Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Midway through the Tour de Ski

With the Tour de Ski resuming on Wednesday with individual-start classic races in Nove Mesto, I offer a few quick "halftime" takes on the racing so far. Maybe Colin will chime in, too...

Most Surprising Racer

Dario Cologna. He's been a solid racer from a few years now, but he's also been largely anonymous, overshadowed on the Swiss team by skate specialist Toni Livers. But he's now showing that the early-season form that put him into the distance World Cup leader's jersey is no fluke. On Sunday, he used some hard and smart racing to beat Teichmann in the 15k classical pursuit and take over the Tour de Ski lead.

Most Disappointing Racer
Claudia Nystad is my pick here. As her win on home snow in Saturday's prologue showed, she can race well. But as her sixteenth place in Sunday's pursuit also showed, she can also ski terribly - so badly that she basically reduced her very long shot at the podium to no shot at all. She went from +1s to -68s in that one race - the worst performance of anyone in the two pursuit races. (Her sixth in Monday's sprints helped a bit. A tiny little bit.)

Best Racing Performance
I'm going to go with my new favorite North American, Devon Kershaw, in the 15k pursuit on Sunday. Starting third, he skied out of his mind, holding position at the head of the massive pack trying (and failing) to chase down Cologna and Teichmann, and then putting on the jets to nip Jauhojarvi for third - Kershaw's first distance-race podium of his World Cup career. Kershaw wrote a great pair of race reports on his blog about the pursuit and the next day's rather less amazing sprint.

Worst Racing Performance
Though it wasn't spectacularly bad, I have to go with Virpi Kuitunen in Monday's sprints in Prague. She qualified well, but her #6 jersey didn't help her survive the quarterfinal round. After leading some of the race, she was passed by half the field and finished fourth, failing to advance and, crucially, missing the chance to earn bonus seconds that would help her stay high in the standings. As it is now, she's sixth on GC, exactly 40 seconds out of first. It's not impossible that she could close that gap, but it is unlikely.

Best Crash
The Prague city sprint had some good crashes, of course, but my money is on Marthe Kristofferson, the young Norwegian, who ate it twice in the Oberhof prologue, once catching air on a downhill corner and once turning a snowplow into a faceplant so bad she broke her ski and limped home in third-to-last place. Not an auspicious debut.

Overall TdS Winner, Men
I think this is Cologna's race to lose. Unless "Super Dario" (gag) misses the wax in Wednesday's classic race, or bonks badly in the final climb, I just don't see a spot for anyone else - even Teichmann - to take enough time out of the Swiss to win the whole thing.

Overall TdS Winner, Women
Arianna Follis is the sexy pick here (in both senses, perhaps), but I think the workhorse Aino-Kaisa Saarinen will grind out enough high places and earn enough bonus seconds in Wednesday's and Saturday's races to go into Sunday's final climb with an insurmountable advantage.

The best quote of the Tour so far comes, suprisingly, from Mr. Effusive, Axel Teichmann, in talking about Petter Northug's claim - much publicized in Norway - to have been obstructed by the German at the end of the Gallivare relay: "In Germany I would have needed to bury Petter Northug in the snow to collect the same publicity. But there is nothing more to the story."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Tour de Ski Stage 3 Live Blog - Prague

4:01 -- Alright, what better way to enjoy an unseasonably warm Christmas in Boston than with a liveblog account of the Prague sprints? I'm all set up with notepad and Universal Sports "live coverage" and ready to jump all over the inane announcer platitudes I am about to endure. Hoping to see some great racing, as well.

4:04 -- The sprint course is pancake flat with four ninety-degree left turns. It's a two lap Nascar race, that's kind of lame. I can accept this nonsense only because it's in downtown Prague. With every turn going the same direction, passes will require a burst of speed on the straights and a rude "closing of the door" to get by, since you'll never be able to beat someone to the inside of a corner.

4:07 -- Big names in women's heat 1 are Follis (#1 qualifier) and Justyna Kowalczyk. Follis leads it out from Pirjo Muranen and Kowalczyk. Astrid Jacobsen is bib 30 in this heat at the back -- I don't know what's wrong with her this year, but she's not fixing it today.

4:10 -- Muranen and Follis have skied away, and Kowalczyk drops the others to make an early bid for being a lucky loser.

4:11 -- Heat 2 has Majdic (#14 qual) and a bunch of noname types. Alena Prochazkova is the low seed and leads it out with Majdic right behind. Steffy Boehler from Germany is the #7 qualifier but gets stuck at the back.

4:13 - The pace must not be very hot, Boehler comes all the way from the back on the straight to lead. Majdic holds second to Alena dropping back. This one is tighter than the previous one, Prochazkova is waiting to pounce on Majdic for the last spot... and Boehler blows up on the final straight to lose a photo finish for 2nd. She did one of the saddest ski throws I've ever seen, lying down on her back with both legs forward. Obviously she has not read our article.

4:18 - Heat 3 features Virpi Kuitenen, Claudia Nystad and The 19-year-old Norwegian Marthe Kristofferson. Announcer Peter Graves is REALLY excited that Marthe has rolled her sleeves up. I am not.

4:19 - Kuitenen, Kristofferson, Nystad in that order. No one is trying anything, I'm not sure what Nystad is thinking here.

4:20 - Nystad finally tried something but has trouble finishing a pass on the outside of the corner -- Kristofferson holds her off easily down the final straight. Virpi blows up to finish fourth behind Anna Haag.

4:22 - Heat 4! Bjoergen and Sara Renner are the big names, at least to me, although Renner definitely wouldn't be favored to advance. Vesna Fabjan from Slovenia leads it out with lots of chaos behind her. Bjoergen may have been caught up in something, anyway, she's last after 3 turns.

4:24 - Magda Genuin moves up. Nicole Fessel tangles with someone and Bjoergen comes up on the outside to get to the front -- well, that looked easy.

4:25 - Final sprint starts Bjoergen, Fabjan, Fessel and stays that way. Fessel makes the curious decision to stay behind Fabjan instead of challenging her, I guess she was resigned to racing for lucky-loserdom and wanted the draft?

4:26 - The announcing team doesn't seem to realize that the timing system puts up any close result as a "photo finish" on the scoreboard, and are discussing these as if they are actual close finishes that require scrutinization.

4:28 -- Last heat features Finns Saarinen, Roponen, and a bunch of others I missed. Saarinen does the yellow bib proud (World Cup leader) and goes to the front.

4:30 -- Sachenbacher and Roponen trail Saarinen. This looks like a fast one -- six skiers single file.

4:31 -- Roponen manages to get through on the inside of Saarinen (her teammate (!)), almost crashing both of them. Saarinen ruthlessly retakes the lead with Sachenbacher now in third.

4:32 -- Ooooh Roponen skis straight across Sachenbacher's tips on the final straight, it appeared like she saw Sachenbacher coming up and moved over to take the lane away -- kind of dirty but not quite egregious enought to get her DQ'ed.

4:33 -- Sachenbacher and Longa from this heat end up being the lucky losers, so at least I was correct about it being fast. And that means Roponen's door-closing didn't actually matter.

4:35 -- Up next are the men, with #1 qualifier Devon Kershaw in heat one. Will he continue in the proud North American tradition of qualifying first and going out in the quaterfinals? We shall see.

4:36 -- Kershaw gets out slow. A German gets his pole broken. This is intense. Marcus Hellner leads.

4:37 - Kershaw is up to 2nd -- but a lot of guys on his heels, Eldar Roenning is 3rd.

4:38 - Arghhhhh Hellner and Kershaw go down on the last corner!! I think Kershaw was nervous about all the guys behind him and just tried to move up where there wasn't space. The finish is Roenning ahead of Sami Jauhojaervi.

4:39 - Hate to say it, but after watching the replay that was totally Kershaw's fault.

4:40 - Next heat is Tor Arne Hetland and friends. Damian Ambrosetti leads it out. Hetland is back a bit, but he knows what's up and surges forward after a lap. He gets around while everyone else steps on each other on the inside.

4:42 -- Cyril Miranda and Ambrosetti (both Frenchmen) race for 2nd behind Hetland -- wow -- nevermind that, Jean Marc Gaillard blows by everyone on the final straight with a huge burst! Hetland advances as well. Gaillard is visibly ecstatic with this manuever.

4:46 - Next heat features overall leader Dario Cologna, Zorzi, Canadian George Grey. Man how old is Zorzi by now?

4:47 -- Grey gets out nicely in second behind Cologna, Czeh Ales Razym is third. Ohh man, some French guy is getting hung out to dry, trying to pass on the outside of the corners and he can't get back into the line.

4:49 -- The final drag race, oh man, Grey blows up at the end and Zorzi drafts Cologna in to advance as well. The French dude who tried to ski around the outside for a whole lap was Jonnier, he got as far forward as second but had nothing left for the finish.

4:51 -- Next heat- Dahl, Rotchev, Gjerdalen, this is stacked. Hahahahaha Peter Graves just went "Elmer Fudd" on his name, "Tor Ar, Tor Ahh, Tor Ase.. uh... Gjerdalen!"

