Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tour de Ski Prologue Picks

Others have already weighed in with picks for tomorrow's mostly-flat Tour de Ski prologue (course profile available here), but by god I have to offer my one-fiftieth of a dollar, too.


men's 3.7km freestyle prologue
1. Northug
2. Legkov
3. Teichmann

women's 2.8km freestyle prologue
1. Nystad
2. Kowalczyk
3. Follis

And while I'm at it, picks for the overall TdS podiums:

men
1. Northug
2. Legkov
3. Cologna

women
1. Kowalczyk
2. Follis
3. Steira

Hoffmann: Busted (?)

From that well-known ski-news site, the Malaysian Mirror:

Austria's 2002 Olympic 30 kilometres cross country skiing champion Christian Hoffmann was suspended with immediate effect on Thursday by the Austrian Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) over suspicions he is involved in a blood-doping ring.
Let the record show that we were on this story a long time ago.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Original Plans for the Tour de Ski

A couple days ago, I dug up an old video of the men's relay at the 2005 Oberstdorf World Championships, which is a great race* but which also included a little preview by Jürg Capol (then and now the race director for FIS cross-country skiing events) of what was still being described as a ski version of the Tour de France. Said Capol:
I guess today it's a little bit difficult to find out who is the best - really the best - cross-country skiers. Is it the one who goes fast in the sprint, or is it the 50k man, or whoever it is? And as we can see in cycling, they have this Tour de France which extends over all the rest of the season as the biggest highlight. And there you can see all the big names, if it's Mr. Zabel [who] takes part or Mr. Armstrong… [The ski tour] will mostly be some several stages... Now the plans [are] that we would have a prologue, a kind of a prologue in Munich with a a 3 to 5 kilometer prologue. And we would have a team event in Reit im Winkl. We would have a kind of pursuit here, in Oberstdorf. We would go to Zurich for a skate sprint. We would have a king-of-the-mountain in Davos, that means an Alpe d'Huez… where the finish is higher up than the start line. We would go to Italy and have some mass starts and another sprint. And then we end up on the last stage as we can start in all pursuits [sic] with the first coming to the finish, he will win the overall tour.
Capol added that the FIS planned to award the top 30 finishers of each stage the same number of points as a regular World Cup race, and that he expected women to race a total of about 4.5 hours over the entire tour, men about 5.5 hours.

The former prediction sorta came to pass. In the first year of the TdS (2006-2007), racers only received WC points at the end of the Tour, based on the final overall standings (at a rate of four times the usual points, so that first place yielded 400 points, 2 yielded 320, etc.). In subsequent years - including this one - finishers have received half the usual WC points for each individual event and then more points at the end of the Tour based on overall ranking.

Capol's latter prediction sure didn't come to pass. The three Tours de Ski so far have all put the athletes through far fewer hours of racing than Capol's original expectation:

2006-2007 - six stages
Angerer: 3:29:49.7 (last finisher: 3:51)
Kuitunen: 2:20:15.3 (last finisher: 2:44)

2007-2008 - eight stages
Bauer: 3:38:07.4 (last finisher: 4:11)
Kalla: 2:43:01.0 (last finisher: 3:11)

2008-2009 - seven stages
Cologna: 2:56:05.4 (last finisher: 3:24)
Kuitunen: 2:06:41.4 (red lantern: 2:19)

*The 2005 Oberstdorf men's relay was very entertaining. A sizable pack held together for about half of the first leg, at which point Hjelmeset made the race's big selection by trimming the lead group down to just four: himself, Filbrich, Pankratov, and Di Centa. Early in the second leg, Estil and Rotchev cut the group in half, establishing a 1-minute lead over four chasers. On the third leg, Berger and Dementiev stayed out front until late, when Berger accelerated to open a narrow 2.7s gap for Hofstad (remember him?) over Russia's Bolchakov. Hofstad methodically and easily extended the lead to take the win by 17.7s.

The real race happened behind Hofstad. Teichmann started his anchor leg 95s down to Berger, 93s down to Bolchakov in second, and 39s down to Zorzi in third. But Teichmann pushed and pushed, and on the last lap around the 3.3km track, he caught Zorzi on the biggest climb, and then closed on Bolchakov as they entered the stadium. There, in front of thousands of cheering German fans, Teichmann outsprinted the Russian to take the silver - Germany's first medal at the home-snow Worlds. So overcome with emotion was Axel that he subtly pumped his fist as he crossed the line. (The next day Teichmann paired with Angerer for silver in the team sprint.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rogla Wreck

As I should have expected given the venue's mascot,


getting any picks right was devilishly hard this weekend. Rogla saw some wacky stuff, from reportedly poor track prep in the sprints to Saarinen getting DQ'ed for knocking Majdic down in the 15k and massive attrition in the 30k (3 DNSs and 19 DNFs). Below, my picks with the racer's actual finishing spots in parentheses.

women's classic sprint
1. Majdic (3)
2. Prochazkova (30)
3. Saarinen (5)
Randall: semifinals (38); Renner: heats (37)

men's classic sprint
1. Hattestad (21)
2. Kriukov (4)
3. Dahl (31!)
Newell: finals (6); Koos & Harvey: heats (46 & 35, respectively)

women's classic 15k mass start
1. Bjørgen (2)
2. Kowalczyk (1)
3. Majdic (7)
Renner and Randall: top 30 (24 and 30, respectively)

men's classic 30k mass start
1. Northug (1)
2. Angerer (11)
3. Jauhojärvi (DNF! WTF!)
Freeman: top 10 (DNF); Harvey: top 15 (22)

Based on Legkov's racing form so far, I'm predicting he wins the Olympic 50 after the Russian squad runs Northug into the ground with breakaways and such. First, though, it's Tour de Ski time - just 11 days until the prologues at Oberhof on New Year's Day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Rogla

Tobi Angerer on a sprint podium, huh? Okay. It's happened before on the World Cup: two freestyle individual-sprint bronzes in 2003 at Reit im Winkl and 2007 Rybinsk (both in freestyle) and freestyle team-sprint medals in 2006 at Sapporo, 2004 at both Duesseldorf and Oberstdorf, and in 2003 again at Duesseldorf. On top of that, he has a silver in the team sprint at Liberec this year. Not shabby, and more importantly a good sign he'll be in fightin' shape 29,800 meters into Sunday's classic race of many laps (12, to be exact about it) - though it seems very, very likely that he'll trail at least one particular dude over the finish line. My picks:

men's classic 30k mass start
1. Northug
2. Angerer
3. Jauhojärvi

Freeman: top 10; Harvey: top 15

Speculation elsewhere about the Russians showing up in force seems misplaced: Legkov and Shiraev are men you want in freestyle races, not classic ones. Vylegzhanin, maybe...

As the women take their six laps of the short, sharp course at Rogla, I think there will be plenty of time for Petra Majdic to think through her disappointing third-place finish in Saturday's sprints and figure out how to get on the podium, either by out-descending the others on the second half of the last lap or just overpowering others on the way to the line. I don't think she's got the goods for the win, though...

women's classic 15k mass start
1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Majdic
Renner and Randall: top 30

A few notes:
1. It's going to be pretty cold at Rogla for the race (5°F/-15°C), though apparently sunnier than on Saturday.
2. These distance races - like the last long races, those at Trondheim last spring - will include opportunities to gain additional World Cup points: at the 5k and 10k marks in the women's race, and at the 7.5 k, 15k, and 22.5 k marks in the men's. The first three racers over those lines get 15, 10, and 5 points, respectively, which means that someone who sweeps all the points and wins the race could garner 130 points in the women's race and 145 in the men's. Not a bad incentive, though arguably last spring Petter Northug raced himself off the Trondheim podium and out of the World Cup overall title by challenging for all the sprint points in the race at Trondheim.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rčng In the Lnd of Fw Vwels



Cheery little Zlodej here is the mascot of the upcoming World Cup races in Rogla, Slovenia. The World Cup has
only visited Slovenia proper once before, for a men's 15k skate race at Bohinj in January 1993. (The podium: Smirnov,
Mogren, Daehlie.) Before that, the World Cup had staged a few other events at Bohinj and at Sarajevo in the 1980s and 1990s, back when both places were loc
ated in Yugoslavia. These events included the 1984 Winter Games, where the XC events were dominated by Sweden and Finland. Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi took golds in all three of the individual women's races.

This year, the racing will feature Slovenes somewhat more prominently than those Cold War races did, with the native daughter and current World Cup leader Petra Majdic (who appears here and there in the Rogla organizers' program) a favorite in both Saturday's classic sprints and the 15k mass-start classic race on Sunday.

The courses at Rogla - which Andy Newell described as "basically in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain" - are woven into the side of that mountain.


