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As we begin Stage 4 of the Tour de Ski, the first classic sprint since the opening race of the season in Ruka, Finland on November 26th, we look back to the last time athletes raced the event on the tracks in Oberstdorf, Germany.
During the 2021 World Championships, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) took command of the gold medal from the qualifier on a 1.5-kilometer course seemingly designed for his racing style. A quick double pole start from the stadium leads to a long steady first climb where he skied long, strong, and steady, usually in second or third position. After a winding descent, athletes encounter a second short but steep climb of roughly 18 vertical meters, where Klæbo would begin his signature run. Stomping his way to the lead as he crested the top of the climb, stepping around a left-hand curve, and dropping into a tuck on the final descent leading into the stadium, Klæbo was repeatedly in position to advance through each round comfortably, eventually winning the final by several ski lengths. (Video highlights here.)
Winning today’s qualifier in 2:55.78, Klæbo looked to be on track for a repeat victory in Oberstdorf, however, it is worth noting that he did not win the aforementioned other classic sprint this season. In Ruka, it was 22-year-old Alexander Terentev who took hold of the event in qualification and looked to, well, out-Klæbo Klæbo throughout the heats. We saw familiar tactics with a power move on the final climb, paired with impressive acceleration over the final meters to capture the win, but this time, the athlete employing these tactics was in a Russian race suit. While Klæbo has won each of the sprints he has entered since, with Terentev eliminated in the semis, Stage 4 would be a rematch both were eyeing.
Setting the stage, Terentev was second in qualification, +1.5 behind Klæbo, with Erik Valnes (NOR) in third (+2.37), Federico Pellegrino 4th (+3.53), and Alexander Bolshunov 5th (+3.61). Ben Ogden was the top American qualifier today, finishing 15th (+8.08), while Luke Jager finished 24th (+10.83). The American selected heats two and five, respectively.
In the first wave of the quarterfinal, Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, winner of the Stage 2 15k classic, pushed the pace heading up the first climb, perhaps looking to ensure an opportunity for a fast rather than tactical heat, knowing he was up against Valnes and Klæbo and likely would only have the opportunity to advance as lucky loser. However, the Norwegians, unphased, chose not to respond, waiting patiently mid-pack to use the same tactic described at World Champs. In the second climb, both created enough room to look as if they had begun their cooldown as they skied through the finish lanes, with Klæbo addigng a lackadaisical boot slide at the line that put him just ahead of his teammate. Behind them, Niskanen and Ivan Yakimushkin (RUS) sprinted to the line to chase the clock, with the Russian finishing ahead of the Finn. However, their times did not hold up through subsequent rounds and their day had ended.
In the second heat of the quarters, Ogden lined up alongside Bolshunov, who took control out of the gate. Staying in the pack through the first climb, Ogden found himself in fifth as athletes exited the second and began descending toward the stadium. In the final curves, Ogden couldn’t quite maintain the position needed to contend for a spot as lucky loser, finishing 5th in a fast heat, +1.52 behind Bolshunov.
Terentev looked as though his day might be over before he could face Klæbo head-to-head. Federico Pellegrino (ITA) stepped on his pole as lanes decreased in the opening stretch, causing it to snap. Terentev calmly accepted a replacement, steadily working his way back into the mix. Running out of the tracks in the final climb, Terentev accelerated around the left-hand curve and into the downhill in the lead, continuing through the finish for the win ahead of Mikal Novak (CZE) to advance comfortably.
In the fifth heat of the quarters, Jager maintained contact with the pack through the first climb, but found himself off the back as he left the second. Jager’s legs wobbled as he found his footing in the descent. Perhaps too flooded to ski as aggressively as was needed to put himself in contention for higher placement, he crossed the line sixth in the heat, +6.88 behind the winner.
On we go to the semifinals.
In a stacked first heat, Bolshunov and Terentev set the pace at the front heading up the first climb. Striding metronomically, they held Valnes and Klæbo temporarily at bay. As the men charged into the final climb, Klæbo advanced at a run up the outside, rounding the left hand bend with Terentev at the front before beginning the sweeping downhill side by side.
Terentev began to move across the track behind Klæbo, looking to finding a line that might be optimal for using the Norwegian’s draft to slingshot into the final lanes at high speed. Not waiting long enough, Terentev caught his tips on the Norwegian’s tails, losing his footing and crashing with a slide into the v-boards. No chance to recover what was lost, Terentev stood up, taking a defeated swing at the ground with his pole, before slowly continuing through the final meters to the finish, now well off the back.
As the two had created a small gap to their chasers, Valnes and Bolshunov navigated around the crash easily, racing to the line for second and third. Pulling ahead with his double pole, Valnes snagged second with Bolshunov less than half a second back, hoping for a lucky loser spot in the final.
Terentev later received verbal warning for a classical technique infraction.
In the second and less-eventful semi, Pål Golberg and Even Northug attempted to take control of the race in the final climb, but they remained matched by Italy’s Francesco De Fabiani and Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson as they crested the top. Goldberg picked up the most speed in the descent, accelerating out of the final curve with a sizable gap to his three chasers. Laying off the gas before the line, Goldberg took the win ahead of Northug, who left De Fabiani and Halfvarsson fighting for lucky loser spots on his tails.