4:52 - Austria's Harald Wurm leads this one, impressive, with Dahl and Rotchev stalking him. With a minute to go Dahl comes around him and Rotchev does too .. Wurm is toast.

4:53 - Dahl, Rotchev, and a late surging Gjerdalen head to the finish. Dahl looks like he's not even trying. Gjerdalen narrowly gets 3rd, and snags a lucky loser slot, for now. Looks like Giorgio Di Centa could've beaten him with a more sprited ski throw...

4:56 -- The last mens heat has Northug, Angerer and Darragon for "big" names. An Estonian and a Russian also. Angerer was the 28th qualifier, so don't expect much.

4:58 -- Darragon false starts.

4:59 -- Someone from the crowd yells "HUT" when they are waiting for the gun and they ALL false start again. Then while they are resetting the gun fires. Sheesh.

5:00 - Northug has shaved his head for this event and uses his new aerodynamics to lead it out. Then he lets the Russian come through .. and then an Estonian... maybe he's being coy, but now he has to attack the straightaway to get back to the front. Strange tactics.

5:01 - Darragon has moved up to 2nd. Down the final straight Darragon overtakes him -- interesting -- Northug did NOT look like he had that extra gear we've seen before. There's a sweet 3-way ski throw for 4th, won by Angerer.

5:05 -- Time for women's semis now. Follis, Majdic, Longa, Nystad, Muranen, Boehler in the first heat. Follis takes it from the gun again over Muranen and Majdic. Boehler is practically dropped from the gun, although the pace slows later and she gets back in contact, albeit in last.

5:06 -- Everyone is pretty content where they are it, appears. Follis looks smoooooth and in control. Petra challenges on the final straight.

5:07 - Wow, EVERYONE overtakes Follis at the end and she finishes 4th behind Nystad, Petra, Muranen. Could still be a lucky loser, though. Petra looked like her typical beastly self down the finish straight there.

5:09 - Bjoergen, Saarinen, Fabjan, Sachenbacher, Kowalczyk, Kristofferson are the other semi. Fabjan gets the holeshot just like her quarter, but they are all over her tails.

5:11 -- Bjoergen once again is at the back trying to get around. She's up to 4th. Fabjan still leads, from Saarinen.

5:12 -- Saarinen moves into the lead on lap two. Bjoergen is still flailing at the back, Kristofferson is up to 3rd. Kowalczyk moves up with a TON of work heading to the last straight...

5:13 -- Kowalczyk and Fabjan hit skis a bit -- Kowalczyk is blown -- Fabjan cracks at the end and Kristofferson gets by her! All the lucky losers will come from the other heat so only two advance from this one. Saarinen won this one handily.

5:16 -- Time for the men's semis now, first up is Roenning, Gaillard, Hetland, Zorzi, Gjerdalen and Jauhojaervi. Aaaaand they false start, couldn't tell who it was as everybody went.

5:17 -- One of the commentators refers to the last Finnish race site as "Koosamano" which makes me more upset than it should.

5:18 -- A clean start and Roenning leads it out. Then Hetland and Gjerdalen come up and it's a Norwegian wall at the front. Jauhojaervi sits fourth wearing bib 30, but he's a sneaky guy, maybe he can break through?

5:20 - Hetland looks really in control up front. Zorzi is up to fourth now. Wow! Another final burst from Gaillard -- except this time he changes lanes right onto Roenning, after the lanes were marked. That's gotta be a DQ right? Right?? Roenning is PISSED.

5:22 -- Heat 2 -- Darrgon, Cologna, Dahl, Di Centa, Northug, Rotchev another good one. If we're lucky, Northug and Di Centa will finish last year's Tour de Ski fist fight. Cologna gets out first ahead of a motivated Di Centa, with Northug in 3rd. Di Centa really wanted to squeeze out Northug, I like it.

5:24 -- Di Centa moves to the outside to pass and Darragon sneaks under him. Dahl comes through strong to take the lead with Rotchev on his tails... Di Centa and Northug slip back

5:25 -- Rotchev turns on the jets at the end and its Dahl over Rotchev over Northug over Cologna. Di Centa hits the snow before the line, hooked a ski on Cologna's pole. Only the top two advance, it will be four from the other heat.

5:29 -- Women's small final - Bjoergen, Kowalczyk, Fabjan, Sachenbacher, Boehler, Longa, Roponen. Bjoergen gets ANOTHER bad start, ahead of only Longa. Sachenbacher leads it. Wait, there were 7 racers in the small final? I have no idea what happened here. Our intrepid announcers haven't noticed anything unusual about this, so I guess I'll have to look online.

5:31 -- At least this time Bjoergen moves up early -- she leads the train on the outside and pulls up alongside a leading Kowalczyk. The commentators have helpfully noted that "she'd like to win this B final." I am becoming angry.

5:33 -- Bjorgen leads out the sprint and wins pretty easily ahead of Roponen, Fabjan.

5:35 -- Women's final. Saarinen, Majdic, Kristofferson, Muranen, Follis, Nystad. The juxtaposition of 6-foot-tall Majdic next to the 5-foot-tall Kristofferson on the start line is pretty funny.

5:36 -- Muranen leads the inside train, Majdic on the outside. Saarinen and Nystad are second in each line. With one to go, it looks a little slow, they are bunching up A LOT. Kristofferson comes up to second!

5:38 -- Suddenly Follis comes around to lead with authority... Nystad crashes herself out at the back... Follis has GOT IT EASILY. Saarinen second... Majdic, Muranen, Kristofferson. Follis barely made the final, and kept a low profile on lap one, but crushed them when it mattered.

5:43 -- Men's small final, Northug, Di Centa, Darragon, Jauhojaervi, Cologna, Gjerdalen, Zorzi. Di Centa and Cologna get the joint holeshot and hit skis, and then Cologna goes to the front. Northug is at the back, Gjerdalen trying to go the long way round on the corners.

5:45 -- They spread out and slow a bit -- Northug is able to sneak up the inside along with Darragon, nicely done. Gjerdalen has done a lot of work and has nothing to show for it. With one corner to go it's Northug against Cologna in a drag race.

5:46 -- Northug edges ahead and holds it, ahead of Cologna and Darragon.

5:48 -- Time for the final! Hetland, Rotchev, Dahl, Roenning, Jauhojaervi and an undeserving Gaillard (grumble). I guess since Roenning got through as well, all is forgiven. I didn't even realize Jauhojaervi lucky-losered his way through that mess.

5:50 -- Dahl takes the lead ahead of Jauhojaervi, Roenning falls on the first corner! He will have to do a lot of work to get back on, I'd be amazed if he'll have anything left.

5:51 -- Hetland moves up the outside with Rotchev on his tails -- seems like Rotchev always picks the right guy to follow to the front. Gaillard is way back in 5th, lets see if he's got one more burst. Hetland leads from Rotchev.

5:52 -- Gaillard and Dahl tangle a bit -- Hetland skis away with it, ahead of Rotchev! Gaillard DOES have one more burst in him and out-throws a flagging Jauhojaervi for 3rd. Positively Northug-esque! I'm surprised we haven't seen more from him sprinting before, he's got amazing closing speed.

5:54 -- That's all folks! I wasn't half as annoyed by the announcers as I'd hoped, although I have trouble believing his name is pronounced "North-oooog." Impressive sprinting from Cologna today, he's gotta be the favorite for the overall win as the other "leader" Teichmann missed the heats entirely. The women's side is still way too tight to call, although Virpi getting eliminated convincingly in the quarters was unexpected.

The Official Tour Favorites

Just before the Tour de Ski started, the FIS put out parallel lists of favorites for the Tour de Ski. The women's list went out of date immediately, being headed by Charlotte Kalla, who withdrew from the Tour the day before it started. For the record, though, here are the lists. (Click through for brief blurbs on each racer.)

Top Favorite
Charlotte Kalla

Virpi Kuitunen
Marit Bjorgen
Justyna Kowalczyk
Aino Kaisa Saarinen
Arianna Follis

Therese Johaug
Petra Majdic
Valentina Shevchenko
Kristin Stormer Steira
Marianna Longa

Top Favorite
Lukas Bauer

Martin Johnsrud Sundby
Alexander Legkov
Giorgio di Centa
Petter Northug
Pietro Piller Cottrer

Tor Arne Hetland
Marcus Hellner
Rene Sommerfeldt
Sami Jauhojarvi
Tord Asle Gjerdalen

Friday, December 26, 2008

Tour de Whee

The third Tour de Ski starts on Saturday in Oberhof, Germany, with the traditional short-distance prologue event: 2500 meters for the 51 registered women and 3750 meters for the 66 registered men. (A wonderfully complete set of course maps and profiles is available on the Tour website.)

Since its inauguration in 2006-07, the Tour de Ski has emerged as the most interesting event of the World Cup season. The Tours use time bonuses, pursuit starts (in which racers are seeded by time gaps in the general classification), and straight-up gimmicks like the "final climb" stage to mix long and short distances and classical and freestyle techniques in a way that restricts the overall title to the best all-rounders while still allowing specialists to capture some glory. That final stage is justly famous, or infamous: a freestyle climb up Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy, covering about 3000 meters of parcours and 425 vertical meters.