The sprints - 1400m for women, 1500m for men - are longish and undulating, with at least three significant climbs and descents. The distance course has a profile that resembles last weekend's up-and-down Davos courses. The difference here is that the Rogla course is just 2500 meters long, which means laps aplenty. The downhill run into the stadium should ensure that there's a a very big pack until the last few hundred meters of the race, at which point a short, sharp uphill will probably help with the selection.

Against the context of the whole Olympic season, the Rogla events could be quite significant. The sprints are second of four classic sprints that build toward the classic sprints in Whistler on February 17, and the mass-start classic races are first of just two such events before the Olympic classic marathons on February 27 and 28. (The other mass-start classic events are the World Cup the 10k/20k races at Val di Fiemme during the Tour de Ski in early January.) In other words, it's here that the classic specialists, especially over the long distances, need to impress their coaches with Olympic fitness.

While all that might liven up the short-course racing on Sunday, the sprints on Saturday should put the usual suspects on the podiums. My picks:

women's classic sprint
1. Majdic
2. Prochazkova
3. Saarinen
Randall: semifinals; Renner: heats

men's classic sprint
1. Hattestad
2. Kriukov
3. Dahl
Newell: finals; Koos & Harvey: heats (Kershaw tweeted that he's out sick)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Midweek Videos

Last week, the FIS linked to a video of one of Matti Heikkinen's training days at Ramsau. The video's sponsored by Polar, the Finnish heart-rate monitor company, so it is a bit Euro-cheesy and pretty heavy on the HR data, but it's still an interesting look into an elite athlete's training regimen. I guess his "long hard hill workout" (1:40 and 24km long, with an average HR of 160 bpm and 40 minutes over anaerobic threshold) had the desired effects, given that Heikkinen won the Davos skate race a few weeks after the video came out.



The Internet emitted another slick-and-cheesy training video this week, as well: a piece produced by NBC and the National Science Foundation that looks at the basic physiology of skiing and focuses on American Liz Stephen. An installment in a series that's part of NBC's Olympic coverage, the video is worth a look - if only to snicker when they use a clip of Virpi Kuitunen to show the body generating energy.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Davosurprises

Shows what I know: "Surprises don't often happen" at Davos.


Pffft.

Try, "surprises will account for 5/6ths of the podiums in the distance races." Everyone on the men's podium was a surprise, with the possible, slight exception of Hellner, who can be sort of expected to do well in a skate race. I love to see Heikkinen do well and start to help round out a Finnish men's team that might form a medal-ready relay squad at Vancouver. But on the topic of a good relay team - five Frenchmen in the top 8, with Magnificat in third? Qui est cet homme?

More satisfyingly, I did pick Kalla to make the women's podium, but I sure as hell did not see Khazova (née Artemova) ahead of her by a colossal margin (the winner's gap of 27 seconds was equivalent to 170 meters) or Smigun barely behind her.

For the other places, I did pick Renner, Freeman, Kershaw, and Babikov correctly, though I underestimated Kershaw's speed and overestimated both Randall's and Harvey's. Next time!

If I had a ten-sided D&D die, I would label each side with one of the top ten sprinters, and then roll it to guess the podims for the freestyle sprints. But I don't, so I'll just see who's done well in freestyle sprints this season. The Davos sprints are microcosms of the distance races: out and back, and up and down.

women's freestyle sprint
1. Korosteleva
2. Falk
3. Bjorgen
Randall: finals; Crawford: top 10

men's freestyle sprint
1. Gløersen
2. Petukhov
3. Morilov
Newell: finals; Koos: top 15. (No Canadians are racing.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Da Climb at Davos

The distance course at Davos this weekend is about as simple as it can be. On the x axis, you go out, then you come back. On the y axis, you go up up up, then you come down down down - a 41m max climb at worst, but 180m total climbing each lap, including a couple sharp ramps on the "downhill" half of the course. Repeat twice if equipment makers might manufacture pink boots for you, thrice if not.


Possibly because the course is so straightforward and demanding (don't forget the Alpine elevation: the starting line is at 1550 meters), this perennial stop on the World Cup tour is almost always the site of a win by one of the big guns. Surprises don't often happen here. In the races since 2006, for instance, the winners have been named Svartedal and Kuitunen (February '06), Vittoz/Livers (tie) and Kuitunen (February '07), Teichmann and Kuitunen (December '07), and Olsson and Kuitunen (December '08). As that list suggests, Davos is very much Virpi's stomping grounds, with six podiums (including four wins) in distance and sprint events here. I don't think the Finnish veteran will do that well here this year, though. My picks:

women's 10km freestyle (start list)
1. Kalla
2. Saarinen
3. Steira
Randall and Renner: top 30.

men's 15km freestyle (start list)
1. Northug
2. Legkov
3. Vittoz
Freeman: top 10. Harvey: top 20. Kershaw and Babikov: top 30. Hafsås isn't skiing.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hafsås's Chånces

Fresh off his surprising win in the 15km freestyle race at Beitostølen, the Norwegian biathlete Ronny Andre Hafsås has stated a desire to ski - and win - the same race at the Olympics. The kid's got some serious zip, of course. Though he won the 15km by just a tenth of second over Vincent Vittoz, he had more substantial gaps to other great skaters: 11 seconds to Petter Northug, 20-odd seconds to the likes of Alexander Legkov, Johann Olsson, and Marcus Hellner. The next day, predictably, Hafsås was less speedy, turning in just the seventh fastest third leg in the relay, and letting Russia's third skier - Mr. Legkov - put 10.5s into him while moving Russia up from sixth to first at the handoff to the anchormen. (Cue Northug.)


Since the races at Beito, Hafsås has continued to show his speed at the opening World Cup biathlon races at Östersund, Sweden. On December 3, he finished 57th in the 20km individual event, shooting poorly and slowly but turning in the day's fastest ski time, 11.5s up on Lars Berger - another Norwegian biathlete who's had some success on the cross-country World Cup. Two days later, in the 10km sprint, Hafsås finished 11th, partially compensating for more poor shooting and slow range times with in the second fastest ski time, +2.1s to Berger.

So the man can ski fast right now. Got it. Will he be able to hold his world-class - or at least Christmas Advent star - form until the 15,000 meters at Vancouver on the afternoon of February 15, 2010?

I'm going to say, "No," for the predictable reason that few skiers with race-winning form in November or December can hold - or lose and regain - that form later in the season. It's not that nobody can - it's that only the elite can. A look at the winners of the opening races over the last seven seasons bears this out.


In short, only three women have won the first race of those respective seasons and won anything at Worlds or the Olympics, three or so months later: Bente Skari-Martinsen in 2002-2003, Marit Bjørgen in 2004-2005, and Katerina Neumannova in 2006-2007.

This is heady company. Having won 41 World Cup races, five World Championship golds, an Olympic gold, and four overall World Cup championships, Skari-Martinsen is arguably the greatest female cross-country racer in history. Bjørgen - with quite a few accomplishments of her own, including the overall, distance, and sprint World Cup championships in 2004-2005 and overall and sprint champs in 2005-2006 - ranks as one of the top ten or so female skiers in history. For her part, Neumannova won four 10km freestyle races in the 2006-2007 season, including the season opener at Gällivare, the "final climb" at the Tour de Ski, the Worlds tune-up at Changchun, and the World Championship at Sapporo.

In counterpoint, we have last season's phenomenon of Charlotte Kalla handily winning the season-opening 10km on home snow at Gällivare, then pretty much disappearing until the end of the season, when she returned to the podium with the prologue in the World Cup Finale at Falun.

Ronny, Charlotte. Charlotte, Ronny.

Kalla-esque dropoffs are pretty much the rule on the men's side. Since 2002-2003, none of the winners of the first 15km races in any season later won that race at the Olympics or Worlds. After winning at Gällivare to start the 2004-2005 season, Axel Teichmann appallingly failed to medal in a distance race at that season's Oberstdorf World Championships, though he did win a pursuit and another 15km on the way to winning the overall World Cup. In 2005-2006, Tor Arne Hetland won the opening race at Beitostølen, but then focused on sprint events and didn't return to a distance podium that season (including the Olympics).

Even in seasons without a pinnacle event, male winners of season-opening races haven't exactly maintained form all season long. Pietro Piller-Cottrer won the first race in 2003-2004, but made the podium just once more that season and finished 18th in the overall World Cup. Good old wooden-faced Axel won the first race in 2007-2008 and another 15km before Christmas, but then tailed off dramatically and finished 8th in the overall.

That's not exactly a well-set track, but there are two especially bad precedents for Hafsås. One is the young Swede Marcus Hellner. Last season, Hellner started the season by winning on home snow at Gällivare, but then vanished for the rest of the season. He missed the medals at the 2009 Worlds at Liberec and only made a WC podium once more, at the other end of the season in the pursuit at the World Cup Finals at Falun, just before tallying a 22nd in the overall World Cup standings.

