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Niskanen happy with second after Klaebo crashes Finland party in Lahti

Mar 02, 2024·Cross-Country
Lucky loser: Niskanen (FIN) congratulates Klaebo (NOR) after his 20km masterclass @ Nordic Focus

The script was written for Iivo Niskanen to win his first FIS Cross-Country Skiing World Cup race of the season in Lahti, Finland on Saturday.

Ok, so he only had one other podium to his name in 2023/24, a silver in the 10km Classic in Ruka, Finland, back in November. And he hadn’t won on the circuit for nearly two years. But that victory, over 15km, was here in Lahti, where he won the World Championships over the same distance in 2017, the distance at which he is also, lest we forget, the Olympic champion.

Buoyed by bronze in Friday’s Team Sprint, cheered on with chants of ‘Ivo! Ivo! Ivo!’ by the raucous home crowd and boosted by Krista Parmakoski’s victory in the women’s race just hours earlier, everything was set up for Niskanen to win the 20km Pursuit – in his favourite Classic style, no less.

Everything, that is, except Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo (NOR).

When Niskanen crossed the line in second place earlier in the season, he expressed his displeasure. This time, he knew he was beaten by the better man, the very best of cross-country skiers, which is why Niskanen was there to embrace Klaebo at the finish – an acknowledgement that he was defeated not by any shortcomings of his own but by genuine greatness.

Yet, for one lap at least, Niskanen would have been dreaming of victory. The first of the big names to go out in 34th position, the 32-year-old blasted out of starting gate to enormous cheers from the fans in Lahti. And he seemed to respond, passing each time split much faster than the early starters, suggesting he was the only skier to conquer the difficult conditions and equally difficult course.

After the first 5km loop, he was 4.4 seconds quicker than second-place Paal Golberg (NOR).

"I tried to open steadily but the spectators on the track were so loud … it was hard. It wasn't the plan to go out that fast. Our skis were really fast at the beginning of the race – it felt quite easy, actually.”Iivo Niskanen (FIN)

When Golberg came through the halfway point 20.2 seconds slower than Niskanen, it really did seem that the home favourite was in a league of his own.

Unfortunately, Klaebo was another league above. He made his move on lap two, clawing back more than 13 seconds on Niskanen to reach the halfway mark 8.1 seconds ahead.

One loop later, the advantage had more than doubled to 19 seconds. Klaebo – looking smooth and relaxed in the climbs, despite the snow cutting up, and predictably faster than everybody else through the tricky downhill turns – eventually crossed the line 24 seconds ahead of Niskanen. Martin Loewstroem Nyenget (NOR) was a further 34.2 seconds back to take bronze after a broken pole cost Golberg a place on the podium.

“I don’t know what it is but I like Lahti a lot, it’s a really cool track,” Klaebo said, after claiming his 78th World Cup victory. “Today was a tough race, really hard with the conditions, but I’m super excited. It was really fun racing out there, there were a lot spectators and … just look here, it’s amazing, and it was a great day at work.”

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Despite gaining ground on Harald Oestberg Amundsen (NOR), who finished sixth, Klaebo is unlikely to catch his compatriot at the top of the overall World Cup standings after missing much of the early part of the season through illness. He is, though, looking forward to racing on home snow at the Holmenkollen National Arena in Oslo, Norway next week.

“It looks like Iivo [Niskanen] is back in normal shape now so it’s going to be a really tough race [over 50km],” Klaebo said. “So we’ll try to do a sprint tomorrow and get as much rest as possible to give him a good fight next week.”

Niskanen, meanwhile, is just happy to be back on the podium. “It felt good to race in front of a home crowd again, as it has been a terrible season so far, because I have been more sick than healthy. That’s why I am more than happy about second place.”

Racing continues on Sunday with the women’s and men’s Sprint Freestyle.

Click here for the full results from Lahti.

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