Maja Dahlqvist, Even Northug Win Toppidrettsveka Classic Sprint


There were both no surprises and one noteworthy surprise in Thursday’s classic sprint, the second of a four-race series in the 2023 Toppidrettsveka rollerski festival. Swedish women crowded the top of a sprint podium, a level of consistent success to which we should really not become inured but also a fairly unsurprising development at this point in international women’s skiing. Even Northug won the sprint final, which is hard to do but also not necessarily a shock.

But behind him in the men’s final was another Northug — yes, Petter Northug, Jr. — who advanced all the way to the final before running out of gas to finish sixth overall. Not a bad day for a man whose Wikipedia entry states in its opening line that he is a “former cross-country skier” and later has a section entitled “Career after competitive skiing.”

But Petter Northug didn’t win the race, so here’s a little more about the man who did.

Even Northug wins (photo: Sven-Erik Knoff, FotoKnoff)

Even Northug was born in 1995, nearly a full decade after Petter. His career is a monument to the proposition that success in cross-country skiing typically takes a lot of work over a long period of time.

Even Northug raced for Norway at 2014 World Juniors, finishing ninth in the sprint there, hardly a bad result. He made the Norwegian team for U23 Championships in 2016 and 2018, though not in 2017, claiming a bronze in Goms in 2018. He was starting on the World Cup in 2015 (nation’s group start, Drammen, 47th), and scoring points a season later (also Drammen, now up to 8th). He was in a sprint final by 2018 (Dresden, January 2018, 6th), a highwater mark that current American wunderkind Ben Ogden has been flirting with but hasn’t quite yet reached.

And then… things were pretty quiet there for a few seasons. 24th in Drammen in 2018, a significant regression from two years earlier in his career. Not a single World Cup start until nearly a year after that, when he was 41st in Cogne. The Norwegian men’s sprint team is deep and accomplished, to put it mildly, and it can be hard to find space for someone who can’t consistently deliver, regardless of what his last name is.

Time passed. Northug kept grinding. And then suddenly, starting in March 2020, he couldn’t miss. He was 58th in the Sprint Cup standings for the 2020/2021 World Cup season. 8th in the Sprint Cup in 2021/2022, by which time he had finally been named to the national team. Third in the Sprint Cup last season, including his first three individual World Cup podiums, all coming after his 27th birthday.

Even Northug is now the same age as Thomas O’Harra, one of the few American skiers of his relatively ancient standing (DOB: 1996) to still be pursuing this sport at the highest domestic levels. (Seriously, though, there were a grand total of six athletes classed as Masters, in a field of roughly 450 between men and women combined, who raced the 10km skate at this year’s U.S. Nationals. And that total includes this reporter (lol), who is 41 (much lolz). That’s, like, five real skiers over the age of 30 in a national championship, which is not very many.) It took Even Northug a decade of hard work to be an overnight success.

men’s finish (photo: Amanda Sotberg, FotoKnoff)

Anyway, back to the races: Harald Østberg Amundsen led the way in qualifying, covering the 1.4-kilometer course in 2:47.19. Michal Novak was second. Northug the elder (emphasis here on “elder”) turned some heads when he finished fourth in the qual, slightly ahead of Even Northug in sixth. The lone American in the field, Kevin Bolger (Sun Valley), snuck into the heats in 29th (+5.64). It was a tight field, to put it mildly, with the top 30 men in qualifying all within less than six seconds of Amundsen.

Petter Northug won his heat. Even Northug was a close second in his heat. Lauri Vuorinen, Mikael Gunnulfsen, Kristoffer Berset, and Alvar Myhlback, the Swedish phenom who recently turned 17, all won their heats.

Bolger was last in the fourth quarterfinal, won by Berset, and did not advance.

men’s podium (photo: Amanda Sotberg, FotoKnoff)

You can jump to the men’s sprint final at roughly the 1:31 mark of the NRK broadcast if you are curious (available here; replay can be seen in the U.S. sans VPN).