The other bad - that is, even worse - precedent for Hafsås is his fellow biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who won the opening skate race in the 2006-2007 season - again at Gällivare - but managed just 15th in the infamous blizzard 15km at the Sapporo World Championships. (Of course, that season Bjørndalen did clean up on the biathlon circuit, winning a shelf of medals at World Cup events and taking two golds and a silver at the world championships at Antholz-Anterselva.) The man who did win the Sapporo 15km was another biathlete, Berger. But even beyond the crazy conditions for the Sapporo event, Berger had quite a bit of form to develop between the Gällivare 15km, where he finished fifth, and Sapporo.

Hafsås, conversely, is in great form right now, which means that he faces very, very long odds to win the 15km at Vancouver. Though he's not asking me for advice, I'd nonetheless recommend that he either become a woman and hope to follow in the tracks of Skari and Bjørgen, or take a long break sometime soon so he can build back to his current form by Valentine's Day. Or, of course, he could try the Russian route to lasting speed...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Freeman! (and Randall)

A very good result.


Monday, November 23, 2009

More Fantasy Nordic Updates

Due to some ridiculous overcommitments, certain Fantasy Nordic administrators are playing catch-up on their duties. The schedule for the first 5 weeks just went up tonight; We'll get results from week 1 taken care of tomorrow morning.

Auctions for public league #3 will start next Monday, because I remembered that last time we tried to do auctions over Thanksgiving week it ended up being messy, with 50% of bidders too preoccupied with turkey or getting on actual snow to place bids. There's 3 spots still left in it, in case you want to head over and sign up.

Stay tuned, and leave a comment if you're confused about anything.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fantasy Nordic Update #2

I promised I wouldn't spam any more emails, so I have to post this here! There was a bug keeping people from getting into public league #3, so if you tried to sign up in the last three days and couldn't get into a league, try again!

PS - Marthe Kristoffersen is criminally underrated this year. You heard it here first.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fantasy Nordic Update

Fantasy season is upon us. The World Cup starts in four days. I have no idea what's going on!

You think I'm joking? Kershaw won a damned FIS race this past weekend, ahead of some non-scrub competition, like some "Soedergren" and "Hellner" guys. I had no idea. Neither did Fasterskier. If you're looking for a year to interrupt my Fantasy Nordic domination, this might be it, because I'm about to bid waaaay to much for Devon.

It gets worse. The women's race was taken by Kalla (shocking), but then Anna Haag, Anna Olsson and Ivana Janeckova (who?) managed to beat Kowalczyk, who finished a paltry 5th. Kowalczyk's done! Olsson is no longer a sprinter! There are women in the Czech republic!

I don't know what to think anymore, but I'm ready to overreact to early November performances. $1000 on Kalla!

In all seriousness, though, we just opened a 3rd public league over at Fantasy Nordic, and we'll start auctions next Monday. If you're looking for instant commenting credibility, you should join it and kick our asses.

Which, as should be abundantly clear, may not be that hard.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fantasy: It's Real

It's time for ski racing. For those of us with unreal VO2 capacities, unbelievable webs of fast- and slow-twitch muscles, fantastical abilities to handle lactic acid, superhuman willpower, and/or the finest pharmaceuticals in the world, there's the 2009-2010 World Cup, including once again the Tour de Ski (January 1-10, 2010) but punctuated by the Winter Olympic Games (February 12-28) in our hemisphere, on the west side of the Atlantic east side of the Pacific. Can you say "home-snow advantage"? If you can, you'd better be a member of the Canadian team.

On the other hand, for those of us with lesser physical and psychological qualities but unlimited internet access and time to burn like so much overheated glide wax, there's Fantasy Nordic, back for a third triumphant season. And by "triumphant" I mean that someone won the leagues last year. It wasn't me, largely because my draft strategy was "draft every cute Norwegian woman I can afford."

But no matter! As I write - wearing four-year old Alpina skate boots, a waxing apron, and some windbriefs - we are merely 18 days away from the World Cup season opener: freestyle interval start races on November 21-22 at good old Beitostolen, Norway. (Who's on track to be a Christmas star?) We're only 59 days away from the first event of this season's Tour de Ski at Oberhof, Germany: those funky prologues. (Are they long sprint races? short distance races? who knows! who cares! watch for the oddball podiums!). And just 103 days separate us from the first cross-country skiing event at the Olys: the women's 10k and men's 15k freestyle races. (Who's got the best line on figuring out the Callaghan Valley's crazy snow?)

So what does this mean for you - one of the very, very few people who are fans of nordic skiing? If you've ever played FN, go check airfares to Vancouver and wait for an email from the league's impresario. If you haven't played FN before but want to play this year (or if you can't remember whether you've played before, or if you've changed your email address), you should get yourself over to the Fantasy Nordic homepage rightfreakingnow to register and get yourself on the list for that email. If you're on the fence, register! It's a blast.

The draft for skiers will probably start on Tuesday, November 16, giving you just a few more days to ponder the mysteries of the nordic-skiing world: Has Astrid Jacobsen recovered from her training crash? Does Virpi Kuitunen have another good season in her legs (veins?)? Did the American and Canadian athletes train hard enough? Can Dario Cologna repeat? How many races does Petter Northug, Jr., have to win before I stop thinking he's a jerk? Do any Russian skiers not dope?

What are you waiting for - your own blog on Fasterskier? Move it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

EPO Now or Later

Gotta love Russia! Seven months after the fact, the Russian sports federation announced today that Julija Tchepalova and Yevgeny Dementiev tested positive for EPO after the final Tour de Ski races last January. Nice going, guys.


They're apparently going to retire, leaving behind a pair of pretty good - but now smelly - careers. Dementiev has an array of solid results, including his phenomenal gold in the pursuit and a silver in the skate 50 at Torino (remember that kick? hmmm...). Tchepalova was one of the best racers of the last decade, winning six Olympic medals (including three golds - in the Torino relay, in the Salt Lake City sprint, and in the Nagano skate 30), and five podium spots at World Championships, including a bronze, two silvers, and a gold at Oberstdorf in 2005.

Now, they're just dopers. Tchepalova's father, the coach of some other good Russian skiers, should be under verrrry close scrutiny. And with Yevgeny out, someone else on the men's team is going to have start rocking the Russian mullet.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Waiting for Hoffman

From the AP today:

VIENNA — Prosecutors in Austria are investigating possible blood doping by 2002 Olympic cross-country ski champion Christian Hoffmann.

Austrian Criminal Intelligence Service spokesman Gerald Tatzgern told the Austria Press Agency on Sunday that prosecutors have "reasonable suspicion" that the 34-year-old Hoffmann was involved in illegal blood enrichment.

According to the Kurier newspaper's Sunday edition, Hoffmann allegedly colluded with cyclists Bernhard Kohl and Michael Rasmussen and Kohl's former manager Stefan Matschiner. He was arrested in March and has admitted he helped Kohl with blood doping. Hoffmann has denied any wrongdoing.

Hoffmann won gold in the 30-kilometer race at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Well, duh.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Hetland Exits

ESPN.com, that noted outlet for all news related to Nordic skiing, reports that Norwegian sprinter Tor Arne Hetland has retired from competitive skiing. Plagued last year by asthma and a nagging knee injury, Hetland still managed to finish third in the sprint World Cup standings. This finish caps a pretty damn good career: Hetland finished third in the sprint standings in 2001 and 2006, second in 1999 and 2003, and first in 2005. In 2005 and 2006, he finished third in the overall World Cup standings, as well. He amassed 30 World Cup podiums, including 11 wins as well as a good number of top-event medals: a bronze in the the freestyle sprint at the Val di Fiemme World Championships, silvers in the classic team sprint at the Torino Winter Games and the classic sprint at the Oberstdorf Worlds, and golds in the freestyle team sprint at Oberstdorf, the freestyle sprint at the Lahti Worlds, and the freestyle sprint at Salt Lake City, the first time that a sprint event was held at the Olympics.

 
In other words, he was a stud. I only hope the Norwegians can find some new sprinters to fill the the 6'1"/174 lbs hole he creates in their team.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Even More Dope

I wasn't exactly making a brave, unconventional statement when I said - to some controversy - that Veepalu's gold at Liberec was suspicious. Now the Estonian's name has come up in connection with the growing Humanplasma scandal that's so far involved the circle of cyclists and triathletes around the coaches Stefan Matschiner and Walter Mayer.

While Veerpalu's penchant for altitude training is well known, he may have been enjoyed perks beyond the thin air: "Veerpalu has stayed in Walter Mayer's house in Ramsau am Dachstein, who has been one of the focal points where the blood and drugs have come from Humanplasma in Vienna." What's more, the disgraced King of the Mountains Bernhard Kohl has said that he knows Christian Hoffmann was being treated at Humanplasma - a charge Hoffmann has denied.

