CROSS COUNTRY Preview: Johaug expected to return at Otepaa for 10 km Classical

Norwegian cross-country superstar Therese Johaug

The southern Estonian resort town of Otepaa is the site for this week’s FIS World Cup, with Classical-style races in a 1.3 km Sprint for women and 1.6 km for men on Saturday, and a 10 km race for women and a 15 km race for men on Sunday.

Norway’s Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo is starting to run away with the seasonal World Cup, with 934 points to 750 for Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov and 674 for Norwegian Sjur Roethe. Klaebo has won five races outright and has a silver medal in the season opener as well.

In the Sprint races, Bolshunov has won the only Classical-style race so far, with Federico Pellegrino (ITA), Klaebo (3x) and Sindre Skar (NOR) winning the five Freestyle Sprints.

The 15 km Classical on Sunday is only the second of its kind this season, with Bolshunov winning at Ruka (FIN) in November. The three other 15 km races (Freestyles) have been won by Roethe and Russians Evgeniy Belov and Sergey Ustiugov.

The women’s season has changed considerably since comebacking Therese Johaug (NOR) has stepped aside after winning five of the first eight races of the season. Her return from a doping suspension for a loaded lip balm (really!) was nothing short of miraculous, but she has not competed since 16 December.

“Being on the go all year round is mentally demanding … People may not realize how much energy it has required of Therese to come back,” said Norwegian Women’s Country Coach Ole Morten Iversen in an interview with Sweden’s ABC News. Johaug’s trainer, Pal Gunnar Mikkelsplass to the Swedish Dagbladet newspaper that “As long as she does nothing stupid, she will be in the form we want in the World Cup.”

Johaug is scheduled to compete in Otepaa in the 10 km race on Sunday. But she now stands sixth in the overall World Cup standings, with teammate Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg on top with 1,152 points, far ahead of Finland’s Krista Parmakoski (883). Newcomer Natalia Nepryaeva is right behind with 811 and American Jessica Diggins is fifth with 601.

Oestberg has won four races in a row, all of 9-10 km in length. The Sprint leader is Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, who has won four World Cup Sprints in a row and has five medals in the six Sprint races held this season.

The NBC Olympic Channel has coverage of the races in Otepaa, with delayed coverage at 3 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. Look for results here.