|Marcus Hellner celebrates his victory. “I felt fresh the whole time,’’ said the Swede. (Al Bello/Getty Images)|
Hellner best in class
His dogged effort leads to 1st gold
WHISTLER, British Columbia - Marcus Hellner of Sweden sprinted away from his rivals near the finish line yesterday to win the men’s 30-kilometer cross-country pursuit.
Hellner pulled away from his three remaining competitors after entering the ski stadium, building enough of a lead to sprint alone down the final straight.
Hellner even had time to look back at his chasers before slowing down to raise his arms in celebration as he crossed the finish line.
Hellner clocked 1 hour 15 minutes 11.4 seconds for his first Olympic medal. Tobias Angerer of Germany finished 2.1 seconds behind for the silver medal, and Johan Olsson of Sweden took bronze, 2.8 seconds back.
“I felt fresh the whole time,’’ Hellner said. “When one of my best friends [Olsson] is on the podium, the feeling is even better.’’
Pre-race favorite Petter Northug of Norway seemed to be in perfect position to use his vaunted sprinting ability at the finish line but lost ground when he had to slow up and switch one of his poles on the last lap. He never recovered and finished 11th.
The race features a mass start with 15 kilometers of classical skiing before switching to freestyle for the second half.
Olsson had pulled away right after the ski change and led by as much as 26 seconds with just 5 kilometers to go, before the chasing pack upped the pace to close the gap.
Alexander Legkov of Russia led the chase, with only Hellner, Northug, and Angerer able to keep up with his grueling pace as they shaved second after second off Olsson’s lead.
They finally caught him near the end, after shaking off Northug, leading to a four-way race to the finish.
Hellner quickly proved he had the most energy left; Legkov, however, seemed tired from pursuing Olsson and finished fourth.
Northug was the overwhelming favorite because of his ability to simply tag along behind the leaders before blowing by them with his unrivaled sprint at the finish. That meant his main rivals had no choice but to keep a high pace from the start to wear out the Norwegian, and Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic spent most of the classical portion in front.
Bauer’s attempt to pull the field apart was unsuccessful, however, with 20 skiers within 10 seconds of him as they entered the pit stop at the halfway point.
Olsson then started his one-man breakaway almost immediately, quickly building a 10-second lead that grew over the next 10 kilometers.
“I had a really good pit stop,’’ Olsson said. “I felt really good after the classic skiing; I had a lot of power left.’’
He was helped by some team tactics by Hellner and fellow Swede Anders Soedergren, who took turns at the front of the chasing pack, seemingly content with keeping a slower tempo to let Olsson pull away.
Legkov, however, had other ideas.
With 5 kilometers to go, the Russian switched to a furious pace in an attempt to catch Olsson, cutting the deficit to 15 seconds in just 1 kilometer. But he couldn’t shake Hellner, Angerer, and Northug, and the Norwegian seemed headed for another win in his favorite event until his pole broke in an uphill section. He quickly got a replacement from a Norwegian team member running along the track, but the three-time world champion couldn’t catch up.
Bauer also faded and finished seventh, 13.8 seconds behind.
Legkov’s efforts cost Olsson the gold but paved the way for Hellner instead. And when the Russian tired, Olsson held on for the bronze.