The implications here are interesting for U.S. fans, of course. If these charges are borne out and the FIS went all out (or would it be all in?) with sanctions, the fourth-place skier in the men's 15km would move up one notch.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hoffmann: No Dope

The Austrian doping scandal is widening, with cyclists, triathletes, and now cross-country skiers implicated - if only by hearsay. Today, three more as-yet unnamed people were arrested under Austrian anti-doping law, and Christian Hoffmann was asked if he had any kind of affiliation with Stefan Matschiner, the coach at the center of the affair:

... Hoffmann, who is still active, declared: "I was in touch with Matschiner just once. Years ago, I was looking for a sponsor – that’s when I contacted him. That’s it. I have never been supplied with doping substances. I disassociate myself from that." Hoffmann added he regarded the allegations as "absolutely insane."
In this context, "absolutely insane" must be code for "mostly circumstantial, but not exactly exonerating," given the apparent extent of this scandal (1,000 bags of plasma were reportedly seized at the Humanplasma lab in Vienna), his narrow escape from the 2006 Torino scandal which tripped up several of his teammates, and his remarkable out-of-the-blue racing performances.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dopity Dopity Dope

Cologna and Kowalczyk had barely set their new crystal globes down before the doping news started emerging yesterday.

In Austria, "an unnamed cyclist and former Austrian Nordic ski coach Walter Mayer, who was involved in the 2006 Turin Olympics doping scandal, have been arrested in connection with new doping allegations." Though the cyclist is being called "K" rather than being named, that letter happens to be the first letter in the surname of the disgraced climbing phenom Bernhard Kohl, who won (and the was stripped of) the King of the Mountains jersey at the '08 Tour de France. Mayer's hijinks at Torino led to lifetime Olympic bans for Austrian skiers Jürgen Pinter, Johannes Eder, Martin Tauber, and Roland Diethart and the biathletes Wolfgang Rottmann and Wolfgang Perner. The FIS also punished Eder, Tauber, and Diethard with two-year bans which will end in November 2009.


The most prominent and accomplished Austrian skier, Christian Hoffmann, narrowly avoided being caught up in the Mayer affair in Torino, but he was tripped up at Falun, where testing found his hemoglobin levels to be in excess of his normal profile and the FIS suspended him from competitions for two weeks. The Belarussian Sergei Dolidovich was also found to have overly high hemoglobin levels and received a five-day suspension from competition. Of course, the high hematocrit levels could result simply from natural overproduction and the effects of high-altitude training...

... Neither of which contributed to the positive test for EPO by the young - and successful - Russian sprinter, Natalia Matveeva at the Callaghan Valley World Cups. Her "B" sample will be tested on Tuesday, March 24.

Matveeva's countryman, Sergei Shiraev, fresh off a doping suspension handed down after the Sapporo World Championships, posted the fastest time in Sunday's 15km pursuit at Falun - nine seconds faster than Vincent Vittoz. Presumably, Shiraev is well rested. (Maddeningly, the Eurosport UK announcers couldn't explain why Shiraev hadn't raced in 2007 and 2008, and guessed that he'd just been on bad form, and fallen off the Russian team.)

I can affirm I doped with nothing but skiing science in the World Cup Prediction Challenge.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Falun and Done: Finale Predictions

The double pursuits put a gel wrapper in my klister, I'll tell you what. Who expected either Majdic or Northug to fall so far off the front? Nobody who made predictions for the double pursuits, that's who. Petra finished 24th, more than a minute down, which ruins her chances to win the overall World Cup title, since she'll be starting 1:06 behind Kowalczyk in Sunday's 10k freestyle pursuit. Northug finished 20th, about a half-minute down, which means he'll start 1:20 behind Cologna on Sunday - an insurmountable gap. Something horrifying and interesting would have to happen for either Kowalczyk or Cologna to fail to win the World Cup Final and the World Cup overall titles.

Behind them, we should see some interesting racing, with the Mördarbacken wreaking its usual havoc on groups that might form soon after the starts. In the men's race shows Hellner, Northug, Jauhojarvi, Bauer, Koukal, di Centa, and Harvey starting within 11 seconds of one another. Similarly,
in the women's race, Sachenbacher-Stehle, Nystad, Muranen, Kalla, and Roponen are covered by only six seconds.

CHRISTOPHER'S PICKS

women's 10k hunter-style pursuit
1 Kowalcyzk
2 Kalla
3 Sachenbacher-Stehle
4 Nystad
5 Johaug
alternates
6 Muranen
7 Olsson

men's 15k hunter-style pursuit
1 Cologna
2 Angerer
3 Northug
4 Legkov
5 Hellner
alternates
6 Harvey
7 Koukal

COLIN'S PICKS
1 Kowalczk
2 Roponen
3 Nystad
4 Johaug
5 Kalla
Alt
6 Majdic
7 Follis

1 Cologna
2 Angerer
3 Vittoz
4 Hellner
5 Piller Cottrer
Alt
6 Legkov
7 Northug

Friday, March 20, 2009

Falun Double Pursuit Predictions

While one of the four predictors had a pretty good showing with the women's prologue, no one would say that the co-bloggers and commenters had their finest hour with the men's prologue. Ain't none of us the King of Mördarbacken.

Petter, pooped, puttered and disappointed everyone except ADS, who put him in fifth, two spots higher than His Sneerness's final spot. Even beyond putting Northug in first, Christopher's revised men's picks proved to be his worst of the Challenge, amassing 36 points thanks to three bad misses (Legkov: picked for 2, actually 16; di Centa: 3/14; Bauer: 5/24). At 29 points, Colin was 20% better better, missing on Legkov and Vylegzhaninininin (5/25) but making up for it with great picks of Angerer (2/4) and Cologna (3/2). Keeron, who can apparently be talked into anything, made some picks that turned out quite well, including a dead-on 4/4 pick of Angerer and a 3/2 pick of Cologna, to hit 26 points. And with 25 points, ADS showed that he can predict his way into good late-season shape, scoring well on Angerer, Cologna, and Northug. (We won't mention the miss on Pietro Piller Cottrer).

My takeaways. 1) In-form Russian distance racers aren't going to do well in short prologues, even if they're basically just hillclimbs. 2) Conversely, Germans, even Germans who haven't had any good races all year (Rene!), are good bets in hill prologues. 3) The racers vying for the overall titles are going to try real real hard to win. 4) Alex Harvey is fast.

The prologue results have altered my thinking about Saturday's double pursuits - 2x5 for the women and 2x10 for the men. Since this is Falun, the courses ascend the Mördarbacken: twice for the women, four times for the men, putting the climbers at the fore again. And the prologue gave a nice little bump to the Swedes, including the Olsson family, Marcus Hellner, and especially Charlotte Kalla. (The preceding sentence is only partly an attempt to trick Colin into putting Hellner on the podium.) 

CHRISTOPHER'S PICKS

women's 2x5k double pursuit
1 Kalla
2 Kowalcyzk
3 Majdic
4 Steira
5 Sachenbacher-Stehle
alternates
6 Follis
7 Olsson

men's 2x10k double pursuit
1 Cologna
2 Northug
3 Angerer
4 Clara
5 Teichmann
alternates
6 Harvey
7 Olsson (not a typo)

COLIN'S PICKS
1 Kalla
2 Kowalczyk
3 Majdic
4 Follis
5 Nystad
Alt
6 Kristoffersen
7 Saarinen

1 Northug
2 Angerer
3 Teichmann
4 Cologna
5 Jauhojaervi
alt
6 Vyleghzhanin
7 Piller Cottrer

COLIN'S COMMENTARY
Not much to say here. The top 3 women are pretty obvious. I think Follis is a great skate sprinter and can hang for 5k of classic, and Nystad obviously found some form yesterday, so let's go with that.

For the men -- how can you bet against Northug? I see him taking advantage of the two Germans yet again in a big group finish. The last time up the Mordarbacken should be a wicked throwdown, but Northug's shown he can hang with the big guns' attacks in the past. Cologna should be up there too, and Jauhojaervi's show good form recently and is a better sprinter you think.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Falun Prologue Predictions

The freestyle prologues at Falun - 2.5km for women, 3.3km for men - are going to be interesting. They're akin to the Tour de Ski prologues in Oberhof on December 27 (which were run over 3.7km for men and 2.8km for women) with the lung-busting difference that the Falun races are essentially just out-and-back climbs up the Mordarbacken. (men's course map - women's course map) You remember last year's pursuit at Falun, right? The Mordarbacken figured prominently in the results, which were analyzed right here on this blog.

Beyond the intrinsic interest created by the climb, the prologue kicks off three straight days of racing at Falun, during which a waxing bus's worth of points are on offer to the racers still vying for overall titles: Dario Cologna and Petter Northug on the men's side, Petra Majdic, Justyna Kowalczyk, and - maybe - Aino-Kaisa Saarinen on the women's. Just to maximize the number of PDFs you have to try and keep open in one browser if you're going to really follow the racing, the FIS is publishing men's and women's standings sheets for the World Cup Final. The start lists of the men's and women's prologues are just the current standings, inverted so that Petra has a whole bunch of people to pass when she plummets down the back side of the Mordarbacken on Friday afternoon. I don't doubt that the Swedes, especially Kalla and Anna Olsson, are going to show up in a big way at Falun, but sadly enough, Anders Soedergren is not skiing this weekend, which means that the Swedish women will have to keep the crowds happy.