While maintaining the framework of the first and second editions, this year's Tour uses a refined method for assigning World Cup points to the Tour finishers: racers accrue points according to their position in the final standings (with the overall Tour champion getting a whopping 400 points) as well as half of the usual WC points for placing in the individual races - but they only keep their points if they finish the overall Tour.

Beyond all that, this season's event is interesting in a couple of ways. First, the 2008-09 Tour tries to split the difference between the earlier two Tours. Seven stages long, this season's Tour is one race shorter than last year's affair but one race longer than the inaugural event. As important as the length of the tour is the structure of it: four freestyle stages (including the first and last) and three classic stages. A considerable amount of the race distances are being skied in classic this year - 68% of the women's and 76% of the men's. Last year the percentages were closer to 50%, giving freestyle skiers like Charlotte Kalla an advantage relative to the all-rounders. This year's balance might give racers who are credible freestylers but superlative classicists a shot at the overall. I'm looking toward Eldar Roenning here.

Second, and complementarily, the field is more wide open than in past years: no clear World Cup favorite has emerged on either the men's or the women's sides. When the 2006-07 Tour opened, Tobias Angerer and Virpi Kuitunen were the clearly the strongest skiers on the circuit, and both won the inaugural Tour. Similarly, in 2007-08, Lukas Bauer and Kuitunen were ahead of the rest of the field, though Kuitunen's lingering back injury ultimately prevented her from holding off the emergent Charlotte Kalla in the last few kilometers of the grueling climb up Alpe Cermis (as live-blogged last year). This year, nobody is yet standing out as a dominant skier. What's more, of the top 10 male and female racers in the World Cup overall rankings - the only real proxy for Tour success - just three are skipping the Tour: Ola Vigen Hattestad (a sprint specialist) and Johann Olsson (a classical technician) on the men's side, Kalla (who is ill) on the women's. In other words, everyone's in.

As such, predictions of the general classification on Sunday, January 4, are even more provisional than in past years. Still and all, here are my picks, along with rationales:

men's overall
1. Teichmann (the only all-rounder in good form right now, and well ahead of his teammates Sommerfeldt and Angerer)
2. Hetland (just too big to win on the final climb)
3. Cologna (too young to win it all this year, but good at all distances)
4. Northug (great at any freestyle distance, not good enough at any classical distance)
5. Ronning (not quite good enough in freestyle to win it all)
North Americans: No Americans are entered in the Tour, but I can see both Babikov and Kershaw in the top 15, with Kershaw's sprinting skills pushing him up into the top 10.

women's overall
1. Saarinen (the best all-round racer right now, with enough guts to power up the final climb)
2. Bjoergen (also a great all-rounder, but just slightly behind Saarinen right now, and gimpy)
3. Kowalczyk (great at all distances and both techniques, but prone to tactical errors that screw up her chances)
4. Kuitunen ('06-'07 Tour champion, but still on the upward arc toward World Championships form)
5. Shevchenko (because she loves the Tour, and the final climb - but lacks the classical chops to win)
North Americans: Sara Renner will finish in the top 15 (no Americans are entered).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dusseldorf Team Sprints

Readers of this blog know that we love ourselves some ski throws. The end of today's men's team sprint offered a killer example. Here are Ola Vigen Hattestad and Tobias Fredriksson putting their best feet forward as they try to win the men's team sprint today in Dusseldorf:

As it happens, the win went to Hattestad, giving him four straight sprint wins (three individual events and this team event, paired with Tor Arne Hetland). Remarkable. Just out of frame, but evident in this (unembeddable) clip from Norwegian TV, is Andy Newell bringing the US team in for fourth. Fourth! That's almost third! In this case, third went to Russia's team of Petukhov and Morilov.

If you were wondering, these results line up well with my predictions the other day: I had Norway winning and Sweden in second. (Germany, which I tabbed for third, wound up twelfth.)

In the women's race, Russian Korosteleva and Matveeva skied strongly to take the win, edging the Norwegian team comprising the hot young Norwegian sprinters Brun-Lie (second at Davos) and Falla (third yesterday in the individual sprint). The German team of Nystad and Boehler took third, though only because Italy was DQ'ed for an illegal exchange. I had predicted the opposite order for those top two teams, and - assuming that Majdic would race on Sunday - picked Slovenia for third. Since Majdic did not race, SLO was slow, finishing 11th.

On to the Tour de Ski, which starts on Saturday with 3.0/3.3km freestyle prologues in Oberhof!

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Don't get into a drag race with Petra Majdic.

My podium picks were so-so. In picking Hattestad for second, I wrongly discounted his ability to win two straight races. I picked Morilov for third; he did make the final. Kjoelstad blew up and finished 44th. Nice race, Johan. On the other hand, I was not surprised to see Majdic win (as predicted), and I lucked out when Matveeva finished second, just as I thought. (As the video shows, she'll never overpower Majdic.) I expected an unknown Norwegian to finish third, and I was right - sorta: a different unknown Norwegian took the bronze.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Doozeldorf Picks

Since 2002, Dusseldorf's sprint races have been held in late October as the first stop on the World Cup calendar, a few weeks ahead of the first distance races in Scandinavia. This year, the Rhine races are the last tune-up before the Tour de Ski, which starts on December 27 in Oberhof, four hours east. Those eight days aren't very long, apparently, as practically everyone in the top tier of the World Cup is skipping Dusseldorf, leaving the field both anemic and open to domination by freestyle-sprint specialists.*

Over the half-decade of sprint races in Dusseldorf, Bjorn Lind and Pirjo Manninen/Muranen have captured a disproportionate number of podium spots: each has won twice (and Lind has another second). Both are on decent form so far this season, but it's probably no radical prediction to say that the men's podium is going to be owned, this year, by Norwegians: Hattestad, Kjoelstad, Dahl, and Hetland hold the top four men's sprint rankings. On the women's side, Celine Brun-Lie (who?) and Marit Bjoergen are three and five in the women's rankings, behind Majdic and Kowalczyk (Lina Andersson is in fourth). Beyond all that, practically everyone with any serious shot at the Tour de Ski is skipping Dusseldorf, even folks - Northug, Kuitunen, Saarinen, Cologna - who have real sprinting ability.* The TdS is more important than the 100 points for a win on the Rhine.

As such, my predictions:

men's freestyle sprint
1. Kjoelstad
2. Hattestad
3. Morilov
USA: Koos qualifies for the rounds, Newell makes the final.
CAN: Kuhn and Crooks qualify for the rounds.

women's freestyle sprint
1. Majdic
2. Matveeva
3. Brun-Lie
USA: Randall finishes in the top 10.
CAN: Nothing notable.

men's freestyle team sprint
1. Norway (team with Hattestad)
2. Sweden (team with Lind)
3. Germany (team with Wenzl)

women's freestyle team sprint
1. Norway (team with Brun-Lie)
2. Russia (team with Matveeva)
3. Slovenia (team with Majdic)

* Only one member of the men's overall WC top 10 is racing in Dusseldorf: Hattestad.
Cologna, Olsson, Northug, Jauhojarvi, Dahl (!), Johnsrud Sundby, Bauer, Piller Cottrer, and Teichmann are all skipping Dusseldorf. On the women's side, only Majdic is the only top-10 racer skiing at Dusseldorf, meaning that Saarinen, Bjoergen, Kuitunen, Kowalczyk, Steira, Follis, Kalla, Longa, and Shevchenko will all be absent.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Davos Sprint Recaps

One reason why nordic skiing is great: you can see chunks of the sprint races in Switzerland on the website of an Estonian tv network, with the Norwegian and Slovenian race winners giving their interviews in English.

Another, better reason: you can see extra-grainy, needlessly sountracked videos of the sprint finals on YouTube.

On the basis of the footage of the mens' final, I hereby submit that Ola Vigen Hattestad's speed is entirely due to the aerodynamic advantage created by the massive gap in his teeth.

On the other hand, Petra Majdic's new skating prowess is due to the fact that she is bigger, stronger, and more fit than all the other pipsqueak female racers. I hear that she eats Therese Johaug's weight in muesli every morning. For entertainment, watch Natalia Matveeva (Russia) slide all the way down the field. The contrast between Majdic and Matveeva on the last climb (ca. 3:40) is incredible.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Davos Sprint Picks

In the distance races, I hit the men's second-place finish on the head, picking Teichmann, and was close with Saarinen, who finished second even though I threw giant wads of good karma toward her by predicting a win. How to you say "ingrate" in Finnish?

Everyone else, I missed, though I was close with Kowalcyzk, who finished fourth after being tipped for second. The Norwegians, in particular, stunk, with Johaug - whom I thought was a freaking lock for top-five! - not even running, and Johnsrud Sundsby finishing fifteenth.

Among the the Nor-Am racers, George Grey came out of nowhere to finish 16th, ahead of all the other male racers, and was outdone only by Sara Renner, who bombed to a 9th place finish.

