By Philip O’Connor
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo secured a majestic victory in the men’s 4x10km relay with a stunning late spurt as Norway won their fifth gold in eight cross-country skiing competitions at the Pyeongchang Games on Sunday.
The lead changed hands several times during a thrilling final lap as the Norwegian battled it out with Denis Spitsov, representing the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) who took silver 9.4 seconds behind, with France nabbing the bronze.
For Martin Johnsrud Sundby, winning Norway’s first men’s relay gold since the 2002 Games was both a joy and a relief, and he was delighted to be a part of the team in the face of some tough competition for places.
“This is an important event. We haven’t won it for 16 years now and (have) been struggling a bit in the last Olympics and to be able with these guys to take it home this year was, it was great,” he told reporters.
“We also have a lot of good friends who are not skiing for Norway today who could have been skiing for the team and we are also trying to win for them,” he added.
A stunning second leg by Alexander Bolshunov looked to have laid the foundations for a first gold medal for the OAR but a disastrous third leg by Alexey Chervotkin saw their lead of almost half a minute wiped out.
Norway’s skiathlon gold medallist Simen Hegstad Krueger battled his way back to the top of the field, setting up sprint champion Klaebo for a dramatic finish.
Spitsov breathed new life into the Russian challenge on the final leg as the French fell away, reeling in the leading pair and making it a two-horse race for gold.
At times Klaebo seemed to lack the power that underpinned his glorious sprint victory, passing Spitsov only for the Russian to move up the gears and stay with him, but he had no answer when the young Norwegian finally made his late break for gold.
Bare-headed on a sunny but chilly afternoon, Klaebo, the youngest member of the team by more than three years, thundered away over the final kilometre and cruised across the finish line into the arms of his ecstatic team mates.
“I felt strong. Also in the first round, it felt quite strong and the skis were so good, so then I knew that I would attack at that moment in the last round,” Klaebo told reporters.
“I felt strong and to get a gap, it’s quite an unbelievable feeling.”
Spitsov followed Klaebo over the line, embracing his rival and congratulating him on his second gold of the Games following an epic battle.
Adrien Backscheider slid home 36.9 seconds after the winner to take a well-deserved bronze for France, but the day belonged to Norway.
“We have a good team. They are fighting and sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but today was a great day for the athletes that were skiing and the whole country,” coach Tor Arne Hetland said. (Editing by Clare Fallon)