COLIN'S PICKS
Let's not kid ourselves about what happened here. I talked some trash about knowing my World Cup, and Mr. Tassava has put me in my place. Well played, sir. Your crappy early-season predictions tricked me.

Anyway -- with the final weekend in Falun, I'll need a small miracle to win, and if I make a bunch of high risk, high reward picks I'll probably get overtaken by fellow blogger ADS. Tough choice.

The only blueprint we have for a ~3k prologue comes from the Tour de Ski this year, which featured a win by Teichmann and a podium with Cologna and Northug. But then it gets weird, with the legendary Aivar Rehemaa in 4th, and Devon Kershaw 5th. Still though, looks like picking the best-sprinting distance guys is the way to go. And after 3 straight good weekends from Maxim V, I'm ready to call him the real deal*, at least for the rest of this season.

As for the women -- I'm a sucker for Kalla in Sweden in a skate race. Plus two other skate-sprint-specialists (Muranen and Follis) and that leaves us with Saarinen, Majdic, and Kowalczyk from the big 3 unpicked. They can't all make the podium, and Saarinen was the slowest of them in the last prologue and DNS'ed Lahti. I'm not sold on Petra's distance skating but I would be terrified of her in a 3k race with the overall World Cup on the line. Sold.

MEN
1 Northug
2 Angerer
3 Cologna
4 Legkov
5 Vylegzhanin
Alt
6 Piller Cottrer
7 Hellner

WOMEN
1 Kalla
2 Follis
3 Majdic
4 Muranen
5 Kowalczyk
Alt
6 Saarinen
7 Kristoffersen

*"Real deal" means consistent performer, and is not a statement in either way on the cleanliness of his performances.

CHRISTOPHER'S PICKS
men's 3.3km F prologue
1 Northug
2 Legkov
3 di Centa
4 Angerer
5 Bauer
alternates
6 Piller Cottrer
7 Cologna

women's 2.5km F prologue
1 Majdic
2 Kalla
3 Sachenbacher-Stehle
4 Kowalczyk
5 Follis
alternates
6 Saarinen
7 Muranen

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stockholm Sprints Live Recap

Apparently all the cool kids do live coverage now, but I swear I didn't know FS was doing it when I started watching my illicit NRK steam. This internet business is getting intense.. I'll see your live blog and raise you a... um... live recap? With more typos? Who knows. Anyway....

Women's quarters were totally predictable until --

Petra's quaterfinal -- she put her tips straight into Natsumi's tails and went down when Natsumi slipped a bit. Totally her fault, but she got back to the front and advanced like the animal she is. Impressive.

Next quarter, my #5 pick Lina A took the holeshot only to get overrun into the corner with too much traffic around -- got spun by her own teammate Anna Olsson... since she's not Petra, that was the end of her chances.

Onto Men's heat 1 -- Joensson took the risk trying to get follow Hattestad to the line while Pettersen had his own track, but Joensson held him off by half a boot. If Hattestad had slowed at the end he could've let his teammate through by blocking Joensson just a bit...

Heat 2 has both Americans, Cologna and Dahl. Cologona leads over Dahl, Neweel at the corner of doom. Down the stretch those 3 drop everyone else and hit the hill 3-wide... andy looks good! Koos over Cologna for 3rd! A rare case of Andy having a better heat than qualifier, and Koos is now a lucky loser.

Heat 3 has Alex Harvey, Modin, Kjoelstad, Pasini... aw crap my media player crashed. We're back in time to see Kjoelstad ski away ahead of Modin. Fast heat though, knocks Koos out of LL I believe. Alex Harvey was sixth.

Heat 4 has Lassila, Onda, Jahojaervi, another Pasini (guess the last one was Fabio), Mats Larsson. Big gap from Lassila over the top with Onda 2nd at the corner. Lassila looks wicked relaxed at the front, almost like he's waiting for them. Onda in pursuit with Jauho and Scola Lassila and Onda kill the last hill to advance easily. Lassila managed to take his skis off as he crossed the line, now that's style! ...or something.

Heat 5 -- Big opening for Northug here with Cologna eliminated. He'll face Kruikov, Kummel, local Swede Teodor Peterson, Petukhov, Kershaw. Let the record show that Petter's haircut sucks. Northug and local Swede go for the same track, lots of contact but no fall. Kummel and Petukhov lead the first hill, Kershaw at the back with Northug, it's gonna take some work for them to get to the front. Tightening up now, only Kershaw is dropped. Final hill.... Northug in trouble.... Kummel looking good with Kruikov... slow heat and NORTHUG IS OUT in 4th! Same place as Cologna! LL's will come from Heat 2 and 3, Scola and Roenning

Women's Semi 1: Muranen, Saarinen, Kowalczyk, Brun-Lie, Kristoffersen, Kalla (LL). Saarinen has the Northug glasses on, which is annoying me more than it should. Saarinen and Muranen lead the first hill, Brun-Lie 3rd. Kowalczyk is waaaay back, what the hell happened?? The two Finns are flying away now on the backstretch. The Norwegians are 3rd and 4th. Kowalczyk to the B final opens the door for Majdic, not that she needs a door, she could just smash through the wall if necessary.

Women's Semi 2: Olsson, Kuitenen, Prochazkova, Visnar, Stehle, Majdic. Two Slovenians! Crazy. Kuitenen, Majdic and Olsson lead the hill. Prochazkova is way back with Visnar on the corner, they're toast against a heat this fast. Sachenbacher is hanging though. Petra leads the double pole ahead of Olsson, Kuitenen. Kuitenen getting dropped now! On the final climb Olsson and Majdic are in control easily, Sachenbacher passes a flagging Virpi though... and then they are both LL's anyway.

Men's Semi 1: Hattestad, Dahl, Modin, Newell, Joensson, Roenning. Tough draw for Andy, but there really aren't any easy draws in the semis.. 3 Norwegians and 2 Swedes though, yikes. Wait... Scola just got swapped for Roenning just before the gun. Surprise! Slow start from Hattestad, Dahl and Modin lead with Newell close. Hattestad slipped a bunch on the hill, hmm. He's only up to 4th on the double pole... Newell 5th... Dahl and Joensson looking good. Here comes Hattestad! But not in time, Dahl/Joensson/Hattestad/Modin. Newell 6th, him and Scola really dialed it back at the end.

Men's Semi 2: Lassila, Kummel, Kruikov, Kjoelstad, Onda, Roenning (for real this time!). Once again Lassila with the hole shot, looking comfortable. Maybe it's just hit upright style, but he looks like he's not even trying. Kjoelstand and Kummel follow, Kruikov at the back. All 6 together halfway through the double pole. Kjoelstad and Lassila will hit the final hill first... Onda and Kummel are toast... Roenning and Kruikov throw for 3rd and both are LL's. Lassila has looked amazing so far, he's totally in control. this race is his to lose. Hattestad is out now, btw, this will be his worst finish of the season.

Women's B final. Kalla, Kowalczyk, Brun-Lie, Prochazkova, Visnar, Kristoferssen (rolling up her sleves on the start line, guess this is serious now). Kalla and the Norwegians go 3-wide through the corner o' doom. Kalla's on the front now, she wants this one. Kowalczyk and Prochazkova are close enough too. Visnar is done. Brun-Lie and Kalla pull away at the base of the hill... Brun Lie pulls away! Kowalczyk charges up the outside but can only get 4th behind Kalla and Prochazkova, finishing 10th overall. That's what, 29 WC points? Big trouble for her with Petra poised for 100 in just a minute.

Women's final: Kuitenen, Saarinen, Olsson, Majdic, Muranen, Sachenbacher-Stehle. Saarinen gets the holeshot over Majdic with Olsson and Muranen close. Majdic gets squeezed out on the corner, probably a bit gunshy from her quarter. But then she lays down the big double pole to get back on terms at the front. Another near-incident with Muranen though! No stabbings, but they both want to I think. Final hill is led by Saarinen with Majdic alongside. Petra is just too much for anyone else in classic... wow... wins big even when she looks bad. Saarinen, Olsson, Muranen follow. No finish-line yelling this time from Muranen. Kowalczyk drops another 71 points on the overall and will need some huge performances in Falun to close the gap now.

Mens' B final, Kummel, Modin, Newell, Onda, Scola, Hattestad. Gotta like Hattestad here, although maybe he's ready to bow to the crowd at the back given that he's wrapped the title up. Let's see if Andy has any fight left in him... Hattestad leads it out, he's not messing around. Four abreast over the top of the hill! Newell is there. The corner is tight with Scola barely staying up. Hattestad followed by Newell followed by Modin. Newell pulls alongside Hattestad, that's brazen! Kummel now 3rd. If Newell can challenge Hattestand I take back everthing I said earlier. Wow! Scola comes around everyone and kills the hill! Only Hattestad can respond! Once they switch to double pole, though, Hattestad locks it down for the win as expected. 3rd from Newell, good effort. Crazy speed from Scola at the end of the double pole/start of the hill.