De Fabiani and Halfvarsson crossed in a photo finish, both just 0.02 seconds ahead of Bolshunov’s mark, allowing them both to advance to the final and ending the Russian’s day.
With four Norwegians in the final, they were guaranteed at least one spot on the podium.
Norway were 1-2-3 coming out of the first climb, with Klæbo sitting in second position. Doublepoling into the next climb, Klæbo matched Valnes as the two ran at the front, Klæbo out of track and Valnes in the inside lane.
Klæbo accelerated into the curve at the top stepping in front of Valnes and leading him into the downhill. Klæbo powered into the final stretch still in the lead, with Valnes a ski length back but closing fast with a strong doublepole. Valnes changed lanes, knowing it was his only opportunity if he wanted to try for a win, but there was not enough real estate left and this cost him speed as they came to the line. No time to celebrate this time, Klæbo pushed his boot over the finish to stop the clock at 2:54.77, roughly 3.5 seconds faster than any other rounded, with Valnes 0.3 seconds back for second place.
Behind the duo, the remaining two Norwegians sprinted to the line for a photo finish, with Goldberg edging out Northug for third by just 0.02 seconds. Halfvarsson, still in contention for the podium in the final stretch, crossed 0.5 seconds behind the Norwegians to end his day in 5th, while De Fabiani seemed to have accepted his fate, crossing the line casually +11.71 behind Klæbo.
Another all-Norway classic sprint podium in Oberstdorf, and a second consecutive win for Klæbo.
“It’s amazing to start a new year with a victory and also to have two of my best friends coming onto the podium as well,” Klæbo told FIS at the finish. “I am really satisfied with today’s race, and also to start, hopefully, a good new year.”
After four races in five days, Klæbo was asked whether Tour fatigue had begun to set in.
“For sure, I am getting a little bit tired, but still, when the weather is like this and the conditions are pretty nice, it gives you a lot of energy. So it’s just trying to push hard, looking forward to a rest day tomorrow, and trying to push hard in the last two legs.”
After the final results were determined, Ogden ended his day in 22nd.
“I took the qualifier out really hot, hoping to be in the top 3 in qualification,” Ogden told U.S. Ski & Snowboard cross country communications manager Tom Horrocks at the finish. “I was a little flooded at the end, but not the end of the world. I chose heat 2, which is not always what I do, so I tried something different, and I think I skied well in the heat. It’s been a lot of racing for me early, so I’m a little tired, and wasn’t the smartest out there… but I’d say I’m learning a lot and making progress, so one day I’ll put it together.”
Full audio clip with Ben Ogden, interviewed by Tom Horrocks.
It was Jager’s second time qualifying for the rounds in a classic sprint, and his second-best overall World Cup result. Jager was 18th in the opening classic sprint in Ruka, and finished 27th today.
“I was trying to be competitive, in second, third, or fourth, somewhere where I could potentially get in a draft and have a good finish, hopefully,” Jager told Horrocks post-race. “It didn’t work out that way… Hindsight is 20/20, so maybe I wish I had picked a different lane and just gotten out and ran earlier, but at the end of the day, the pace was just really, really fast. I was and am, chronically and acutely, pretty tired right now, so I just didn’t really have it and wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been going over the top. I like to think if I had another shot in that exact same position, I could make fourth or fifth, but an objective qualification in that [heat] probably wasn’t going to happen for me today.”
Looking to the bright side, Jager expressed how grateful he has been to have had excellent skis in every race he’s competed this season, which provides confidence even on the days when the body doesn’t want to cooperate. At 21-years-old, Jager’s career is still nascent, and it’s easy to understand how progress at this level may not be linear.
“I’m super thankful for the opportunity [to race on the World Cup this season]… It feels often like it’s one step forward, four steps backward over here, just because it’s so brutal. The last month, especially, has been pretty tough and pretty demoralizing at times for me. I’m going home today, so it’s pretty nice to end with a glimmer of hope for what is to come. It’s the real deal. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that because so many Americans are doing well, but it’s pretty damn hard over here.”
Full audio clip with Luke Jager, interviewed by Tom Horrocks.
Outside the Top-30, Kevin Bolger and Zak Ketterson were just shy of making the heats, finishing 33rd (+13.10) and 34th (+13.39), less than a second off the time needed to advance. Logan Hanneman was also a near-miss, finishing 37th (+14.08). Gus Schumacher rounded out the American starters in 45th (+16.51) of 73 starters.
Looking at the overall Tour de Ski standings with four of six stages complete, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo tops the list for both cumulative time and points after winning three of four events. By time, he sits 1:03 ahead of teammate Pål Golberg and 1:19 ahead of Alexander Bolshunov. With a 15k mass start classic and 10k freestyle hill climb to go, Klæbo is in good standing, but cannot be complacent, as the hill climb, in particular, has historically favored Bolshunov.
By points, which favor sprint stages and intermediate sprints in distance races, Klæbo leads with 81 points ahead of Erik Valnes, who holds 50, and Goldberg with 41.
After a rest and travel day, racing continues Monday in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Stage 4 Results:
Tour Standings After Stage 4: