In it for the long haul, Norway's Northug gears up at finish

Norway’s Petter Northug (1) used his trademark sprint speed to pass Germany’s Axel Teichmann (6) on the final stretch. Norway’s Petter Northug (1) used his trademark sprint speed to pass Germany’s Axel Teichmann (6) on the final stretch. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)
By Mattias Karen
Associated Press / March 1, 2010

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WHISTLER, British Columbia - Petter Northug saw the back of a familiar rival ahead of him, and knew this race would have a familiar ending.

The Norwegian blew past Germany’s Axel Teichmann near the finish line for the second time at these Olympics yesterday, using his trademark sprint to win the 50-kilometer classical cross-country race for his second gold medal of the Games.

“I knew I could take him,’’ Northug said with his usual bravado. “I had another gear to use if I needed it.’’

This gear was more than enough.

Northug specializes in winning mass starts just like this one, where he can simply tag along behind the leaders for much of the way before deciding the race with his unrivaled closing ability. Teichmann knows that very well - Northug overtook him in similar fashion to give Norway the gold in the team sprint.

Yesterday, the German tried to pull away from the rest of the leading group in the final uphill section, but never got enough of a gap to shake Northug.

“I knew that if I don’t fall or end up breaking a pole, I have a very good chance to sprint down Teichmann,’’ Northug said, before paying tribute to the German - and himself.

“Teichmann is maybe the second-best sprinter after 30K, or after 50K,’’ he said, not bothering to point out who’s the best. “He’s really fast at the end.’’

Just not fast enough. Teichmann had to use a lot of energy making up a 20-second gap to the leading group over the last 10 kilometers. He then didn’t have enough left to give Northug a serious challenge at the end.

“I tried in the last uphill everything I could, but it wasn’t there,’’ Teichmann said. “I used everything I had in my arms to push as hard as I could to the finish line. Then I saw him [Northug] at the last 50 meters. He’s a good sprinter, and he took the gold.’’

Northug finished in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 35.5 seconds, with Teichmann 0.3 seconds back for the silver medal. Johan Olsson of Sweden took bronze, a second back.

Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic, one of the favorites, spent much of the last 20K near the lead but faded toward the end and ended up 12th. Dario Cologna of Switzerland, who won the opening 15K freestyle race, was part of a group of skiers chasing Teichmann into the stadium but fell on the final straightaway.

Olsson said a steady rainfall had made the track icy on the final bend in the stadium, where Cologna slipped.

“It was really icy and hard, and I saw that he fell, so I knew I had a good chance for the bronze medal,’’ Olsson said. “I just kept looking to the right to see if anyone was matching me. But I have a pretty good final sprint, so in the final 20 meters I felt pretty secure.’’

After a miserable start to these Olympics, the Vancouver Games didn’t turn out so badly for Northug.

This was his fourth medal, after taking bronze in the individual sprint and a silver in the relay. That came after badly waxed skis ruined his chances in the 15K freestyle race and a broken pole near the end of the 30K pursuit - his best event - prevented him from getting in position to use that vaunted sprint.

“The start was a little bit up and down,’’ he said. “Now winning the 50K and having two golds and one individual, these Olympics have become a dream.’’

Yesterday’s race couldn’t have turned out more favorably for Northug. The persistent rain slowed the leading group, and helped prevent any serious breakaway attempts from his main competitors. About 15 skiers stayed together until the last kilometer, and Northug positioned himself to make sure no one could pull away at the end.

He blew a kiss toward the sky after crossing the finish line, before collapsing on his back.

“To be the Olympic champion in the 50K is the biggest boyhood dream of my life,’’ Northug said.