Men's Final! Joensson, Kjoelstad, Kruikov, Lassila, Dahl, Roenning. Roenning hasn't made a top two in any heat, yet here he is. With Hattestad missing, Dahl and Lassila are the big favorites. Once again Lassila drills the start and leads the hill with Kjoelstand next to him. Holy crap, Lassila is only double-poling! He's shaking his thigh! He has a cramp?? Dahl and Kjoelstad are all over him now! Roenning goes past! Kjoelstad Dahl Roenning Joensson across the line, Kjoelstad by a mile! Kuikov 5th, Lassila 6th. WOW. Lassila can barely stand on his leg, he's crumpled at the finish line. Kjoelstad was so shocked to win a classic sprint, he ski threw despite having a 1.6 second lead. Love it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Predictions: Recap and Stockholm

This weekend's climactic 50k race in Trondheim saw an unheralded skier of Finnish extraction rise to the top of a competitive field. Yeah, Jauhojarvi won the race itself, but this son of Finland managed to eke out another win in the ultra-competitive test of knowledge about World Cup ski racing, a.k.a. the Nordic Commentary Project "World Cup Prediction Challenge." In the interest of transparency, the results of the Challenge are online as a public Google Spreadsheet.

Did I say "transparency"? I meant, "Tassava supremacy." You see, in the first round of the Challenge, predicting the winners in Lahti, I defeated my co-blogger by a comfy margin: 91 to 117. I had a narrower advantage over visitor Laura Gardner's 97, but a healthy edge over visitor (and racing blogger) ADS's 106. If you're scoring at home, this means Colin was fourth out of four.

In the second round of the Challenge, predicting the winners in Trondheim, I defeated my co-blogger by a thinner margin of 71 to 82, largely on the strength of correctly choosing all of the women in the sprint top five. (I did put three of them in the wrong finishing spot, though.) This helped me earn a scant 6 points, while Colin earned 12 by missing badly on Astrid Jacobsen. We scored almost identically in the men's sprint and the 50k, but I found another six points in the 30k, taking advantage of Colin's brave crazy pick of Kalla. With Laura Gardner pulling a DNS on this round, it was left to ADS to take the third spot on the podium, scoring 99.

And so it all comes down to the Grand Final: classic sprints in Stockholm on Wednesday, and then, in Falun, a freestyle prologue on Friday, a pursuit on Saturday, and a freestyle handicap/hunter-start race on Sunday for all the marbles.

On to Stockholm! (Sometime soon, the FIS will publish start lists here.)

CHRISTOPHER'S PICKS
Classic racing in Stockholm? If only there were some decent Swedish sprinters this year. Sadly, they've all been chewed up and spat out by the Big Red Machine from the west. Except for the women, who have been stomped flat by the Big Shriek Machine from Slovenia. I don't see many Swedish sprinters capable of stealing much glory on Wednesday. Maybe the king should threaten a few with some sort of horrible punishment, like living in Finland for the summer or admitting that Switzerland is the best neutral nation in Europe.

men's classic sprint
1 Hattestad (snore)
2 Dahl
3 Northug (the man couldn't even lift his arms after Saturday's 50)
4 Lassila
5 Joensson

alternates: 6 Onda, 7 R. Pasini

women's classic sprint
1 Majdic (snore)
2 Kowalczyk (who has to do well to vie for the overall)
3 Olsson
4 Prochazkova
5 Saarinen

alternates: 6 Follis, 7 Kuitunen

COLIN'S PICKS

A classic sprint? Didn't we just do this? We did, and I picked 3 out of 5 exactly. If it wasn't for Astrid "busted tendons" Jacobsen letting me down I'd be able to talk some trash about this. Sadly, I have to go with what worked and repick Majdic/Prochazkova 1-2. Olsson's at home, and Kowalczyk never misses the top five anymore, so there goes two more. Picking the exact top five from the last classic sprint would be totally lame (take note, Chris) so let's go with Lina home-field Andersson in fifth this time around.

Women
1 Majdic
2 Prochazkova
3 Olsson
4 Kowalczyk
5 Andersson

alts
6 Saarinen
7 Matveeva
8 Kuitenen

Men
1 Hattestad
2 Dahl
3 Northug
4 Kruikov
5 Joensson

Alts:

6 Pettersen
7 Modin
8 Svartedal

Is Emil Joensson back on form yet, or is Sweden going to get shut out at home? Chris seems to think so, but I'm not sold yet. Did you notice 2 Swedes and 4 Norwegians made the semis in Trondheim? That counts as a loss for Norway in a classic sprint. I can't pick the Norwegian sweep again, but man, it still seems like a likely outcome. I do, however, believe that Northug can recover from a 50k in 3 days enough to classic sprint his way to an overall World Cup win, he's 23 and the basically the antichrist, so bet against him at your peril. I sure won't. Hard to go against the #1 qualifier/#3 finisher from Trondheim, Dahl and the sprint king Hattestad, so let's pencil them in for the podium. The last two -- well, it's a classic sprint, so anything can happen, but Kruikov has been somewhat consistent as of late, and I'm a sucker for the fastest Swede getting it done at home. Done and done.

Trondheim 30k Classic Mass Start Recap

If we were an actual news outlet we would have had this post up Saturday afternoon, however, writing an actual recap of an event that is virtually impossible to view in the USA takes a bit of time. Admittedly it can be gotten live if you're deft with your peer-to-peer-tv internetting, but I was busy getting crushed at Bretton Woods during that time, so live viewing was out. Thanks to the miracle of Universal Sports, I caught up with the 30k Sunday night. Happy now, Zach?

Everything was going pretty normally until about the 7k mark, with 14-18 women in a lead group and and growing trail of stragglers behind them. Everything was cool, until Saarinen attacked on the downhill back to the stadium, leading into the lengthy climb to the first World Cup bonus points. Her decision to "do it from a long way out" seems questionable to me but it sure detonated the field, with only Kowalczyk and Majdic being able to respond. Just before the line, Kowalczyk got back on terms and took the first-place points. Big Petra lost contact, though, and started fading back towards a 6-10 skier chase group.

Somewhere after that (before I started taking good notes :)) Johaug jumped across to the leaders, probably due to her ridiculous tempo, and those 3 stayed at the front for the duration of the first 15k. Saarinen and Johaug were the main instigators here, with both opening some small gaps from time to time, but it kept coming back together on the descents.

15k was the logical place for a ski change and all competitors did so -- however this appeared to be a disastrous change for Saarinen, who looked confident and in control right up until she got new skis. She immediately struggled (looked like bad glide to me?) and began a steady trip backwards for the second half of the race.

The main chase group came through 30 seconds behind the leaders and everyone changed skis except Petra, who accidentally went all the way to the end of the lane (assuming the WC leader and bib #1 would have skis there) only to realize the Slovenia team's area was nowhere near there. She skied through without changing, getting a nice 8-10 second jump on the group, but they caught her within a k anyway, possibly showing the benefit of new skis?

Even with 10k to go, eventual podiumers Ishida and Majdic were still well back in the chase group, with Kowalczyk and Johaug leading. Kristin Steira was able to bridge across during this time and the 30s gap to the chasers was coming down.

With 8k to go, Steira made contact and it was two Norwegians against one Pole at the front, with the home crowd going wild. They were chased by Saarinen, Longa and Sachenbacher, now just eight seconds back at the 7.5k to go mark. Ishida was now at 15s, and Petra at 20s. This time through, Majdic successfully found her skis -- but only she and Ishida changed skis (forebode!), both dropping further back from the leaders. There were 11 athletes within 33 seconds of the lead at this point.

Out on the final loop, Longa dropped her companions to move into fourth, and Ishida was also moving up, soon catching Sachenbacher and Saarinen.

As the hill continued the combination of fatigue and warmth led to more and more missed kicks -- perhaps Petra's later ski change helped here, as she was looking good for the first time in half an hour, still in 9th at 23.6k, but moving past a flagging Roponen. At the front Kowalczyk took to opportunity to up the tempo at the 24.3k mark to pick up more bonus WC points, and both Norwegians started paying for their earlier work. Johaug especially was rocking a massive pain face here while Steira looked a bit better, and even retook the lead later on.

Majdic went through the 24.3k check 32 seconds down in 8th, having still dropped 12 seconds over 1.8k (albeit having changed skis). Ishida was now leading the first chase group with Sachenbacher and Longa in her draft.

On the next descent Petra started moving clear of the 2nd chase group (probably due to the gravitational advantages) and set off solo in 7th place.

