Friday, January 30, 2009

The *Actual* Sprints

Well, that was fun, wasn't it? The short-course mass-start skate races turned out to be crazy, massive bunch sprints: less than seven seconds covered the first 17 women and only ten seconds separated the first 24 men - almost half the fracking field.

I hope Vegard Ulvang looks at this and tells Jurg Capol that the short mass-start was a bad idea.

But Saturday, there are actual sprints, freestyle of course. No, Kikkan Randall isn't gonna make the podium again.

women's freestyle sprint
1. Majdic
2. Muranen
3. Kowalczyk

men's freestyle sprint
1. Hattestad
2. Hetland
3. Morilov

Thursday, January 29, 2009


The Demino Sports Club of Rybinsk, Russia, will host three races this weekend, the latest instance of the FIS's attempts to arrange back-to-back-to-back events. The World Cup events at Whistler were the season's first such three-race event, and the season will end with three races at Falun, just as last year's season ended with three races at Bormio.

This is the third straight year in which Rybinsk has hosted World Cup events, which so far have always included mass start skate races ending in sprints. This year, rather than running over the conventional 15km/30km distances, the races will be much shorter: 10km for women, 15km for men.

So let's review: Short distances. Mass starts. A tight track with a downhill run to the finish. Skating.

Doing the math, we can be pretty sure the finishes will be ridiculous sprints. I wouldn't be surprised to see the first ten men inside five seconds, and the first ten women inside ten seconds, with the podium places being decided in each race by a second or less. Super-tight finishes like these have happened a number of times in recent World Cup races.*

If this comes to pass, I don't think it's good for the World Cup. Shouldn't most of the sprinting be left to the sprints? Sure, an occasional sprint finish in a distance race is great, but looking to, say, pro cycling, it would be nice to have some variety: a two-up sprint to the line, a long successful solo or small-group breakaway, a bunch sprint, team tactics to spring someone for the win. As the summary of results below shows, we see this variety more in the women's races than in the men's; for men, the podium places have come down to sprints in eight of the last nine men's mass start races, by my count.

It seems, then, that a mass-start skate on a short course, like Friday's races in Rybinsk, drives almost all the strategy and tactics out of the racing - except for the effort to elbow the way to the front as the field sets up for the sprint. And that's not skiing, I don't think. The result comes down more to chance than it should.

Editorializing aside, I'm going with probabilities, not predictions, for this race, and just saying that the top-seeded racers will race to their bib numbers. Within those groups, just shake some dice.

men's 15km freestyle mass start
top 10: Cologna, Teichmann, Piller Cottrer, Jauhojarvi, Vittoz, Gaillard, Kershaw, di Centa, Legkov

women's 10km freestyle mass start
top 5: Saarinen, Kowalczyk, Kuitunen, Longa, Steira

* As evidence of mass starts almost always ending in sprints, here's how the mass start races over the last three seasons (not including the Olympics or the occasional true mass-start event in the Tours de Ski) have worked out:

Whistler, January 2009
W 15km pursuit
Owing at least in part to the shallowness of the field, this race ended with big time gaps: Kowalczyk won by 7.6s over Longa and 46s over Follis. The top ten were separated by almost two minutes.

M 30km pursuit
Piller Cottrer won easily, but places two through nine were separated by just two seconds.

La Clusaz, December 2008
W 15km F mass start
Steira won by 13s over Saarinen, 14s over Johaug.

M 30km F mass start
Northug won by 0.3s over Cologna, 2.0s over Legkov and di Centa (who tied for third).

Bormio, March 2008
W 10km C mass start
Kuitunen won by 0.6s over Kowaczyk, who had broken away; Bjorgen was behind by 3s.

M 20km C mass start
The only recent men's mass start that didn't end in a sprint: Vittoz broke away to win by 18s over Bauer, 53s over Gjerdalen.

Rybinsk, December 2007
W 15km F mass start
Astrid Jacobsen won the sprint, 0.7s ahead of Korosteleva, 1.1s over Roponen, 1.4s ahead of Sachenbacher-Stehle - about as tight as women's races ever get.

M 30km F mass start
This was a grotesque sprint: Hetland won by 0.5s over Nousiainen, 1.3s over Piller Cottrer, 1.8s over Checchi, 2.1 over Sommerfeldt, and the top 10 finished with within four seconds.

Falun, February 2008
W 15km pursuit
Jacobsen won going away, winning by 6.1s on Bjoergen, 14.3s over Saarinen.