On the strength of that great race, I'm putting Renner in the mix for Sunday's sprints, the first freestyle sprints of the season.

women's freestyle sprint
1. Kuitunen (she finished second in a freestyle sprint here in 2006)
2. Kowalczyk
3. Renner
Randall qualifies but goes out in the semifinals.

men's freestyle sprint
1. Lind
2. Hetland
3. Trond Iversen
Koos and Newell qualify but go out in the rounds (quarters and semis, respectively); Kershaw also goes out in the semis.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Davos Picks (Updated)

Ahh, Davos - the simplest course on the World Cup: start at elevation, then go up, up, up before coming down. Repeat. Davos has staged a World Cup in all but two years since 1995, with Norway and Russia being overrepresented among the winners of the usual 10/15km individual races and a mix of relays and sprints.

There's something about the course that leads to dead heats. In both 2006 and 2007, one of the podium spots was shared: Aino-Kaisa Saarinen & Kristin Stoermer Steira tied for third in the 15km classic race in '07, and home-country boy Toni Livers and Vincent Vittoz tied for first in the men's 15km skate race in '06.

2007 results
women's 10km classic
1. Kuitunen
2. Skofterud
3. Saarinen & Steira

men's 15km classic
1. Teichmann
2. Hjelmeset
3. Jauhojarvi

The weather looks to be tricky for Saturday's individual races: temperatures near freezing, with falling snow. If it's a slopfest, anything could happen - but what's likely is that the classic-technique specialists will win out. My picks:

women's 10km classic (64 listed starters)
1. Saarinen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Johaug
Nor-Am racers: Renner in top 20

men's 15km classic (83 listed starters)
1. Soedergren
2. Teichmann
3. Roenning and Johnsrud Sundsby (gotta have that tie!)
Nor-Am racers: Kershaw in top 20, Babikov in top 10, Freeman in top 20

Note: Kristin Stoermer Steira, fresh off her breakaway win in the blizzard at La Clusaz last weekend, is registered to race the 10km at Davos on Saturday and the 42km freestyle La Sgambeda marathon on Sunday, 90 minutes southwest in Livigno, Italy. Prepping for the 30km classical at Worlds with some big kilometers? However, she's apparently now ill and may not do either race... Anders Aukland of Norway and Andrus Veerpalu of Estonia are also scheduled for the double.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


According to the FIS in late November:

Since Monday 17th November, it has been possible to produce man-made snow in Liberec (CZE). "As soon as the temperatures dropped below freezing, we started producing snow with 20 snow cannons and have since added others to the arsenal," commented Robert Heczko, manager of the Cross-Country area Vesec. In ideal conditions, fourteen days of snow production are required to create the necessary 30'000 m3 of snow to ensure coverage on all the competition courses at the venue.

In addition to artificial snow-making at both Vesec and the Jested Ski Jumping area, natural snow has fallen in the Liberec area, making it much easier for the Liberec 2009 organizing committee to prepare for its dress rehearsal, the DKB FIS Nordic Combined World Cup events, scheduled to be held in Liberec from 13th-14th December 2008.
This might have been a good sign, since last year's pre-Worlds events at Liberec were an utter disaster. Low snow forced organizers to replace the scheduled pursuits with "10" and "15" kilometer races that were really more like 8 and 11 kilometers long - multiple laps of a barren 1.8km course. (Andy Newell had some good pictures of the terrible conditions on his blog.). The scheduled team sprints did occur, albeit on the same horrible snow. If the cold weather keeps up, Katerina Neumannova and the rest of the Worlds organizers will be able to stockpile enough snow for all of the cross country and nordic combined events in February.

On the other hand, not two weeks later, the FIS canceled those "dress rehearsal" nordic combined races - lack of snow. However, according to the organizers, there's no cause for concern! Quoth Neumannova:
"We were snowing from the first day possible - and it looked optimistic. But a warm and wet weather front that followed after the cold period suddenly made it impossible to stage the cross-country part of the Nordic Combined World Cup at the Vesec ski stadium this weekend. However, this is no reason to be concerned about the World Championships - we are well prepared to produce snow at Vesec now that the weather forecast is improving again. And we have our plan B, and even a plan C," said Katerina Neumannova, President of the Liberec 2009 organizing committee.
God, I hope this works out.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

La Clusaz Relay Predictions

In the mass-start skate races, I had Saarinen the podium, albeit on place lower than her actual finishing spot (second), but missed all of the men's podium finishers (Dario Cologna? Really?). I did put the oldest man in the field, Giorgio di Centa, in third, while he actually finished fourth, in the same time as the third-place finisher. That should count for something!

Relay predictions:
men's 4x10km
Norway I (Northug on anchor)
Germany (whose team cannot suck as much as suggested by the individual race - no German in the top 10!)

women's 4x5km
Italy (three in the top 10 in the 15km)

Friday, December 5, 2008

La Clusaz Predictions

After two years away the World Cup returns to La Clusaz, France, the home town of French star Vincent Vittoz, for 15k/30k freestyle mass starts and relays (the second sets of relay events in three weeks). When the World Cup visited La Clusaz in December 2006, the podiums looked like this:

women's 15km freestyle mass start
close sprint finish
1. Virpi Kuitunen (FIN)
2. Riitta Liisa Roponen (FIN)
3. Arianna Follis (ITA)

men's 30km freestyle mass start
tight sprint finish
1. Tobias Angerer (GER)
2. Alexander Legkov (RUS)
3. Eugeni Dementiev (RUS)

women's relay
1. Germany (13-second win)
2. Sweden
3. Czech Republic

men's relay
1. Russia (24-second win)
2. Norway
3. Germany

This year, some good female racers are missing. Of the women in the top 20 of the distance rankings, Marit Bjoergen, Petra Majdic, Vibeke Skofterud, and Katerina Smutna aren't racing the 15km; Marthe Kristoffersen is also absent. Among the men in the distance-ranking top 20, Eldar Roenning, Andrus Veerpalu, and Vassili Rotchev are not racing the 30km.

Of course, this means plenty of racers are ready to mix it up in the first mass-start race of the year, and a good test for the 30km/50km mass starts at Worlds. My predictions:

women's 15km freestyle mass start
breakaway win in the last 2,000 meters
1. Charlotte Kalla (SWE)
2. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL)
3. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN)

men's 30km freestyle mass start
another bunch sprint finish
1. Marcus Hellner (SWE)
2. Pietro Piller Cottrer (ITA)
3. Giorgio di Centa (ITA)
(Kershaw, Babikov, and Freeman: all in the points, but outside the top 10 and the main finishing group.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

There Is No "Team" in Doping

It just wouldn't be the World Cup if we couldn't talk about doping.

At Kuusamo last weekend, Marit Bjoergen complained that Jarmo Riski, the personal trainer of Finnish stars Kuitunen and Saarinen, was present at the races. One might expect Herra Riski to want to see his racers in action, but unfortunately he was banned for life after the scandal of the 2001 Lahti World Championships, and as such can't attend events.

And then there are the rumors that the FIS knows of five high-level athletes who may be doping, but is refusing now to announce their names. Alleged to be among these five? Both Bjoergen and Kuitunen, who - as you expect - think the FIS oughta just shut up.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Kuusamo Distance Races

The Kuusamo sprints were great races. You can read Fasterskier's recaps of the men's and women's races or just watch the races themselves via Norwegian TV (men's race // women's race - and a clip of an interview in English with Majdic). Sad to see that Universal Sports has already cut their coverage of the World Cup, after just one weekend.

My predictions for the sprint were excellent for the winners, terrible for everyone else, but I'll pay this little mind and fearlessly offer these predictions for Sunday's races:

women's 10km classic
Justyna Kowalczyk (Pol)
Therese Johaug (Nor)
Petra Majdic (Slo)

men's 15km classic
Tobias Angerer (Ger)
Tor Arne Hetland (Nor)
Lukas Bauer (Cze)

Thursday, November 27, 2008


This week's World Cup venue in Kuusamo, Finland, is among the circuit's best stops. The terrain is old-school in the best way, the racing is almost always run in classical technique, and the Ruka stadium provides a memorable end to both the sprints and distance races, with a hard climb into the stadium, the famous lefthand turn around a goddamn tree right in the middle of the stadium, and then a drag-race straightaway to the finish line.

Last year's sprint and the 10km/15km distance races yielded some excellent competition. On Sunday, Marit Bjoergen won the women's distance race, showing a spark of form that burned out a few weeks later, while the young Norwegian Astrid Jacobsen took a surprise second place ahead of Justyna Kowalczyk (Poland). On the other hand, the men's 15km winner, Lukas Bauer (Czech Republic), launched himself toward the 2007-2008 World Cup title with a a win over Eldar Roenning (Norway), showing some distance ability to match his sprinting prowess, and Axel Teichmann (Germany), who had won the previous week's 15k skate race in Beitostoelen, Norway. (American Kris Freeman briefly held the lead but finished fifth, about a half-minute behind Bauer.)