What happened next was fairly ridiculous, as the camera was focusing on the leaders descending back to the stadium, when out of nowhere Petra in the yellow bib comes gliding into the picture, having passed Longa, Sachenbacher, and Ishida on the descent, latching onto the leaders at 26.2k time check, having just closed thirty seconds in only 2k of mostly descent. The only explanation I have for this is newer (cleaner) skis and her "gravity-athlete" build, but let's just say her odds for victory suddenly looked really good at this point.

As soon as the course went back uphill, though, the gravity advantage was gone and Kowalczyk hit it hard, quickly breaking away to an 8 second lead over the two Norwegians and Petra. Further down the hill, Saarinen looked completely horrible, either due to the fatigue from instigating the first 15k or from terrible skis.

Steira and Johaug were both trying to cling to Petra on the climb (not a good sign for the skinny girls), and Ishida skied right up to the back of them here, making a chase group of four.

At the top of the climb (27.3k) Kowalczk had 11 seconds over the four chasers and looked good, but as soon as they were going back downhill Petra was immediately gliding away from the chasers in 2nd. Kowalczyk frantically double-poled across various flats while Petra was just tucking, resting, gaining all the while -- and they came together with two climbs left to the finish. A few second back Ishida and Steira were also going head-to-head on the climb, while Johaug looked cooked.

Justyna wasn't even on the same planet as a rejuvenated Petra, though, and as the race turned into a 2k classic sprint Petra blew her away, taking 6 seconds on the penultimate climb and skiing totally away on the second. Ishida and Steira even caught Kowalczyk on the second-to-last downhill, setting up a 3-way sprint for 2nd.

Ishida led out the sprint with Kowalczyk pulling alongside, and the experienced Pole pulled away down the stretch with a mean double pole. Ishida barely held off a frantically striding Steira for the first podium by a Japanese woman in... forever? Sachenbacher and Longa both overtook and exploding Johaug, who finished 7th.

The story of the race was Petra rising from the ashes in the last 7.5k to dominate the field. She was exceptionally fast on the descents, but also able to climb with Johaug and Steira and drop Kowalczyk on the final climbs -- so the explanation isn't just "Petra's dense." I'd credit the adrenaline rush of knowing you have better skis, and realizing the race you'd thought you'd lost was suddenly back within reach. Along with Ishida's end-race rise up the standings, I'd bet you see almost all the front runners change skis with 7.5k to go next time they do one of these things.

On the flip side, Saarinen's ski change looked to be quite harmful, and Katrin Zeller changed skis at 22.5k in 11th and finished 17th, so it might not be the magic bullet Majdic and Ishida would have you thinking it is.

North America is rightfully stoked about Alex Harvey's 3rd place in the men's race (more on that later around here), but Masako Ishida's 3rd place in the women's race is an even bigger deal historically. There's a precedent for Candian distance success, and it's Alex Harvey's dad! You tell me when the last time a Japanese woman podiumed in a World Cup. Freaking amazing.

I hate to say it, but two things I initially hated about this race (ski changes and bonus sprints) seemed to have contributed to making an incredibly exciting race. It's almost like the FIS knows better than I do. I think putting the bonus sprint at the top of the hill (instead of the stadium) makes a huge difference in having the gaps stick, instead of having people sprint out of the field, get the points, and go back into it. We'll have to watch the men's race to see if that theory holds.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Trondheim 30km and 50km

Quiz: how many times since 2000 has the regular World Cup season included a mass start race over 30km and 50km?

The answer: zero.

Actually - and leaving aside the traditional March races at Holmenkollen, which have always been run as individual starts, just as Thor intended - there have been three longer mass-start classic races this decade - all Marathon Cup/Worldloppet races being run for World Cup points.
- In 2002, the 58km Birkebeinerrennet was a World Cup race. Predictably, Norway dominated, taking the top five places in the men's race, with Thomas Alsgaard, Anders Aukland, and Frode Estil on the podium. Anita Moen and Vibeke Skofterud took the top two spots in the women's race.
- In 2004, the 70km Marcialonga was a World Cup, with Anders Aukland narrowly winning the men's race over Giorgio di Centa and Gabriella Paruzzi easily taking the women's race.
- In 2006, at the Vasaloppet World Cup, Marit Bjorgen won the 45km women's race ahead of Hilde Pedersen and Petra Majdic, while Worldloppet stars Daniel Tynell and Jerry Ahrlin showed up the World Cuppers by going 1-2 in the men's full-length 90km.

But aside from those Marathon Cup/World Cup double dips, all the hot classic mass-start action over 30,000 and 50,000 meters has been at Worlds. The relevant data points:

Sapporo 2007
50k: 1) Hjelmeset (2:20:12.6), 2) Estil (2:20:13.0), 3) Filbrich (2:20:17.1)
30k: 1) Kuitunen (1:29:47.1), 2) Steira (1:29:54.0), 3) Johaug (1:31:09.9)

Obersdorf 2005
50k: 1) Estil (2:30:10.1), 2)Aukland (2:30:10.8), 3) Hjelmeset (2:30:11.5)
30k: 1) Bjorgen (1:27:05.8), 2) Kuitunen (1:27:14.7), 3) Baranova-Shiskina (1:27:16.1)

Looking at all that, I'm going to go out on a cracked ski pole and say we're going to see some Norwegians on the podiums after Saturday's distance races at Trondheim - and not just becase the men's and women's start lists are larded with home-country racers who are insanely fast and completely unknown.

The courses - 4 x 7.5km for the women, 6 x 8.33km for the men - have two significant climbs on each lap, big but not, it appears, crazily steep enough to break open the field. As a novelty, the races also feature several points at which racers can garner sprint points: three such spots for the women, five for the men, with seconds doled out 15-10-5 for the first three over the preem lines. Judging by the course maps, these sprint lines are about two-thirds of the way up the longer of the two climbs. A nice touch. Still, the long up/long down profile means the races will be like polka: lots of accordion. Even worse, both feature long downhills to the stadium. Read: Bunch sprint. Read: Northug.

CHRISTOPHER'S PICKS
men's 50km (no Giorgio di Centa or Martin Johnsrud Sundby)
1 Angerer
2 Northug
3 Soedergren
4 Teichmann
5 Veerpalu
alternates: Jauhojaervi, Bauer

women's 30km (no Virpi Kuitunen)
1 Saarinen
2 Kowalczyk
3 Steira
4 Longa
5 Johaug
alternates: Kalla, Tatjana Jambaeva

Bonus pick: Betty-Ann Bjerkreim Nilsen will beat her sister, Inger Liv Bjerkreim Nilsen, by at least one minute.

COLIN'S PICKS:

Men
1 Teichmann
2 Olsson
3 Angerer
4 Jauhojaervi
5 Northug
(alternates, haven't seen a start list)
6 Soedegren
7 Filbrich
8 Svartedal
9 Veerpalu

Women
1 Saarinen
2 Kowalczyk
3 Longa
4 Kalla
5 Steira
(alts)
6 Johaug
7 Medvedeva
8 Majdic

Commentary: Wow, there are a ridiculous number of plausible choices in the men's race. I changed my top picks 3 or 4 times, and I like all four alternates as well. I think the reduced drafting from classic, plus the fact that Northug is a better skater, will finally cause him to not win a mass start, but I still think he'll pull out a good result, fighting for the World Cup on home snow and all. Despite my disgust with Teichmann, he's the best classic skier, on average, in the last five years or so and can actually sprint pretty well. I'm really hoping to see Northug in the lead group at the end to see if Teichmann can avenge the relay in a double-pole sprint, but then again, he'll probably just lead him out for 10k instead.

Anyway, we haven't seen a mass start classic, especially not a 50k, in so long, I have no idea what will happen.

For the women -- same old, same old, although I'm hoping I'm the only one who noticed that Kristin Steira has gotten a lot better at classic skiing recently.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to Lose a Relay in 20 Minutes Or Less

This particular piece of analysis isn't especially timely, but after observing the most painful 24 minutes of elite skiing I've ever watched, I feel compelled to rant anyway.

Germany -- and in particular, Axel Teichmann -- seems not to have gotten the memo that things have changed. There was a time when Norway was the whiny traditionalist country that hated the mass start, there was a time when Norway used to put Bjorn Daehlie on the final leg of a relay team, and there was a mildly famous Olympic moment where Norway's reluctance to adapt to the fact that skating changed mass starts was exposed to the entire planet.

Ever since Lillehammer, Norway's put their best sprinter on the anchor leg, because skating means drafting and drafting means sprinting and Thomas Alsgaard means gold medals. All the other nations have put their best finishers on the final leg as well. That's just the new way to do these things.

Then Petter Northug came along, and everything changed again.

Northug is a supremely gifted athlete and the best sprinting distance skier of all time. Come to the finish with Petter Northug, and you will lose, unless he poles between his legs. Northug knows this. He will ski behind you for 10k. He will accelerate when you accelerate, rest while you rest, and do less work the entire time -- and even if he doesn't, if he's anywhere near you in the last k, you lose.