You can then jump to just under two minutes into the sprint final, if you are really short on time, without fear of missing much. Richard Jouve of France, who has led much of the final till then at a hitherto leisurely pace, is first as the athletes snowplow into a 180-degree turn on the course. Coming out of the turn, Jouve strides uphill for all he is worth and the real racing emphatically starts. Jouve is closely marked by Pål Trøan Aune (DOB 1992, also listed in Wikipedia as a “former” skier) and Even Northug, who eventually come round him.

Aune leads out the sprint. Even Northug strides away approaching the finish, then doublepoles to the win. Even Northug’s winning time is 2:54.24. Aune is 0.36 seconds back. Third place goes to Myhlback (+.54), who is at least 15 years younger than the athlete one spot ahead of him. At the risk of undermining my opening thesis, there are different trajectories for athlete development out there.

Jouve fades to fourth. Berset is fifth. The most famous Northug in the field is also the slowest, as Petter finishes sixth in the final.

I feel like Northug is inherently incapable of leaving his shirt on when a camera is on him. (photo: Amanda Sotberg, FotoKnoff)

NRK talks more about Petter than about Even in its race writeup. “After the final, everyone wanted a piece of Petter Northug,” reads one photo caption, accurately. In a race without Klæbo, there is little secret who everyone was there to see. And sorry, Even Northug, it wasn’t you.

Maja Dahlqvist wins (photo: Sven-Erik Knoff, FotoKnoff)

There is perhaps less drama in the women’s heats. (There are also no American women to talk about today; Rosie Brennan flew on to Torsby after yesterday’s race to join her American teammates in Sweden.) Johanna Hagström and Maja Dahlqvist handily win the first semifinal, aka the Swedish heat. Hedda Østberg Amundsen and Ane Appelkvist Stenseth are perhaps tested slightly more in the second semi, aka the Norwegian heat, but also take the top two spots there to advance.

The final features those four women, plus Maria Hartz Melling and Anna Svendsen, both advancing out of the faster second semifinal. Melling was born in 2002. Svendsen was born in 1990. Again, skiing sometimes has different paths to the same place.

But if that place is the finish line of a sprint, the Swedish women tend to get there first these days, and Thursday in Aure was no exception. Hagström led off the line and through the first minute of the final, although there was hardly much separation in the field, with the pack riding up on each other through the downhills and athletes holding on to the pole tips of the skier in front of them to keep their distance.

Hagström was the first woman around the decisive U-turn two-thirds of the way into the race, though her pace coming out of the turn was somewhat less torrid than in the men’s final. She was closely followed by Amundsen, and six incredibly strong women doublepoled uphill into the rich, lambent sunlight of a boreal evening.

that lambent sunlight tho (photo: NRK screenshot)

Coming into the finish stretch Amundsen seems to be doublepoling away for the win, but is also closely marked by the Swedish duo. Suddenly Hagström doublepoles past on her right, at virtually the same moment that Dahlqvist strides around on her left, and the only question becomes which Swedish star will take the win.

Roughly eight seconds later the answer is Dahlqvist, with Hagström in second (+0.72), far enough back that Dahlqvist can ease up as she flexes across the line. Amundsen gains third (+0.95) for her valiant efforts, well over a second up on fourth. She is followed by Melling, Stenseth, and Svendsen, in that order.

Women’s podium. This photo reads as very Norwegian to me. (photo: Sven-Erik Knoff, FotoKnoff)

Athletes pose for podium photos in the sunlight. Everything is golden and gorgeous. Tomorrow they will race a skiathlon. Stay tuned for more.

Tomorrow’s schedule:

  • women’s 15km skiathlon: 7:20 p.m. Friday local time/9:20 a.m. Alaska time/1:20 p.m. East Coast time
  • men’s 20km skiathlon: 8:10 p.m. Friday local time/10:10 a.m. Alaska time/2:10 p.m. East Coast time)

Full replay (no VPN needed)

Results: men | women

— Gavin Kentch

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