Dutch skaters Ireen Wüst and Jan Blokhuijsen won the European Speed Skating titles in the Vikingship Olympic icerink in Hamar (NOR) on Sunday. The Dutch duo were the best of 27 ladies and 31 men from 18 different countries. Wüst took the women’s title by a very large margin, winning the first three distances and finishing third in the longest distance.
Another Dutch pair, Yvonne Nauta and Koen Verweij, took the second places and Martina Sábliková (CZE) and Håvard Bøkko (NOR) were the bronze medallists. On the final day Wüst skated to a championship record in the 1500 metres, as well as with her total points score of 159.736, and there were four personal best times.
The 1500m is an interesting distance in these championships, because apart from skaters trying to deliver their best race possible, two other things are at stake: finishing high enough to qualify for the final distance, the 5,000 metres, and to qualify for the World Allround Championships, among the best 14 in this case. As the best Norwegian, Ida Njåtun, was 14th after the first day it remained to be seen if she would keep the flag flying for the host country, and behind her the sole Belgian skater also hoped to make the top 14.
Since only eight skaters now qualify for the 5,000m it has become harder to race that distance. After the first day Wüst led by 3.86 points from Skokova. They were in the final pair and both were expected to race another distance, along with Marije Joling (NED), Diane Valkenburg (NED) and Nauta, who were in the top eight in both lists.
Also expected to qualify were Sábliková, who was 11th overall based on her third place in the 3,000m; Yekaterina Shikhova (RUS), based on her fourth place in the rankings which she could also improve on; and the last place could go to Olga Graf (RUS), who only needed to pass Yevgeniya Dmitriyeva (RUS) to be eighth both in the ranking and in the 3,000m, provided nobody passed her in the ranking form behind.
Claudia Pechstein (GER) had a chance based on her fifth place in the 3,000m, while Katarzyna Bachleda-Curus (POL) was sixth in the ranking, and she only needed to climb one spot to take the place of Pechstein. For the other skaters it did not seem possible to qualify.
In spite of a good race Jelena Peeters (BEL) remained behind Njåtun, and so Norway managed to hold on to their starting position for the World Allround. Sábliková clocked 1:57.46, fifth at this distance, and climbed into eighth place overall. Graf then beat Pechstein and took fourth place with 1:57.40, manoeuvring into seventh overall and into the final distance.
Nauta, seventh after two distances, was even faster with 1:57.28, and as Bachleda-Curus’s energy was gone Nauta moved up to fifth overall. Her time was the third best, behind Wüst and Skokova who took the first two places. Wüst, starting like a sprinter, had the strongest race ever seen in European Championships and she set a Championship record with 1:54.87. Last year she had finished in 1:56.39 as a Championship record.
Skokova finished well behind Wüst in 1:57.02, but it was still enough to stay second in the ranking. But behind Wüst and Skokova much had changed. Joling lost her third position overall with a poor 1,500m, and Shikhova moved up to third. However she declined to skate the final distance, which brought Pechstein in to race that distance instead. Wüst was leading by exactly two whole points (20 seconds) from Skokova, Valkenburg came next, 7.83sec behind, and then came Nauta.
The 5,000m started with Pechstein and Graf. Pechstein finished in 7:05.44, Graf in 7:12.57, just enough to keep Pechstein behind her in the ranking. Then Sábliková was paired with Joling. Alas the Dutchwoman, who had excelled on the first day, did not find her rhythm and with a time of 7:17.43 dropped to eighth place overall. Sábliková looked as strong as ever, and with 6:58.13 and 162.559 points she made another jump in the ranking. Valkenburg and Skokova did not skate fast enough to keep Sábliková behind them, although Valkenburg finished in a decent 7:09.41 and Skokova gave all she had and reached a personal best time of 7:22.09.
In the final pair Nauta and Wüst skated side by side for most of the race. Nauta needed to be about two seconds faster than Valkenburg to finish on the podium, and could afford to lose only 4.25sec to Sáblikova to get silver. Nauta showed she was a world class skater by reaching her goal, finishing in 6:59.32 and gathering 162.253 points.
Wüst could take it relatively easy and finished in 7:03.40, third place in the distance, taking the title with a Championship record 159.736 points (the previous record was 160.533), a very large margin of victory not seen in a long time. “It was a stable, good tournament, with extremes in the 500 and 1,500,” she said.
“I am very satisfied with all my races and feel ready for Sochi. In the last race I wanted to be prudent. Why would I use too much energy, I need to stay fit and healthy for Sochi. I am not worried that I had my peak too early, I feel and believe I can be better than this.