Ruthlessly drafting on the final leg used to be a distinctly Italian strategy, loved especially by Christian Zorzi, who wasn't a good enough distance skier to have any other choice. As a result, you could ski hard for 10k and wear Zorro down to the point where you could beat him, as Alsgaard did repeatedly. This does not work with Petter Northug -- but the Germans haven't figured this out.

In Liberec, Teichmann got tagged with a slim 14.7 second margin over Northug. At this point in time, the German's chances were not good, but the "strategy" Axel and/or the German coaches used from this point forward managed to reduce their chances from slim to none.

We've already established that coming to the finish with Northug means a loss, yet Axel was oddly content to sprint it out. Content might not even be the right word -- he simply looked resigned to his fate as he crossed the 9k mark with Northug in his draft. He'd already lost, at that point. But how did he get there?

By skiing in front of Northug for 7k. Without suggesting, even for a second, that Northug lead. Guaranteeing that the best sprinter in the business was more rested than Teichmann. Great plan.

All's fair in love, war, and sport, right? Leading for the whole race isn't honorable, it's stupid. Leading without attacking is even stupider. Northug's a pretty theatrical skier, and I never saw him flailing while Teichmann led -- I'd venture to say Axel never even attacked, but simply time-trialed away, until the end.

Allow me to suggest an alternate strategy. You have to get away from Northug, so it really doesn't matter if you blow up attempting to do so. Pacing yourself to a good 10k time is of no use.

Teichmann could have done two things:
1) Skied the fastest 5k possible to start the race. It's obvious from the fact that Northug closed a 15 second gap in just over 2k that he didn't do this. Northug worked really hard to get across the gap because he knew he could rest when he got there, and the sooner he got there, the longer he could rest. If it was a bike race, you'd call this "bridging to a break." If you can hold Northug off -- even at massive expense to yourself -- your chances improve for every second he is isn't drafting. If he gets across the gap with only 1k left, you may even have a fighting chance.

2) Attacked Northug as soon and as hard as possible after being caught. For a skier being pursued by Northug, there's no question that you have to attack and ski away to get rid of him. The problem is, when he's drafting you, he's resting, and can cover attacks with relative ease. There's only one time when Northug is behind you and not rested -- when he's just caught you! Teichmann's best chance to get away -- "best chance" doesn't mean "sure thing," of course -- was to attack with everything he had the second Northug closed the gap. This is the last chance he'll ever get to take advantage of a tired Northug (who had just skied 2k 15 seconds faster than him!). Northug made contact on a long hill -- it was the perfect chance for Teichmann to try to lay down a super-hard two minutes and reopen the gap. But he did nothing.

Beating Petter Northug is a tall order, to be sure. But the absolute reluctance of the German anchor leg try anything made the finish all too anticlimactic. For the sake of the next 12 years of ski racing, let's hope some nation is willing to rethink how they race the anchor leg.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Trondheim Sprint Predictions

The legendarily ski-mad city of Trondheim - which hosted Worlds in 1997, attended by crowds that are still mentioned with awe - is doing double duty by replacing both the traditional city sprints in Drammen and the traditional distance races at Holmenkollen. Drammen has been dominated by Norwegian men for the past three years (2008: 12 of the top 15 places), so the only question is which six-foot-twenty Norwegian double-pole machine will win. On the women's side, there's no question that the six-foot-twenty, double-poling, Finn-stabbing, camera-mugging Slovenia Petra Majdic is the favorite, but beyond that it's pretty wide open. The sprint courses - 1.4km for women, 1.6km for men - each have one big climb, several hairpin curves (just to make Colin happy), and an uphill finishing straight.

women's start listNo Kuitunen.

men's start listNo Hetland (who's injured and may even miss the Olympics) and no Joensson.

Let's see the picks!

Colin's Picks
MEN
1 Hattestad (NOR)
2 Pettersen (NOR)
3 Dahl (NOR)
4 Naess (NOR)
5 Brandsdal (NOR)

Alt: Svartedal

WOMEN
1 Majdic (SLO)
2 Prochazkova (SVK)
3 Saarinen (FIN)
4 Olsson (SWE)
5 Jacobsen (NOR)

Alt: Kowalczyk

Commentary
Picking the top 5 to be exclusively Norwegian isn't even going out on a limb, as Norway has dominated classic sprints on home snow for quite a few years running now. The only question is what Norwegians will it be? Hattestad and "the Sausage" went 1-2 in Otepaa so I'm taking them to repeat, and beyond that I like the deceptively consistent Dahl, consistently high-qualifying Brandsdal, and former Drammen winner Naess. If anyone gets into the top 5 not from Norway, I think it will be one of the young Russians.

For the women Majdic is the obvious choice, being undefeated in classic sprints thus far. Prochazkova has also been surprisingly good this year, and of course Saarinen should be back with a vengeance while fighting for the World Cup overall. Olsson has been consistently near the top 10, so she's more of a safety pick than a real prediction. And finally, Astrid Jacobsen appears to be finding some form, and was 1st and 2nd in two classic FIS races over the Lahti weekend. I'm a sucker for the 5th-place-long-shot pick, so I'm hoping she'll be back to 2007-08 form.

Christopher's Picks

MEN
1 Hattestad
2 Kjoelstad
3 Gloersen
4 Pettersen
5 Kriukov

alternate: Kershaw

WOMEN
1 Majdic
2 Kowalczyk
3 Saarinen
4 Olsson
5 Prochazkova

alternate: Smutna

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Demong-iacal

Do yourself a favor and watch the second half of the nordic combined large hill Gunderson event from Liberec. Great race, not only because Bill "Demons" Demong won but because of the fight behind him for the other places.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lahti 15k Predictions

Well, the good news is that by throwing down the gauntlet on Chris, he made some of his best predictions of the year. The bad news is that I scored a 63 (the worst you could possibly do is only 100!)

I'm still wondering what thought process led me to discount Petra after I watched a video about how she can actually skate sprint this year, or why I thought a Finnish skate-sprint-specialist racing IN FINLAND (Muranen) would do poorly. The only explanation I have is that my brief infatuation with Kikkan Randall (which has now passed after her 49th place today!) was clouding my judgement.

Undeterred, we have a new set of picks for tomorrow's 15k. It's the first individual start skate race on the World Cup in over two months (Rybinsk, Otepaa, and Liberec were all classic 15ks) so there's no recent precedent for this event. I ended up going with a mix of guys who've looked good in the mass start skates at World Champs (Legkov,Angerer) and known good skaters (Soedegren, Piller Cottrer) -- and then the obligatory Finnish guy in 5th (Jauhojaervi).

Same algorithm for the women, right down to another Finn in 5th (Roponen).

COLIN
Men's 15k F
1 Soedegren
2 Angerer
3 Piller Cottrer
4 Legkov
5 Jauhojaervi

Alt: Cologna, Vittoz

Women's 10k F
1 Kalla
2 Steira
3 Kowalczyk
4 Longa
5 Roponen

Alt: Johaug, Follis

CHRISTOPHER
Men's 15k F
1. Piller Cottrer
2. Gaillard
3. Gjerdalen
4. Northug
5. Soedergren

alternates: Babikov, Heikkinen

Women's 10k F
1. Steira
2. Longa
3. Kalla
4. Shevchenko
5. Nystad

alternates: Kuitunen, Roponen

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Liberec Bibs

Didja notice how many different bibs were worn - and sponsors advertised - during the Liberec races? Lots. Short version: the Germans and Austrians love their ski racing. Long version:

men's 50km
InterSport: "IIC-INTERSPORT International Corporation is the purchasing and management company of the INTERSPORT-Group. With its retail turnover of EUR 8.54 billion and more than 5'000 associated retailers in 35 countries, INTERSPORT has the worldwide leading position in the sporting goods retail market."




























women's 30km
Viessmann: "The Viessmann group of companies is one of the leading international manufacturers of heating systems."




















women's relay
Deichmann: A German shoemaker and mass marketer - something like Payless Shoes für die Deutschen?





























men's relay
Deichmann again. Alas, I couldn't find a good picture of Teichmann in his Deichmann bib. That would have been too nice, man.





























women's team sprint
San Carlo: Italy-based international snack food and bread manufacturer.


























men's team sprint
Österreich Neue Tageszeitung: a new Austrian newspaper





























women's sprint
DKB: a German internet bank





























men's sprint
DKB again, money.





















men's pursuit
Bauhaus: A sort of German Home Depot.



















women's pursuit
Rauch: a fruit juice and tea maker, based in Austria, best known for its "Happy Day" orange juice, "an incomparable fruity pleasure."



















men's 15km
Bauhaus again. Still not the band.




















women's 10km
Rauch again, making for a happy day for "Aikku."


(All photos culled from Universal Sports' excellent collection of shots from Liberec.)