Sometimes you watch sports because anything can happen. The underdog can triumph, the longshot can prevail against long odds, the impossible can come to pass. They’ll beat us 99 times out of 100, but not today. That’s why you play the games. Pick your trope.
And then sometimes you watch sports to see someone who is very, very good at what he does do a difficult and complex activity better than anyone else in the world, making it look easy in the process.
Thursday in Planica was the latter, as Johannes Høsflot Klæbo won the men’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint at the 2023 Cross Country World Ski Championships going away. He won by 2.22 seconds over Pål Golberg in second, and it honestly wasn’t even that close (like, conceptually, but also mathematically speaking the gap was reduced by his slowing down to celebrate through the finish lanes).
Klæbo has now won the individual sprint at the last five consecutive global championships, spanning two Olympics and three World Championships. He also won gold in the team sprint in the first four of those, and while anything can happen, he should also be counted as the odds-on favorite for team sprint gold in Planica as well.
To be fair, Klæbo was only third in his first-ever World Champs sprint, at Lahti in 2017, at age 20. Loser.
There were, at some level, fairly few surprises at the top end of today’s men’s field. Athletes who ranked second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth in the qualification round were in the final; that’s a lot of chalk. From the outside, Michal Novák and Calle Halfvarsson making the final might raise some eyebrows, but that’s more a statement about their historical performance rather than anything else; both men have skied well in sprints this year.
The biggest surprises in the high-level men’s field, sad to say, may have come from the Americans. Kevin Bolger did not make the heats, finishing 44th in qualifying. Ben Ogden was solidly in the mix through the first two minutes of his quarterfinal, but then fell off the back going up the penultimate climb, ultimately crossing the line sixth in his heat.
And JC Schoonmaker looked strong while advancing out of his quarterfinal in second, but then was quickly off the back in his semifinal, exacerbated when he got caught up with Marcus Grate and fell going around a turn. The man just finished 9th in the world, so this may come across as unduly negative, but he was largely not in the mix out there in his semi.
Comments from all three men are forthcoming; please stay tuned, and check back later for more (updated: see below for comments). For the time being, you can jump to Ogden’s quarterfinal at the 1:02 mark of the Ski & Snowboard Live replay, and to Schoonmaker’s semi at 1:38:30.
The final, meanwhile (1:59 mark of the replay), was all Klæbo. The Norwegian employed a subtle strategy, seen, for example, in Timothy Cheruiyot’s performance in the 1500 meters at the 2019 World Athletics Championships: go immediately to the front and go faster than anyone else the entire way. Keep up if you can.
Today’s sprint course in Planica was 1,447 meters long. Klæbo led roughly 1,447 meters of it. He had the best skis. He had the best form. He took the best lines. He skied with what retired American star Kris Freeman has memorably dubbed “annoyingly perfect” technique in all facets of the race. He was, once again, the Chris Froome of skiing, the mastermind behind a clinical, dominating performance. (Froome is perhaps a charged example to use here. Absolutely no doping innuendo is intended. Hard to come up with a pro cyclist example that doesn’t evoke doping suspicions tbf.)
Behind him, Pål Golberg of Norway and Jules Chappaz of France dueled to the line. Chappaz led nearly all the way down the homestretch, but Golberg pipped him with a prodigious lunge (see below). Chappaz lost out on silver by roughly the length of his mustache, viz., 0.02 seconds.
Novák was seconds back in fourth, while an exhausted Halfvarsson came in 5+ seconds back for fifth. Lucas Chanavat of France followed another 20 seconds later.
Update: Here’s Ogden on his day, via text message to Nordic Insights:
“I am definitely a little frustrated after today,” Ogden wrote, “but it happens, and I will not be too hard on myself. One thing I was very happy with was my non-running striding. I think I was very smooth and fast on some of the less steep hills without having to resort to my usual high tempo.”
When asked about a potential growth area, Ogden observed, “One area where I hope to improve is certainly just remaining calm and collected in a tight pack setting. Today when I started to slip back I quickly became frantic and was fixating on what was not going well instead of how to position or move to get back to where I wanted to be.”
Finally, Ogden was asked about what it’s like to have to start things off with a sprint on day one, and about racing into shape versus making that happen in training. Here’s Ogden:
“Starting the championships with a sprint was fun! I think it’s an exciting drama-filled way to get things going. That said I personally am a man who benefits from more racing so It could have been good to hammer out a Skiathlon first. 🙂
“We did a bunch of very hard fast speed-oriented workouts to try and get going before today’s sprint, but I think that’s an area where I can improve in the future.”
Here’s Schoonmaker, via message to Nordic Insights:
When asked about both a positive aspect and a growth area of today’s race:
“I liked how I skied today provided the really tough conditions. Those soft slush races often don’t suit my racing style but today I felt good about it. I also am happy to have stayed mostly out of trouble. My quarterfinal I was definitely a bit lucky to not get into that tangle before the steep hill. But I also feel good about myself for being in a good position and getting around it and recognizing once it happened that I needed to capitalize and pick up the pace. For me the semifinal is still a growth area. I didn’t get out to a great start and put myself in a bad position to move on despite tangling myself up. I think it’s just another piece of the puzzle I gotta try to figure out.”
When asked about his results today, and how he felt about ninth in the world but also skiing below expectations:
“As far as results I’m pleased but also hungry for more. I had high goals for these championships and I didn’t meet them today but I’m happy with how I ended up. That’s how sprint racing goes most of the time but the best way I can measure today is the experience that I gained from it. I think with it being a championship event I learned a lot more about high level racing today that I can use in the future.”
Finally, I gave Schoonmaker the chance to speak to the performance of his skis today, if he wanted to take it. On the one hand, it appeared objectively true to me — this is based on me watching the same broadcast as everyone else not on site; unless you are reading this and were at the venue in Planica, I don’t have much more inside information here than you do — that his skis were running slower than his competitors’ on the first downhill out of the stadium. On the other hand, athletes are, very understandably, loath to speak ill of techs, who universally work their butts off no matter the result (USST head coach Matt Whitcomb previously spoke to these dynamics fwiw), so this can be a fraught question for journalists to ask or athletes to answer.
Schoonmaker did wish to engage with the question. Here’s what he wrote on this front: “I have no doubt in my mind that I had good skis today. I can see how on TV they may not have looked that great but I attribute that to skiing some of the corners and downhills more poorly than the rest of the field. I felt great about my skis through testing and all the races and know I had some pretty dang good boards on my feet. I definitely wish I could have showcased that a bit more for our techs today but that falls on me.”
And finally, here’s Bolger, via email to Nordic Insights:
“I was happy with how I skied the last half of the course. The hill and the finish felt great, and I just wish I could have done that off the start. If I could have I would like to think today would have been a little different for me.”
And as for something the Sun Valley skier learned today?
“I still have a lot to learn when it comes to classic sprint qualifying haha for whatever reason it’s a mystery right now and has been for awhile, but luckily there is some more opportunities coming up in Period 4 and I hope to capitalize on those! And I have some fast f–king teammates around me to learn from!”
Racing in Planica continues tomorrow with the 30km skiathlon, a distance, and a race format, that has not yet been seen on the World Cup this year. The U.S. will start a trio of Alaskan born and raised distance skiers, Scott Patterson, Hunter Wonders, and Gus Schumacher. A fourth Alaskan with distance palmarès, David Norris, is racing the Birkie this weekend, but should travel to Planica in time for next weekend’s 50km mass start classic.
— Gavin Kentch