Saturday's sprint, run over a swoopy course with a number of hard uphill and downhill corners, featured two come-from-behind wins sealed on the uphill into the stadium: Petra Majdic (Slovenia) chased down Astrid Jacobsen (Norway) to take the women's race, while Johan Kjoelstad (Norway) surged past Emil Joensson (Sweden) in the men's race. American Andy Newell fought hard throughout the men's final race, but ultimately finished in fourth.

2007 podiums
women's classical sprint
Petra Majdic (Slo)
Astrid Jacobsen (Nor)
Alena Prochazkova (Svk)

men's classical sprint
Johan Kjoelstad (Nor)
Emil Joensson (Swe)
Mats Larsson (Swe)

women's 10km classic
Marit Bjoergen (Nor)
Astrid Jacobsen (Nor)
Justyna Kowalczyk (Pol)

men's 15km classic
Lukas Bauer (Cze)
Eldar Roenning (Nor)
Axel Teichmann (Ger)

2008 predictions
women's classical sprint
Petra Majdic (Slo)
Marit Bjoergen (Nor)
Virpi Kuitunen (Fin)

men's classical sprint
Ola Vigen Hattestad (Nor)
Emil Joensson (Swe)
Eldar Roenning (Nor)
Andrew Newell (USA): in the final

(10km/15km predictions to come on Saturday...)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ball to the Wall

Anders Soedergren: free of cancer, and one testicle lighter.

Let the Armstrong-style domination of the World Cup commence.

(I hear he's lobbying the FIS to move the last stage of the Tour de Ski from Alpe Cermis in Italy to l'Alpe d'Huez in France.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gaellivare Relay Picks

I chose only two of the six podium finishers for the distance skate races, though even then I didn't get Bjoergen and Kalla in the right spots, so here goes nothing on the relays:

women's 4x5 relay
1. Norway I
2. Germany
3. Finland

men's 4x10 relay
1. Germany
2. Norway I
3. Sweden I

(Note I: the Americans are in the #10 bibs, running Newell, Cook, Freeman, Koos.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Gaellivare Picks

The World Cup season kicks off in about twelve hours with the 10/15km skate races in Gaellivare, Sweden. course map

My picks:

women's 10km freestyle
1. Marit Bjorgen
2. Charlotte Kalla
3. Claudia Nystad

men's 15km freestyle
1. Axel Teichmann
2. Tobias Angerer
3. Lukas Bauer

(Aside I: Compare these to a Swede's top-five picks...)
(Aside II: Why is Anders Soedergren not racing? [Later answer: he's having an operation that - if the online translator can be trusted - will remove a possibly-cancerous testicle. Jeebus. Get well soon, Anders! (Will this improve his sprinting? His power-to-weight ratio should improve, no?)])
(Aside III: Both Devon Kershaw and Kris Freeman will finish in the points.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fantasy Nordic

So, you think you're a nordic skiing fan. I mean, you read FasterSkier, maybe even Team Today, so you're pretty much an expert, right? You know Tobias Angerer won the World Cup. You know Petter Northug isn't going to lose a relay finish for the next 20 years. You know that Andy Newell is the first American to lead the FIS sprint points ranking in... forever.

Sure. You read the headlines. But...

1) Who scored more World Cup points in 2006-07, Torin Koos or Toby Fredrickson?
2) Tobias Angerer scored (a) 30% (b) 60% (c) 90% more points than 2nd place overall in the 2006-07 World Cup.
3) Which of the following skiers didn't win a World Cup Race in 2006-07: (a) Renato Pasini (b) Ole Einar Bjorndalen (c) Ola Vigen Hattestad (d) Tor Arne Hetland

Answers below.

Ok. At this point the random web surfer should have stopped reading. The casual nordic crowd, too. But you -- you sick freak -- you're probably wondering if I counted Bjorndalen's 15k skate victory at World Champs as a World Cup win for question 3.

I didn't. And it was Lars Berger... don't just lump all the biathletes together, jeez.

Anyway, you're a hardcore fan of nordic skiing. Me too. But it's the 2000's. Can you really call yourself a fan of something if you don't play the fantasy version of it? Come on now. At this point I'd bet your mom is playing Fantasy Football. I'm pretty sure I saw "Fantasy Tour de France" on Yahoo this year.

So you don't play Fantasy Nordic World Cup. You're not a fan -- hate to break it to you.

"But Colin," you say, "there is no such thing as Fantasy Nordic! I love the internet, I'd play it if it existed, I want Marit Bjoergen on my team soooo bad, but it Just. Doesn't. Exist."

That's where you're wrong, good buddy. Because it does now.

So if you're stoked to worry about things like "should I trade Seriana Mischol and Sara Renner for Jens Filbrich?" go make an account. If you have a bunch of nordic nerds friends you want to play with, that's even better. You can make a league, give it a password and only they can join. There's a bunch of other information on site, like how it actually works -- if your reaction to the phrase "Fantasy Nordic" is "whoa, that might be fun" go check it out. Draft starts next Monday!

So join me, in the rapture that is talking smack to someone because they overpaid for Vassili Rotchev (overhyped), Matty Fredriksson (over the hill), or any Norweigan sprint specialist.

The only rule is that you have to take the word "Beta" seriously here. Stuff is going to break. You must keep your e-composure no matter how badly you get screwed by my poor programming.

1)Torin Koos
2) (C)
3) (D)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bring on the Racing

In a convenient web-based calendar format, I mean.

With ten days to go until the season's first World Cups at Gaellivare, Sweden, I've created a public Google Calendar for many of the top-level cross-country ski racing circuits. So far, the calendar includes the World Cup, the Nordic Ski World Championships, the FIS Marathon Cup, and the Worldloppet. I'll try and add the SuperTour races later. Click here to access the calendar (and if you're using GCal, add it to your own calendar). You can also add the calendar to any iCal calendar application by clicking here, or access the XML here. Colin can explain what XML is. I think it has something to do with energy drinks.

Anyhow, let me know via comments if you have trouble with the calendar, ideas for improvements, or recommendations for other racing series to add. I hope this is useful to some of our vast readership.

And speaking of the vast readership, soon enough we'll post more stuff to actually read.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dope Days of Summer

Ahh, the doping news continues. A big group of top-level Russian track-and-field athletes were just banned from the Olympics (and other elite competitions) for apparently substituting other people's urine for their own samples. Interesting, but not surprising, given the history of Russian athletics. A recent New York Times article on the reconstruction of Russia's athletics infrastructure and organizations didn't mention the heritage of doping.

The big bust of Russians occurs, of course, just a few weeks after an otherwise-exciting Tour de France was marred again by dopers. Italian climber Riccardo Riccò - an avowed fan of the late, disgraced climber Marco Pantani - was the biggest name caught in the doping controls, right after a seemingly - then actually - unbelievable attack and stage win in the Pyrennees. He and others on his Saunier Duval team were caught after the World Anti-Doping Agency found them to be using a sophisticated new form of EPO. The new drug's maker may or may not have helped WADA devise a test for the drug, which Ricco thought was undetectable but has now admitted taking. Good on you, Riccardo. Way to be a man. I mean, you're as small as an elf, but way to be a good elf-man.

But enough about dryland sports! What about skiing? Happily, there's been only one drug bust lately, of a decidedly comic sort. According to no less a source than Swedish skier Anders Soedergren, the French sprinter Roddy Darragon - who won a surprising silver medal at the Torino games - was caught with good old marijuana in his luggage when he tried to enter Norway to attend the summertime "Blink" ski festival last month. (original Swedish-language blog post - English translation here)

To which I say, "Come on, Norway! Your cuisine gives everybody else nausea - are you gonna fault a guy for trying to keep his stomach calm before a big rollerski race?"

Friday, June 27, 2008

Yeah, That's Dope, G!

As June edges into July, we're probably nearing the peak of doping season. All over the world, cyclists are finishing up their EPO regimes in preparation for the Tour de France, which starts in about a week. And of course, Olympians of every nation are deep into their doping schedules, doctoring themselves with EPO, HGH, testosterone, or turtle soup.

At the other end of the syringe, so to speak, sporting organizations are trying to do more to combat doping in all its nefarious forms. Unfortunately, new research - from Denmark, which knows a bit about doping - has found that the tests for EPO - the drug of choice for endurance athletes - are highly unreliable. In other words, dope away; if you can't escape detection, you can probably discredit the test.

While EPO use is probably endemic, good old fashioned testosterone is still tripping up some athletes, too. In late May, the FIS inflicted its usual two-year ban on Maxim Odnodvortsev, who was found with a skewed ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone - just like our man Floyd Landis. Odnodvortsev was tested on Valentine's Day 2007, exactly two weeks after he won a 30km freestyle race in Jilin, China. That win came in an FIS race - one of the B-circuit events which are largely the province of up-and-comers or just plain slower national-team skiers. Odnodvortsev is clearly in the second category, a journeyman who was probably seeking the breakthrough results that would seal a spot on the KAZ team. Though he's been skiing on the World Cup since 2001, he has mostly skied on Kazakh relay teams; his best personal result on the World Cup was a twelfth-place finish at Holmenkollen in 2006. Odnodvortsev's ban extends to April 2010. Great job on missing the 2010 Olympics, Max!

