* Krueger leads Norway sweep
* Sundby claims silver ahead of Holund (Adds quotes, details)
By Philip O’Connor and Mark Trevelyan
PYEONGCHANG, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Simen Hegstad Krueger of Norway broke away on the penultimate lap to storm to victory in the men’s Olympic skiathlon on Sunday and lead a clean sweep of medals for Norway.
Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund took the silver and bronze in the gruelling cross-country event, in which athletes have to race 15 km freestyle followed by the same distance skating-style.
Krueger bounced back from breaking a pole in an early crash, and even though he recovered quickly, he still struggled through the first four laps of classic-style skiing.
“The pace was high there in the front and I didn’t manage to catch up before the skating part. I was really tired after the classic but as soon as I changed skis, suddenly my legs felt great again,” he told reporters.
Following the switch to skating-style skis at the halfway point, a group of 18 opened up a gap to the rest of the field and the lead changed hands several times in the freezing conditions as the racers sought shelter behind each other from the wind.
Finland’s Iivo Niskanen made much of the early running in the race but the Norwegians took over with three laps left and an epic internal battle for medals unfolded.
Krueger made his break for glory with little more than a lap to go, striking out on his own and leaving the rest of the field struggling to find an answer.
“I know that there’s some quite fast skiers in the group, so my chance was to get rid of them before the finish. When I got some meters there, I had to go for it, don’t look back,” Krueger said.
The 24-year-old built up a lead of more than 20 seconds before his Norwegian team mates Sundby and Holund struck back, breaking away from the chasing pack to try to reel him in.
Though they managed to close the gap considerably, it was too little, too late as Krueger held on to cross the line and claim the gold medal eight seconds ahead of Sundby and 9.9 seconds ahead of Holund.
Krueger’s compatriots were delighted after making a clean sweep for their country.
“This is a fantastic team, we have fantastic people working for us in the waxing cabin, our coaches, everyone is working so hard for us to succeed,” Sundby told reporters.
“I think we should give credit to Simen, that he was actually daring to break loose on that last lap,” Holund added.
“Not many people would have the confidence to do that and that’s why he deserves the gold medal,” he said. (Editing by Clare Fallon/Amlan Chakraborty)