“I am growing in this season. I must say I was surprised about the low level in the 3,000m, but I do not know where the others are in their build-up towards the Olympics, everybody has a different route, they will certainly be at their best then. I cannot wait, let the Olympics begin!”
Nauta said: “I was surprised that I finished this high as I didn’t focus on the Allround. I am not that surprised about the long distances, as I knew I was getting better all season.”
Sáblikova said: “I was surprised today that I managed to climb up from 11th to third position. My 1500 and 5,000 were ok.”
In the men’s 1,500m the top 18 was the cut-off mark for the World Allround. The last spot was secured by the fourth Polish skater, Piotr Puszkarski, while the Russian Aleksey Suvorov, substitute for Denis Yuskov, secured the second place for Russia in Heerenveen.
In the battle for the podium places as well as a place in the final distance, pair eight of 12 featured the two Polish skaters who had made the 500m podium, Konrad Niedzwiedzki and Zbigniew Bródka, and it was a tight race again. Niedzwiedzki said: “It is always nice to race with Bródka, he is a true racer, you need to be persistent to beat him.” This time Niedzwiedzki won in 1:46.16, with Bródka clocking 1:46.19, the two fastest times up to that point.
Their countryman Jan Szymanski had to be fast in order to keep his spot in the final distance and he succeeded, conceding very little to his compatriots with 1:46.39 for fifth place in the end. Bøkko was paired with Sverre Lunde Pedersen (NOR), the latter beating his older team-mate in a good 1:46.28. Bøkko’s 1:46.51 was half a second slower than he believed he should and could have done.
But the distance winner was in the last pair, where Blokhuijsen and Verweij raced each other. Verweij won in 1:45.93, taking the overall lead as Blokhuijsen made many mistakes and ended up in ninth place with 1:46.91, dropping to third overall behind Verweij and Bøkko. Thus the podium for this distance was made up by Verweij, Niedzwiedzki and Bródka, but for the last two their tournament ended there as they had not been good enough in the 5,000 metres on Saturday.
There was little time to recover for the first skaters in the 10,000m, Symanski and Renz Rotteveel (NED), as the event started without an ice preparation break right after the ladies 5,000m, and this showed in some of the times. Szymanski said it was hard to race with that much lactate in his legs and he finished last in a distance he likes, in 13:53.34.
Rotteveel still skated a personal best of 13:26.75. Then Douwe de Vries (NED) and Bart Swings (BEL) skated, but De Vries also felt that racing so soon after the 1500 did not help him to show his potential, and after his second place in the 5,000 he finished seventh here, just behind Rotteveel. Swings set the fastest time of 13:17.41, which brought him the temporary lead.
Then the two Norwegians raced again, and for the second time in the day Lunde Pedersen was faster than Bøkko, although not by much, and just like Wüst and Nauta had done in the ladies’ field, they stayed close together, making their move in the final metres. Lunde Pedersen’s 13:20.50 was not enough to stay ahead of Swings in the ranking, but Bøkko had such an advantage after his 500 metres win on Saturday that his 13:22.09 was sufficient.
With Bøkko leading with 149.894 points, the final pair of the Dutch rivals started. Verweij, whose goal it was to stay with Blokhuijsen as long as possible and try for gold, lost just a little too much, Blokhuijsen took a 6.3sec advantage but then saw that Verweij kept fighting to get back and needed to find another gear to secure the title. Blokhuijsen, who had been second three times in a row, won not just the 10,000m in 13:07.22 ahead of Verweij with 13:13.45, but also the European overall title with 149.196 points, while Verweij had to be content with 149.251.
Blokhuijsen said: “I had doubted if Hamar would fit in my preparation for Sochi, I came to race, win and get a euphoric feeling that I can bring to Sochi. I was unhappy with my 1500, but I could correct it in the 10,000. I skated the last race controlled, I did not push myself when the gap with Verweij was enough, although he came back a bit, I knew I could find another gear. It was fun for the tournament that it was close together.
“Of course, Sven Kramer is not here, but winning is what top sports is about. You need that feeling to grow as a skater. If after a tremendous tournament you end up in second place you get frustrated. Sven is a fantastic skater, it is bad luck to be in his generation. I chose to leave the team of Kramer because I am not satisfied with silver, I need to find my own way to get gold.”
Verweij said: “My weakest distance was the 5,000, that is where I lost too much ground. I tried my best but I met ‘the man with the hammer’. Today I had two ok races, I do not feel totally fit but the basis is good.”
Bøkko said: “This season I had not been skating too well, but I made a big step since the Berlin World Cup. I am satisfied with a medal here.”