On an equally - if not more - dismal level, Finnish skiing is still being contaminated with fallout from the scanda that erupted at the 2001 World Championships in Lahti, Finland. Earlier this spring, Kari-Pekka Kyrö, the former head coach of the Finnish national ski team, leveled public accusations that the Finnish national team had sponsored a long-term doping project for its elite athletes. Infamously, six Finnish skiers (including the current overall W.C. champ Virpi Kuitunen) were found to have been doping a discovery made after Kyrö himself left a bag of doping equipment at a gas station during the Lahti games.

The Finnish Ski Association (FSA) countered Kyrö's allegation by saying that the only "dope" its racers were offered was baking powder, a ridiculous claim that perhaps contributed to the decision by the Finnish equivalent of the FBI to re-investigate the doping accusations. Shortly thereafter, another member of the FSA coaching staff admitted that the organization purchased doping agents for use by national-team skiers at the 2001 championships.

Though the cases are seven years old now, there is a great deal at stake. Not only is Finnish skiing finally on a firm upswing, with Virpi Kuitunen the current World Cup overall champion and a number of good female and male racers placing well, but Jari Piirainen, whom Kyrö identified as "the commander of the doping company" when he was the head of cross-country skiing at the FSA from 1989 to 1997, is currently the managing director of the entire FSA. Piirainen has a lot to lose if Kyrö's claims are borne out.

Kyrö, on the other hand, has probably lost everything he can lose: not only was he fired from the FSA for his role in the 2001 scandal, but he was the only coach sanctioned by the FIS for the Lahti escapades. Just this spring, Kyrö was implicated in a new doping case, when Kaisa Varis, whom he has coached, was banned for a second time. (Her first ban came through the 2001 scandal.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Art of the Ski Throw

Nordic skiing is arguably the sport where the finish-line-lunge makes the biggest potential difference. Every sport seems to have a potential finishing move, from the bike throw, to the sprinting lean, to that silly thing alpine skiers do with their pole to break the laser 0.005 seconds earlier. Each of these moves have an effect, and can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing, but none of them can compete with the nordic ski throw in terms of ground made up. A good (tall) skier throwing can gain nearly 3 feet of reach over where he would have been without the throw.

If you have never practiced a ski throw, but think you'll "just be able to do it" when you're barreling toward the line, heart in your throat, dead even with a competitor -- you're almost definitely wrong. The most likely outcome in that case is this:
It's close, but the skier at the bottom has won this heat with a gorgeous ski throw despite being behind by a foot or more at the line (2007 Junior Olympics).

The fundamentals of the ski throw are simple, yet easily missed in the heat of the moment. Let's review them.

The overarching goal of the motion you are making is to get one toe as far ahead of your center of mass as possible. Obviously, then, one leg must be extended as straight and as low as possible. Beyond that, your shoulders need to be falling backward. Leaning forward moves your center of mass closer to your toe, so even though you might feel like you want to reach for the line with your head, don't do it! Lay back as much as possible.

Here we see Ola Vigen Hattestad and Boerre Naess employing the backwards lean to full effect in a semifinal at the 2008 Drammen World Cup.
Beyond the torso going backward, what should you do with your other leg? This seems to be where the two techniques of the perfect ski throw diverge. In an ideal world, your back leg reaches straight out behind you, moving your center of mass as far back as possible. The problem is, you're only human. Your hips have limits, and you can't simultaneously lean back with your torso and completely stretch the leg out. Somewhere you must compromise -- full lean or leg outstretched?

Here we see Harry Poole (top) narrowly defeating an unknown skier at the 2007 Junior Olympics, with both electing to stretch their back legs at the expense of falling backwards.

This is the safer of the two techniques, because you can hold this position while you glide. Throwing too early with this particular form is not a problem, because even if you reach full extension 5 feet before the line you will slide across with no decrease in speed.

Sometimes, however, you're an unknown Polish guy throwing against one of the tallest Scandinavians, in Scandinavia, when he's in contention for the sprint World Cup title. In that case, you have to pull out all the stops. Bend your back leg under your hips and throw your torso and arms back as far as possible.
Maciej Kreczmer over Trond Iversen, Stockholm World Cup Sprint 2007

This one is so close you might think Iversen (right) is advancing, but Kreczmer's boot is actually further over the line, it's just a bit airborne.

The risk with this technique is that you have to time it perfectly, as maximum extension comes only a few tenths of a second before striking the ground. Throw too early, and you'll hit the ground before the line, wasting all your efforts.

Nevertheless, when it really matters, it's the only way to go.

All of the pictures we've looked at so far were of classic sprinting -- throwing while skating appreciably harder, as the motion doesn't extend easily to a stretch and the boots have a less free ankle. Sometimes the results are an awesome tie for gold:
Thomas Alsgaard ties Frode Estil for gold in the 10k Pursuit, 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics

And sometimes they are slightly more comedic:
Josh Peterson (Wyoming) over John Erickson (Cornell) despite a lactate-induced loss of coordination, 2006 USCSA National Champs Relay

I believe the best way to throw while skating is to take your final stride straight towards the line and lean/stretch as far as your boots allow. I would like to experiment with placing the back ski in line with the front (just like a classic ski throw), but you never see this on the world cup, which suggests that the excessive movement and lack of a final push make it suboptimal.

Here we see two biathletes lunging, one of whom tries this technique:
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen vs Raphael Poiree, Angle 1

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen vs Raphael Poiree, Angle 2

From the poor form (Bjoerndalen leaning waaaay forward, Poiree not getting much extension), I think we can conclude that even elite athletes cannot ski throw well without practicing -- and apparently biathletes don't practice it!

Two guys that do practice are Vassili Rotchev and Andy Newell:
Vassili Rotchev def. Andy Newell, Oberstdorf World Cup 2007

This is from the famous sprint final where Newell thought he had 3rd place (and his first podium) wrapped up, and made the mistake of looking back to check, eventually losing by the tiny margin shown above.

To summarize, ski throwing looks awesome and is awesome. If you haven't practiced it, you should, and then you'll be as awesome as Odd-Bjoern:

Odd-Bjoern Hjelmset over Jon Kristian Dahl, Drammen World Cup 2008

Here's a collection of some other good ski-throwing pictures. If you have any I've not listed here, send them in! You can leave a comment or send an email to colin.reuter@gmail.com. We'll definitely do another "best of ski throwing" post in the future.

Alex Harvey def. Zach Violett, 2006 (?) Spring Series Team Sprint, Fort Kent, ME

Canadian kids can ski throw too!

Tore Ruud Hofstad throwing for unknown reasons, about a mile behind Per Elofsson, 2003 World Champs Double Pursuit

Unknown Scandinavian skiers.

Unknown Scandinavian Cup Finish

Martin Koukal (CZE) over Christian Zorzi (ITA) and a disinterested Marcus Hellner (SWE), 2007 Davos World Cup Relay

Monday, June 16, 2008

Worlds 2013

In late May, at the International Ski Congress (held this year in that well-known ski village, Cape Town, South Africa), the FIS chose sites for the 2012 and 2013 World Championships. Val di Fiemme, Italy, was selected as the host for the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships. By winning the right to host Worlds for the third time, the South Tyrol valley beat out some of the usual nordic candidate sites - Falun, Sweden, and Lahti, Finland - as well as Oberstdorf, Germany, and Zakopane, Poland.

Val di Fiemme - or rather, the hamlet of Lago de Tesero, where the ski stadium is located - has hosted the nordic worlds twice before: in 1991 and in 2003. The 1991 event was only the third time that the Nordic World Ski Championships were held outside northern Europe - in 1927, the championships were held in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and in 1950, they were held in the United States at Lake Placid, New York, and Rumford, Maine.

The 1991 championships were notable for being the first since 1939 in which a single German team competed, East and West Germany having reunited in 1989, and for being the last champs in which the Soviet Union fielded a team, the USSR breaking up later in 1991. No German cross-country skiers medaled, but Soviet skiers did quite well: Yelena Välbe won four medals (golds in the 10km free, 15km classical, and 4x5km relay and silver in the 30km free), Vladimir Smirnov won a bronze in the 15km free and a silver in the 30km classical, and two other female skiers medaled in the 10km and 30 km free. Not a bad way to go out.

The host country, by contrast, managed five medals by some of its great racers: Maurilio de Zolt took bronze in the 50km free, Manuela Di Centa took bronzes in the 5km classical and 30km free, Stefania Belmondo won bronze in the 15km classical, and the women's relay team earned a silver, 1:14 down to the winning Soviets. Predictably, the Norwegians and Swedes were very well represented on the podium. On the women's side, Trude Dybendahl took three medals (gold in the 5km classical by 7/10ths of a second over Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi of Finland, silver in the 15km classical, and bronze in the relay) and Marie-Helene Westin won a silver in the 10km freestyle.

