Everything was going as expected in the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon at 2023 Cross Country World Ski Championships in Planica earlier Friday, until it was not. Iivo Niskanen pushing the pace in the classic leg to play to his strengths over the first 15km of the race? Check. Niskanen leading all four Norwegians in the race into the exchange zone, part of a large pack that included all the big names? Check. Johannes Høsflot Klæbo right on his tails, coolly skiing into box no. 1 for the ski exchange? Check.
Things stopped going to plan at roughly the 15.01-kilometer mark of the 30km race. Sjur Røthe of Norway changed his skis with alacrity (total pit stop time: 24.5 seconds) and vaulted out of the exchange zone as if he had been shot from a cannon. William Poromaa of Sweden (pit stop time: 25.2 seconds), Simen Hegstad Krüger of Norway (25.0 seconds), and Niskanen (28.4 seconds) all followed within three seconds. Klæbo logged a leisurely 30 seconds in the exchange zone, the day’s 34th-ranked pit stop time, and was suddenly ninth as he left the stadium. (NRK drilled down on the time spent actually changing skis, unofficially calculating Røthe’s changeover time as seven seconds, Krüger’s as eight, and Klæbo’s as 14, which highlights these discrepancies.)
Klæbo was all of five seconds back at this point, and has won thirteen World Cup races this season alone, so the race was hardly over. But it was a rare crack in the armor for a man who has won literally over half the World Cup races he has started in his career, typically making it look effortless in the process.
Tellingly, Klæbo was still five seconds out of first 2km later, and the chase pack had been effectively shattered. Klæbo did not return to the lead group until the 18km mark. By this point, for not the first time this season, it was a Norwegian train at the front of the race: Krüger, Røthe, and Klæbo all within 1.6 seconds of the lead, then Golberg another six seconds back in fourth. Poromaa trailed five seconds behind in fifth.
By the 20km mark, it was Krüger and Røthe alone at the front, Klæbo looking remarkably human in third, seven seconds back. Klæbo was skiing by himself, which he often does, but he was doing so in no man’s land somewhere off the lead rather than triumphantly off the front, which is less typical for him. His form was still, like, really good, but there was less energy present in his movements than is typically the case.
At roughly 23km into the race, soon after coming through the stadium for the start of lap seven, Krüger went. The move happened at roughly the 54:30 mark of the race, and was not captured on the livestream. But its effect was immediate, and devastating.
Røthe was immediately gapped by several seconds. Krüger began skiing with the motivation of a man who had just made a gutsy move to attempt to solo in for World Champs gold from 7km out. Røthe, well, I can’t see inside his head and didn’t ask him this, but I would suspect that he began skiing with the motivation of a man who knew that he had been dropped for gold, and had the world’s best sprinter close behind him in the fight for silver.
Krüger has been here before. He won this race at the 2018 Winter Olympics, an all-time classic (he fell in the stadium and was DFL fifteen seconds into the race before making his way back to the front), by making a surge at 26km to gap the field, then skied in alone over the final lap. The chasing Norwegians in that race were Martin Sundby and Hans Christer Holund, and they maybe didn’t do quite as much chasing as they could have given a team pact to refrain from chasing down a fellow Norwegian, but the historical resonances were clear. Once again, five years later, there was Krüger off the front in the final laps of a championship skiathlon, baby face and killer instinct, Atomic skis and Leki poles, digging for home.
Reader, Krüger won the race. He crossed the line in 1:09:40.3, a speedy time as the late-afternoon start (3:30 p.m. local time) allowed for the notably moist and granular conditions to perhaps firm up a little despite temps a full 7° above freezing. 7 degrees Celsius. Krüger had time to slow down, grin hugely, and celebrate as he crossed the line, picking up another high-profile skiathlon win alongside the 2018 Olympic gold. Krüger now has seven individual distance medals from the last four global championships, with two distance races yet to come in Planica. And the totals could potentially be higher if he hadn’t spent the lion’s share of the Beijing Olympics trapped in an Italian hotel room with Covid.
Behind him, Klæbo skied strong to catch up to Røthe with under a kilometer to go, then took a trademark wide but superior Klæbo line around a rutted-out turn to move past Røthe like he was standing still. Klæbo kept the lead to the finish for silver. Klæbo was, in round numbers, 12 seconds back of Krüger at the finish, with Røthe 14 seconds back for bronze.
Golberg fought hard to the end to cross the line in fourth (+45.9), good only for the wooden medal, to give Norway the top four finishers in addition to the podium sweep. But he did pick up myriad Strava segments on the day. Seriously, though, you should click through to see Golberg’s heart rate profile on his publicly available Strava page. His HR hovered around the 180bpm mark from roughly the 6km mark of the race to the finish, if you are curious how much stars are not, in fact, just like us.
