- Hamar, Norway
The Dutch pair Ireen Wüst and Jan Blokhuijsen are in the lead in pursuit of the European Speed Skating ladies and men’s titles respectively after the first day at the Vikingship Olympic icerink in Hamar (NOR) on Saturday.
Skaters from 18 different countries gathered to compete for the European title, including Sandra Alusalu, the first Estonian representative in the European Championships since 1939. There were 18 personal bests, including a Belgian record, a Hungarian record and a Swedish junior record.
In the ladies’ competition defending champion Wüst was the favourite from the start. The other skaters expected to compete for podium places were Martina Sábliková (CZE) and Claudia Pechstein (GER).
After winning the 500 metres four years in a row, Karolina Erbanová (CZE) finished second on Saturday. She crossed the finish line in 38.81sec but she did so in a horizontal position, falling just before the finish, which cost her some time. At that point she was the fastest, but the last two to go were Wüst and Julia Skokova. Wüst won the race in 38.77, 0.04sec faster than Erbanová. Skokova took third place in 39.01, a personal best time. “I am fine after my fall but I am disappointed for I feel it cost me victory at the distance,” said Erbanová, while Wüst said: “It was a good race, it is a while since I skated a 38.”
In fourth place was Yekaterina Shikhova (RUS) and fifth place was shared by Katarzyna Bachleda-Curus (POL) and Yevgeniya Dmitriyeva (RUS), for whom 39.59 was a personal best.
There were also personal bests for Olga Graf (RUS) and Camila Farestveit (NOR), while Jelena Peeters’ 40.82 was a new Belgian record. Pechstein finished a long way behind Wüst with 40.40 and Sábliková, with 40.89, seems to have even less chance of the overall title.
In the 3,000 metres Skokova was the first below 4:10 in 4:08.28, taking the overall lead with 80.390 points. Her 3,000m time eventually brought her seventh place. In the next pair Marije Joling (NED) skated a strong 4:04.23, even faster than her more experienced compatriot Diane Valkenburg, who was disappointed by her slow start and finished in 4:06:82. But another Dutch debutant, Yvonne Nauta, was faster than Joling. She was the only skater at this distance who improved her personal best, to 4:02.63. In the next pair the last Dutch skater was the first of ‘the big three’ to race. Wüst was as impressive in the 3,000 as she was in the 500, winning the distance in 4:02.02. Wüst said that she had been aiming for the track record of 4:00.26, held by former champion Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, but in the last two laps she slowed down too much and had to let that go, much to her disappointment: “The times of Joling and Nauta had been really good and I thought I needed a track record to stay ahead of Sábliková,” she said.
As it turned out, however, she was wrong and nobody could better her 4:02. Certainly not Pechstein, who failed to get into her rhythm and finished in 4:06.53. She said afterwards: “Nothing is lost, it is not the Olympics, and the advantage is that I am not worn out.”
Sábliková, meanwhile, just reached the podium at the expense of Joling by finishing in 4:04.22 with a very even race. Sáblikova said: “I think it was not such a bad race, I trained so hard these past weeks that I am a little tired. And Ireen in this shape is hard to beat.”
Wüst leads after the first day with 79.106 points, an advantage over Skokova of 1.284sec in the 1500m, while Joling is unexpectedly in third with 80.796, followed by Shikhova, Valkenburg, Bachleda-Curus, Nauta and Dmitriyeva. Pechstein and Sábliková are down in 10th and 11th respectively.
In the 500 metres the favourite was Konrad Niedzwiedzki from Poland. From 2006 to 2013 his record has been outstanding: he won the distance five times and was never off the podium, with bronze in 2007 and silver in 2008 and 2009. On Saturday he added a second place in a tight race with his countryman Zbigniew Bródka. Niedzwiedzki finished in 36.06sec, with Bródka in 36.07. Håvard Bøkko, however, ruined the Polish party. While he was on the podium behind the Poles last year, this year he took victory in 35.99. “This is my best 500m ever in the European Championships. I am happy with my start and my technique,” said Bøkko.
Of the other overall podium candidates, Koen Verweij (NED) finished fourth, Jan Blokhuijsen (NED) seventh and Sverre Lunde Pedersen (NOR) two places behind that, with Bart Swings (BEL) in 12th.
The day started with the announcement of the withdrawal of one of the main favourites, Denis Yuskov (RUS), who had a fever. There were seven personal bests over the distance, the most impressive of them being the Swedish junior record time of 36.33 which brought David Andersson fifth place, and the 36.35 of Jan Szymanski (POL).
The last distance of the day was the men’s 5,000 metres. Konrád Nagy improved the Hungarian record by over seven seconds, to 6:42.06, and there were four other personal bests, including Bródka, though it was 6.30-plus. The first skater to post a sub-6.30 time created a great atmosphere inside the Vikingship because it was the Norwegian Fredrik van der Horst, who led until the tenth pair, when Renz Rotteveel (NED) and Szymanski went faster. But the next Norwegian, Sverre Lunde Pedersen, was more of a threat in the rankings and he took the lead with 6:21.81, also taking the overall lead with 74.851 points. However the joy did not last long. In the next pair Blokhuijsen clocked 6:15.89 to lead with 74.199 points.
Verweij and Bøkko could afford to lose a little time behind Blokhuijsen and still retain their overall lead, but they both lost just a little too much. Verweij finished in 6:21.59 and Bøkko in 6:22.97.
Douwe de Vries (NED) and Swings made up the final pair and took the remaining two podium places behind Blokhuijsen. Swings took the lead but De Vries was more even and he overtook the Belgian in the last two pairs to finish in 6:19.47; Swings finished in 6:20.92. De Vries said: “I am really happy to have raced with a strong pair mate.” Blokhuijsen, after taking both the distance and the overall lead, said: “I felt more free than earlier this season. I liked being the first of the favourites to set a time, so I could focus on skating the best I could. I am confident for tomorrow; I hope for a strong 1500 and the 10k is going well this season.”
Bøkko and Swings though saw it differently. “Blokhuijsen is not stable in the 1500, so we will see tomorrow, it is pretty close,” said Bøkko, while Swings added: “We are close together, the podium is open. I have come close in the 1500 and am determined to skate a strong 10k.” Verweij has 00.21sec to make up on Blokhuijsen, and Bøkko is 00.06 behind Verweij in the 1500. Then come Lunde Pedersen and Swings in the rankings.