It was on the men's side that one nation truly dominated: Sweden. Torgny Mogren collected an amazing haul - a bronze in the 10km classical, a silver in the relay, and a gold in the 50km free - and yet was outdone by his teammate Gunde Svan. Near the height of his powers, Svan took silvers in the relay, 15km freestyle, and the 50km freestyle and a gold in the 30km classical. Amidst all these medalists in Swedish white, a young Norwegian racer named Bjoern Daehlie asserted himself by skiing to a gold in the 15km freestyle and handling the anchor leg of the winning relay team. These were Daehlie's first medals at Worlds or the Olympics; he added 27 more medals before retiring after the 1999 Ramsau Worlds.

Twelve years later, Val di Fiemme's 2003 Worlds were notable for the fact that not a single Italian skier medaled in any of the twelve cross-country events. Fourteen medals were won by Norwegian skiers, including gold in the men's relay and silver in the women's. That women's relay was marred by doping: the Finnish team which finished second to a surprising German quartet was disqualified when Kaisa Varis tested postive for EPO. (Varis's violation only darkened the blot on Finnish skiing, which had been humiliated just two years earlier when numerous Finnish skiers tested positive at their home-snow Worlds in Lahti.) Individually, Bente Skari took golds in the two classical races, and her teammate Marit Bjoergen won the sprint event.

Bente Skari and Kristin Smigun on their way to a 1-2 finish in the 15k mass start classical

But the women's racing was reallly dominated by two racers. Winning gold in the 30km free and bronzes in the pursuit and 15km classical mass start, Russian Olga Savialova amassed a splendid collection of hardware, yet couldn't outdone the Estonian Kristina Smigun, who medaled in all but one of the five individual events: a bronze in the 30km free, silvers in the 15km classical mass start and 10km classical, and, after outsprinting Evi Sachenbacher and Savialova, a gold in the 5km+5km pursuit, being run for the first time as a "continuous" race.
Smigun winning the 5k+5k pursuit

The men's side of the '03 champs was largely a battle between Sweden and Norway. In fact, only three individual medals went to anyone else: Axel Teichmann of Germany and Jaak Mae of Estonia took gold and silver in the 15km classical, and Martin Koukal won a suprising gold in the 50km free. Every other podium spot went to a Norwegian or a Swede. The two biggest names in the races each came away with only one individual medal each, albeit both gold. Sweden's great hope, Per Eloffson, won the 10km+10km double pursuit in a seven-man sprint; Tore Ruud Hofstad (Norway) and Jörgen Brink (Sweden) took the other podium spots; the top seven racers finished were covered by just 1.5 seconds, and the medalists by just 4/10ths of a second.
Elofsson wins the 10k+10k Double Pursuit

In an almost equally tight race, Norwegian Thomas Alsgaard, fighting illness, came in first in the 30km classical race, a mass start which was closeover all 30,000 meters. Alsgaard finished a scant 6/10ths of a second up on Anders Aukland and just 1.1s up on Frode Estil, making for a Norwegian clean sweep. Estil also took bronze in the 15km. None of the Norwegian distance men performed to their ability in the 50km freestyle, ceding the silver and bronze spots to Anders Södergren and Jörgen Brink of Sweden.
Alsgaard leading the Norwegian sweep in the 30k

It was in the men's relay that the 2003 World Championships had its defining moment. Right in the thick of the race over the two classical legs, Sweden finally pulled away during the first skating leg, with Per Elofsson putting eleven seconds into the field over his 10,000 meters. Elofsson gave his anchorman, Jörgen Brink, an eleven second gap over Russia and nearly 25 staggering seconds over Norway and Germany. The race was all but over, and seemed so until the last 2500 meters. Then it changed abruptly and unbelievably: on one of the last few hills, Brink bonked - in a 10km, the shortest distance male skiers race! - and let Alsgaard of Norway and Axel Teichmann of Germany surge past. A top-notch finisher, Alsgaard toyed with Teichmann right into the final straight, then edged out front for the 0.2-second win. Video of the crucial moments:

We can only hope for such good racing in 2013.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Race Revisions, part I: Uphill Battles

In this fan's opinion, the International Ski Federation has done a good job of developing new race formats for the elite tier of cross-country skiing - the World Cup, World Championships, and Winter Olympic Games. The now-common mass start to races of all distances is perhaps the most important innovation, but the mass start complements two "new" race formats: the individual sprints, run in both techniques over distances that vary from less than a thousand meters up to about 1500 meters, and the pursuit (a.k.a. skiathlon), using both techniques during a fairly long race, most commonly, two 7.5km courses for women or 15km courses for men.*

With these two race formats now reliable - and, I think, exciting - parts of the racing calendar, the time was ripe in 2005 for the FIS to do a bit more experimenting by developing the "Tour de Ski" (so far held in the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 World Cup seasons) and, at the end of last season, the "mini tour" or "Grand Final."

As run so far, the Tour and Grand Final are, in essence, just radically compressed sets of races: respectively, seven or so discrete events staged over a week and a half and three races in three days. The TdS and GF have included a few twists such as "hunter-style" pursuits in which winning one day's race gives a skier a head start in the next day's race and, even more interestingly, the Tour's "Final Climb" - a colossally demanding distance race up a serious alpine slope, the Alpe Cermis, in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

Though it's still early days for the Final Climb as a tradition, the race has already started to acquire an aura that is matched - or, honestly, exceeded - only by the annual Holmenkollen marathon in Oslo. And no wonder: the Final Climb makes for compelling television, imposes heavy physical demands on racers (in 2007-2008, they had raced seven times in nine days), and promises to shake up the final standings of the Tour de Ski. In January, the women's climb in fact decided the Tour de Ski champion, when the young Swede Charlotte Kalla chased down and then skied away from the then-leader, Virpi Kuitunen of Finland.

Given all this, I think the FIS - and national and regional skiing organizations - ought to capitalize on the hillclimb idea. At the top level, adding a few more hillclimbs to the World Cup calendar, and maybe even to a World Championships or Olympics (if local geography permits it), would go a long way toward making XC skiing stand out as a uniquely grueling sport.

Happily, there seems to be mounting (ha!) interest in hillclimbs as a form of racing distinct from other distance events, such as, say, plain old hilly courses like those at Torino or Canmore. The 10km Horgi Opp race in Norway attracts some big names each April: the 2007 race saw Kristen Skjeldal take the win and wondergirl Therese Johaug finish seventh ahead of some top-notch men, while Anders Soedergren and Marthe Kristoffersen won their respective races in 2008.

There are probably a few other hillclimbs in Europe, but North America saw at least two such events last winter. Out west, the University of Utah staged the "Ski Up" race at the Snowbird resort in April, and out east, the Great Glen Trails in New Hampshire held the 10km "Ski to the Clouds" race in March. Elite skiers won both events: Josh Smullin and Wendy Wagner took the men's and women's Ski Up and Justin Freeman (like Wagner, an ex-Olympian) and Kelsey Allen won the men's and women's Ski to the Clouds. These two winter events followed on the "Climb to the Castle” rollerski race in New York last fall, which included just about every top-tier American ski racer. (Here in the Midwest, we're probably just looking for a big enough hill. We need someone in northern Minnesota or one of the river valleys to stage something like these races...)

Sure, these hillclimbs are few in number - so far. But with more buzz around the Final Climb of the Tour de Ski, and some luck in having that particular race actually matter to the Tour, we could soon see more of these races. In fact, the "father of the Tour de Ski," Vegard Ulvang, recently announced a plan to hold a "Tour of Barents" stage race in northernmost Europe. Among the planned events? A pursuit which will include two ascents of a 520-meter ski slope with a vertical difference of 140 meters.

This is good stuff, and suggestive of possible ways to vary the hillclimb. Mass starts versus interval starts or time trials, perhaps? Climbs followed by descents? Descents followed by climbs? Races that start at the very bottom of the climb, versus races that include some preliminary flats? A hillclimb championship each April? How about a pursuit that requires racers to swap equipment halfway up the slope? (Herringbone heaven!) Or a race up another fabled slope - L'Alpe d'Huez, anyone?

Perhaps - or certainly - the FIS need not go to any of those extremes in order to capitalize on the unique opportunity that I think the hillclimb format offers. Hell, just making sure to stage it at the end of each Tour de Ski - and maybe to plug one more such race into the regular World Cup calendar - would go a long way toward building more interest in and enthusiasm for the special character of our sport.

* Team sprints, a third new-ish race format, have so far been used too infrequently to really matter as a uniquely demanding event. According to the FIS calendar, the TSP has only been run 15 times on the World Cup since 1996, and has only been part of the big events for three scant years, having been staged at the '05 Worlds in Oberstdorf, the '06 Olympics in Torino, and the '07 Worlds in Sapporo. In other words, I think the jury is still out as to whether the TSP is still an experiment or should be considered on a par with the individual sprint or pursuit - much less the traditional races like the 10km/15km individual starts.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Anders Södergren vs Gravity: Mordarbacken Power Output

February 23, 2008, Falun, Sweden. There are just over two kilometers remaining in the Men's 30k Double Pursuit, and Anders Södergren has a problem.

