:08:40.6.
Though some may see the win as a premature predictor of what’s to come this winter, Sundby was not one of them.
“We are talking about July. Everyone pretends like they don’t care, but this is important for everyone who is on the starting line,” Sundby told NRK, according to a translation. “There weren’t a lot of world-class athletes who was not on the starting line today.
“This is incredibly good practice,” he continued. “I greatly appreciate all of these competitions.”
Just 2.6 seconds behind Sundby, was Krüger crossing in second. Third went to Niskanen, who finished 36.7 seconds back from the winner.
Just 1.8 seconds outside of the top 15 was Newell in 16th overall (+5:25.1) in the elite men’s race, out of 58 finishers.
In the elite women’s 60 k, which started at the same time as the men, Norway’s Astrid Øyre Slind latched onto a few male racers from the start and broke away from her competition, which included just 10 women.
Slind took the win in a time of 2:20:04.2, while fellow Norwegian Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes claimed second, 2:11.1 minutes back. Belarus’s Yulia Tikhonova completed the women’s podium in third (+2:23.4).
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Racing continued Thursday with the men’s and women’s hill climb, the Lysebotn Opp, in Lysebotn, Norway. Sixty-five women came out for that race, with Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla taking the victory in 33:18.3. Norway’s Heidi Weng finished 40.3 seconds back in second, and Marit Bjørgen wearing bib 1 finished third, 1:50.5 minutes behind Kalla.
Liz Stephen of the U.S. Ski Team took sixth (+3:35.7) behind Norway’s Ragnhild Haga (+2:43.4) in fourth and Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski in fifth (+2:47).
In the men’s race, Norway’s Hans Christer Holund took the win in 27:37.6. Krüger repeated in second place, 1:13.9 minutes back, and Finland’s Matti Heikkinen placed third (+1:25.6), while Sundby was sixth (+2:11.5) behind fellow Norwegians Henrik L’Abée-Lund in fourth and Røthe in fifth.
Out of 100 male starters, 99 finished. Newell did not compete.
Check back Friday for a more detailed recap of Thursday’s Lysebotn Opp.
— Harald Zimmer, Alex Kochon, & Aleks Tangen contributed