Poromaa of Sweden crossed the finish line a half-second behind Golberg in fifth, then had a scary scene when his typical post-race athlete collapse suddenly elevated into his skiing straight into the billboards at the edge of the finish pen and collapsing. Encouragingly, the scene looked worse than it was, Poromaa told reporters afterwards. Krüger and Røthe could be seen hurrying across the finish zone to check on him, reaching Poromaa even before on-site medical personnel.
There were three Americans in the race: Scott Patterson, Hunter Wonders, and Gus Schumacher. Patterson finished 19th (+3:20), Wonders roughly a minute back in 24th (+4:33), and Schumacher 38th (+7:17).
“I remembered how to do a skiathlon,” Patterson wrote to Nordic Insights when asked about the return to this outlier race format, “even though it’s been a little over a year since we last raced one at the Olympics.”
“It was an interesting race though,” he continued. “Iivo pushed the pace hard starting on the second lap. I got caught out a little too far back when some splits were made and watched the leaders ski away while unable to close the gap. I was really hoping to stay with or at least close to the lead through the classic so that was disappointing early on in the race. We formed an ok chase pack for the classic but clearly were still losing time to the leaders. On switching to skate, I was really hoping for some new feelings but never quite got there. I led my little group for a couple laps before settling in a bit. I just never felt like I had the next gears to make moves on my group and chase down some of those getting shelled by the groups in front. Overall I definitely wanted more from today.”
However, Patterson continued, “Some positives are definitely out there. I think overall we did a good job with skis and I still ended up top 20 even with a day I’m not psyched on. I think my fitness is good and finding that next crushing race gear feels like it’s really close. We have a few days to regroup now but I’m looking forward to later racing and improving on today.”
Patterson’s domestic teammate at APU, Hunter Wonders, had similar thoughts on his race.
“I had a pretty fast start,” he said in audio comments to USSS. “The pack really sped up on lap two, and I wish I had put myself in a little better position to capitalize on that. There were some crazy wipeouts kind of throughout the classic portion of the race; luckily I came out unscathed.”
Wonders added, “I think I skied a very consistent race, which I’m happy with. I had a good transition to skate, and overall I’m happy with my performance.”
The third Alaskan in the field, Gus Schumacher, is also from Anchorage, but skis domestically for Alaska Winter Stars. “I felt like I was skiing alright but just didn’t have the pace I needed,” Schumacher wrote to Nordic Insights after the race. “Even with that, I felt like I paced well, but in the second half just lost energy and had to fight just to finish. Pretty much just nothing in my body.”
After some of Schumacher’s rougher races at World Juniors in Whistler earlier this month, he alluded to having a harder time with the second half of his race season, for the second year in a row. He did not disagree when gently asked about this, writing, “this definitely supports that notion of tough second halves of the season but I’ve felt really good even within the past week so I don’t see any reason why it can’t turn around. Today was really bad but I don’t think that means it can’t change.”
The day or the finishing position may have been underwhelming for Schumacher, but he did finish the race. There were 21 athletes in a field of 66 who did not do so, fifteen because they were lapped but five more who simply withdrew from the course. An early crash claimed Arsi Ruuskanen of Finland, who was taken into the hospital after striking a course-side advertising fence within the race’s first kilometer.
Italian skier Paolo Ventura criticized organizers, in his post-race comments, for not salting the tracks. Niskanen, in the same article, called the tracks “on the limit” of being too dangerous. But Calle Halfvarsson directed his ire elsewhere, telling Expressen, “There are so many people who are so bad at downhill skiing in this sport. I’m not an alpinist either, but it’s absolutely incredible. I said it before classical, how can you be so bad?” according to an auto-translation.
Racing in Planica continues tomorrow with the women’s 15km skiathlon, equal distances being a thing of the past for this week at World Championships. Rosie Brennan (bib no. 5), Sophia Laukli (bib 19), Hailey Swirbul (bib 28), and Sydney Palmer-Leger (bib 30) are slated to start for the U.S. Notably, the skate team sprint, potentially a strong event for the Americans, kicks off roughly 18 hours later on Sunday. I have no inside information regarding starters for that event, but this timing may well bear on the absence of one or both of Jessie Diggins and Julia Kern from Saturday’s start list. Diggins told reporters at a pre–World Champs press conference last week that she would be racing strategically and planned to sit out some races at this year’s championships.
The only skier in the men’s or women’s World Cup field older than this reporter, Masako Ishida of Japan, will start tomorrow’s skiathlon in bib no. 17. It will mark Ishida’s eleventh (!) World Championships; she has raced in them every year since Val di Fiemme in 2003. When Palmer-Leger was one year old.
Update: Nat Herz, on the ground in Planica, reported as follows earlier today:
— Gavin Kentch