Södergren is the best distance skier in Sweden, and the course is lined with thousands of screaming Swedes, hoping that can win one for the home team. The pursuit has played out like most World Cup mass starts do -- there is a lead group of twenty or so skiers still in contention. Many of them are barely hanging on -- but if they can make it to the last 500m, anything can happen in the final sprint. And that's where Södergren's problem is. He's one of the worst sprinters on the World Cup circuit, and if he enters the stadium with any of his 19 traveling companions, he is likely to disappoint the screaming masses.

Södergren's only chance is to get away on field's last trip over the Mordarbacken (literally, "Murder Hill"), one of the steepest extended climbs on the circuit. He leads the field as they reach the bottom of the climb. He has no choice but to attack from the front, and ski it as hard as he dares after an hour of racing.

[ Photo by oskarlin ]

Södergren punishes the field mightily. Over the top of the climb he has a 5.1 second lead over the World Cup overall leader, Lukas Bauer, with the rest of the field is disarray behind him. On the descent, his five second lead means he has over 50 meters of free space over Bauer. To the casual observer, he has won the race.

But Södergren has skied too hard. Despite the brief recovery afforded by the descent, he's unable to keep his work rate high enough to hold his lead. He's caught first by Bauer, and then by Norway's Tore Asle Gjerdalen. He enters the stadium with these two men, and as the sprint starts it is clear Södergren has nothing left, his muscles saturated with lactic acid and his spirit broken after being caught. He coasts in well behind the other two for third place.

While Södergren ultimately failed to win the pursuit, his ascent of the Mordarbacken was truly impressive, as he had been leading the field for several kilometers before the climb and, despite this, managed to best all challengers by five seconds in under two minutes of climbing.

The video from the race can be seen (WCSN subscription required) here, around 70 minutes into the broadcast.

Mordarbacken rises 72m in about 500m of skiing, (course profile), giving it an average grade of 14.4%. Södergren scaled it in 1:48, an average speed of 16.6 kph (4.61 meters per second).

But, just how fast is this? If you started racing Södergren at the base of the climb, completely fresh, could you have made it to the top with him? After all, he had just skied for an hour, and had to leave enough in reserve to make it to the finish. So just how fast is World Cup Attack Pace?

The best tool for measuring this is power output, a subject that should be familiar to all cyclists. We shall determine how many watts Södergren averaged during this effort -- and then we have a single number to describe how hard he was skiing, that can be compared to any other physical activity.

Södergren's first opponent during the climb is gravity. 72 meters is roughly 22 stories, which means he was climbing a story every five seconds. Imagine running up a stairwell, hitting a new floor every five seconds, for 22 stories -- that's the effort he's putting out.

Since Södergren weighs 78 kilos according to his webpage. He's also wearing top of line skis, boots, and poles, and wearing a full race suit (and the corresponding clothing underneath). Assuming these accessories weigh about 2kg, Södergren moves 80 kg total from the top of the hill to the bottom.

We can use the potential energy equation to see how much work this is:
PE = mgh.

As mentioned before, m = 80kg, g = 9.8 m/s/s, and h = 72m. With these numbers, we find that moving 80 kg to the top of Mordarbacken is worth 56448 joules of potential energy.

However, an 80kg spectator can also walk up the hill in ten minutes, and generate the same potential energy, which is clearly no athletic accomplishment. We need to account for time to get a true picture. Thus we invoke the power equation:

Power = Energy/Time

With Energy = 56448 J and Time = 108 seconds, we get a power output of 522.7 watts.

Any cyclist who owns a power meter will immediately recognize that to be a very big power output.

Unfortunately for Södergren, gravity is not the only problem he must contend with -- snow is far from being a frictionless surface! He undoubtedly has the best wax money can buy on his skis, but it is a warm day (5 C), and no wax can completely remove friction. Thus he has energy sapped from him with every stride by the very medium that allows his sport to exist -- the snow!

To find out how much work he must do against friction, we can use the equation for kinetic friction:

Friction Force = (mu)N, where N is the normal force between a body and the surface friction is being calculated with, and mu is coefficient of friction.

While Södergren is on an incline, he is also digging his ski edges in to prevent slipping backward. We can assume that his normal force is directly onto the snow and thus is equal to mg, or 80 kg * 9.8 m/s/s. This gives a normal force of 784 N.

Next we must calculate the coefficient of friction for a ski waxed with pure flouro on those snow conditions. Unfortunately, there is no way to know what this number is. The most quoted number online for the coefficient of a waxed ski is 0.05 -- but this number comes from a 1976 study. Surely ski waxes have improved since then -- we will tentatively assume that modern pure flouros are twice as good as that, and give him mu = 0.025.

Plugging this in, we find a friction force of (784 * 0.025) 19.6 N. Multiplying this by his rate of speed (4.61 m/s) gives 90.3 W -- thus, he is losing 90 W to the snow he is gliding on.

As he is overcoming snow resistance and gravity simultaneously, we can say that he is putting out (90.3 + 522.7 W) 623 W as he climbs the hill.

But wait! Södergren is not exercising in a vacuum. In exchange for not dying of asphyxiation, he must also overcome air resistance as he skis. At high speeds, this can be a huge limiter, but Södergren is only skiing at a little over 16.6 kph.

To calculate his aerodynamic drag, we can use this equation:

Drag Force = 1/2 r Cd A V^2

Where r = viscosity of the substance being penetrated, Cd = coefficient of drag, A = frontal area, and V = speed.

For air at sea level and 0 C, r = 1.293. It's a bit warmer than that in Falun, and slightly above the ocean, but 1.293 is probably very close.

For the coefficient of drag, we'll rate Södergren at 0.34, which is comparable to a Ferrari F360 Modena (or a Ford Sierra!). In any case, the human body is probably not more aerodynamic than a vehicle specifically engineered against drag.

For his frontal area, we will estimate him at 1.5m high and 0.4m wide. 1.5m is obviously a bit short, but his head is considerably narrower than the rest of his body, so we'll model him as a 1.5m x 0.4m rectangle (arms at his sides) an assume the area of his head makes up for the fact that his legs aren't as wide and torso + arms. In any case, a frontal area of 0.6 square meters is reasonable.

Plugging all these numbers in gives us
(0.5)*(1.293)*(0.6)*(0.34)*(4.61^2) = 2.8 N of aerodynamic drag. Compared to everything else, air resistance is pretty negligible. Nevertheless, multiplying this force by his speed gives us an extra (2.8 * 4.61 =) 12.9 W of power that must be generated to cancel out wind resistance.

Adding all these terms together gives us a average power output of 635.9 W, which Södergren sustained for 108 seconds. This might only be 0.85 of a horsepower, but it's enough to power 12-25 laptops. And more importantly, it gives us the final number that we can compare with other athletic accomplishments.

The sport that has the most power data available for it is cycling, so it is what we shall compare against. Lance Armstrong is often quoted as putting out 500 watts for 20 minutes during climbs in the Tour de France, however, this seems ridiculously high. Bradley McGee's recent 4000m pursuit world record (3 minutes and 30 seconds) was quoted at being 530+ watts.

Both of these comparisons have lower wattage numbers, but are for longer durations. Another resource we can compare with is Dr. Andrew Coggan's watts/kg profile table (here), which shows the watts/kg that athletes of varying fitness levels can sustain for various durations. Södergren's watts/kg come out to be 8.15 -- the highest level on that chart shows a world class cyclist can theoretically put out 11.5 w/kg for 60 seconds and 7.6 w/kg for 5 minutes. Södergren's achievement of 8.15 w/kg when not rested and continuing after clearly put him in the "world-class" range of athlete.

But we already knew this. Looking at the chart linked, we can run down the "1 minute" column to find the type of person that can sustain 8.15 w/kg for 60 seconds. This person could ski with Södergren for a minute (starting fully rested, at the bottom of Mordarbacken) and would crack just over halfway up -- just before the steepest part. Sound like you? The chart rates this guy as a "Jersey Rider" -- that is, someone who is a local bike racer. I believe the analogous class of ski racer would be "citizen racer" -- so if you fancy yourself as better than a decent citizen racer, congratulations, you could hang at least a minute with Anders Södergren!

To make it to the top with him (starting fresh, and collapsing at the line), you'll have to be better still. We see that a mid level international rider can put out 9.7 W/kg for 60 seconds and 6 w/kg for 5 minutes. Interpolating and recognizing the non-linear nature of sustaining power, I'd wager this guy can probably hold 8.15 w/kg for almost 2 minutes. This person compares well with the average college skier -- an exceptional athlete, trains year round, but still a few rungs below world class. So a college skier can make it up Mordarbacken with Södergren, as long as he doesn't ski 28k first and doesn't have to make it to the finish line.

And who could actually make it 28k with the lead pack, then put out 8.15 w/kg for 2 minutes, and then make it to the finish? We know the answer to that -- Anders Södergren.

Of course, Södergren's charge ultimately left him short of the finish. I think it's safe to say that his effort was too hard, and the price he paid for such power output was a corresponding loss of power over the final kilometer.

But the man can't sprint. He had to try. It was good enough to drop all but two of the best skiers in the world -- and it would have killed you or me.