Johannes Høsflot Klæbo confirmed his spot as Norway’s new wonderboy of cross-country skiing star and hero as well at the World Cup events in Lillehammer over the weekend. First he won the men’s sprint and the 15-kilometer race as snow fell on Saturday, and then he won the tough 30-kilometer race in brilliant sunshine on Sunday. The young man from Trondheim, who’s undefeated so far this season, is being described as “unique” and nothing short of sensational.
Klæbo’s performance in the 30K, which he skied in just an hour, 16 minutes and 47.1 seconds, marked his fifth World Cup victory in a row. He’d also impressed everyone at the World Cup opener in Finland the weekend before, if not himself. The 21-year-old Klæbo is known for being confident, but modest and never quite satisfied.
“I have to focus on the work assignment,” Klæbo told newspaper Aftenposten after Sunday’s latest display of style and force. “That’s what I thought about through the whole race.” He said he’s constantly setting new goals, meter for meter, and thinking all the time.
Klæbo seems to have taken over for the troubled Petter Northug as the Norwegian skier to watch, but in an entirely different context. Klæbo is everything Northug isn’t: controlled, humble, careful and moderate. In that sense he’s more like the cross-country version of Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, the popular downhill veteran who put on a stunning performance of his own over the weekend. The young Klæbo clearly respects his teammates and coaches, but now they’re learning from him.
His coaches, teammates and rivals from abroad are also full of respect for Klæbo, who grew up in the Byåsen area of Trondheim that borders the city’s local hills and forests and gave him direct access to ski trails. He won three gold medals at the Junior World Championships in 2016 and won his first World Cup in the sprint at Otepää in February.
It was the sprint that was viewed as Klæbo’s specialty, but he’s excelling in all distances this season. He was typically modest before the 30K in Lillehammer, telling reporters that he’d “just try to hang on as long as I can.” He ended up beating both Norwegian teammate and former World Champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who’s known as a long-distance master, and third-place winner Hans Christer Holund, also of Norway. Yet another Norwegian finished fourth, Simen Hegstad Krüger.
Swedish rivals don’t quite know what to make of Klæbo. “He’s unique,” said Marcus Hellner. “We really don’t know what he’s up to,” agreed Daniel Rikardsson. His Norwegian teammates are simply in awe.
“He’s a great teacher for all the rest of us on the team,” Sundby told Aftenposten, a great compliment from the 33-year-old veteran and champion. “I have always wanted to beat anyone who beats me, but Johannes is Norwegian. He’s on our team and an inspiration for us.”
The Norwegian team’s coaches are so impressed with Klæbo that they let him choose whatever races he wanted in Lillehammer. His father Haakon Klæbo and his grandfather Kåre Høsflot serve as manager and coach respectively, and together with Johannes decide what’s best. He’ll only race in the sprint at the upcoming World Cup events in Davos, Switzerland this weekend, but as the team’s new anchor. “The plan is still to hold back a little,” Klæbo told news bureau NTB before the Lillehammer races. No one wants him to over-exert himself.
There are no signs of that yet as Norway’s new wonderboy of skiing suddenly become the best in the world at present. National team coach Tor Arne Hetland said that above all, “he has a unique technique. He has an incredible snap (which allows him to exploit opportunities to break out of the pack of racing skiers on the trails) and he’s very well-trained.”
That’s how he beat Sundby on Sunday, by seizing the chance for an opening and pouring on what sports commentator Reidar Sollie of newspaper Dagsavisen called “full energy, full speed.” That left Sundby without a chance to respond to what Sollied called “the Trondheim Express.”
“I’m doing everything I can to beat him, ” Sundby told Aftenposten. “I’m humbled that I have a chance to compete against him when he’s in the shape he’s in now. I try to crush him, but it doesn’t work.”
Klæbo seemed humbled himself by Sundby’s high praise. “Martin says he can draw on some more force and then I get scared by the thought of how fast it can go,” Klæbo said.
There’s little doubt Klæbo will be on Norway’s Olympic team in South Korea in February, his first ever, and right now he’s a gold medal candidate there, too. Klæbo predictably dismisses the hype: “It’s a long time to the Olympics and a lot can happen,” he told Aftenposten. “I’m only certain that those who are in the best shape at that time will go (to Pyeongchang).”
Coach Hetland was non-commital: “It’s a while until February, and the guys will be able to prepare themselves to the max, so that they’ll come home with lots of medals.”