M 30km pursuit
Bauer won by 0.7s over Gjerdalen, 5.8s over Soedergren.

Canmore, January 2008
W 15km pursuit
Kowalczyk won easily, 15.6s over Medvedeva, 22.6s over Rotcheva.

M 30km pursuit
Another big sprint, with the top 10 inside 4 seconds. Pankratov won by 0.4s over di Centa, 0.6s over Teichmann/Angerer (tied), 1.0s over Piller Cottrer, et cetera et cetera.

Falun, March 2007
W 15km pursuit
Bjorgen won by 3.2s over Neumannova, 5.8s over Johaug.

M 15km pursuit
Angerer won by 0.2s over Fredriksson, 0.4s over Jonnier, 1.2s over Soedergren. The top four were covered by 1.2s.

Rybinsk, January 2007
W 15km F mass
Roponen won by 1.4s over Neumannova, 10.4s over Saarinen.

M 30km F mass
Legkov won by 0.5s over Jonnier, 1.1s over Angerer, 2.6s over Piller Cottrer.

La Clusaz, December 2006
W 15km F mass
Kuitunen won by 0.3s over Roponen, 0.7s over Follis; the top five were within 2s.

M 30km F mass
Angerer won by 0.6s over Legkov and 0.8s over Dementiev, with a big gap back to fourth.

Monday, January 26, 2009

FIS Rule Changes We'd Like To See

Sprint courses shall not contain 180 degree turns.

...Especially not in the first 60 seconds of racing. Bottlenecks that force skiers to race single-file should be absolutely unacceptable in a sprint race.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pole-r Expedition

Okay, okay. I get it. Don't say that Justyna Kowalczyk isn't going to win her races. Duly noted already. I whiffed on Saturday's distance races, failing to pick any of the men on the podium and only one of the women (Saarinen). I am happy to see Lukas Bauer back on form in advance of the home-snow worlds.

Undaunted by my faulty prognostication, here are picks for Sunday's events.

women's classical sprints
1. Justyna Kowalczyk
2. Petra Majdic
3. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen

empirical test of Colin's theories on qualifying
men's classical sprints
1. Ola Vigen Hattestad
2. Eldar Roenning
3. Emil Joensson

Sunday also sees the running of the Marcialonga ski marathon in northern Italy, 70km from Moena through the Val di Fassa and Val di Fiemme and finishing with tough climb to Cavelese. The race is second only to the storied Vasaloppet as a long-distance event, and all the big ski-marathoners are in the race. No Italian man has won since good old Fulvio Valbusa in 2000, so the home-country racers should be gunning for the win. They won't get it this year, with so many of the strong Norwegian and Swedish marathoners competing. My picks:
1. Jerry Ahrlin (Sweden)
2. Marco Cattaneo (Italy)
3. Jorgen Aukland (Norway)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Otepää, I Love Ya

Whether you call it Otepaeae, Otepaa, or Otepää, the traditional World Cup venue in southern Estonia is almost always a good place to race - last year's low snow notwithstanding. The racing is always in the classical technique at Otepää's Tehvandi sports center, and always in front of nutto (and often apparently blotto) Estonian fans, including the requisite group sitting in a damn hot tub.

As Fasterskier says in its preview of the weekend's races, the fields are back to normal size and depth for both the 10/15km interval starts on Saturday and individual sprints on Sunday, after the smaller and shallower fields in Canada. The Italians are persona non grata, but then we know they're no good at classic-technique racing anyhow. My picks:

men's 15km classical
1. Axel Teichmann
2. Anders Aukland*
3. Martin Johnsrud Sundby
N.B. I: No American or Canadian men are racing in Otepää. N.B. II: I don't think good old Jaak Mae is going to pull a podium finish out of his ski hat this year.

women's 10km classical
1. Petra Majdic
2. Therese Johaug
3. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen

As a bonus, here are the five best-named Estonian racers:
1. Aivar Rehemaa
2. Algo Karp
3. Kaija Udras
4. Priit Narusk
5. Martti Himma

* Aukland hasn't had a start yet has had just three starts [thanks, Luke] in this World Cup season, but last week he finished second at the Norwegian national champs in this event. As soon as he finishes in Otepää, he's off to race the Marcialonga on Sunday in Italy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How Much Do Sprint Qualifiers Matter?

The Andy Newell article piqued my interest -- just how much does sprint qualifying have to do with the final results?

Anyone who qualifies 31st will tell you, "a hell of a lot," but that's not really what I'm talking about. Obviously, you have to ski in the top 30. But Jens Arne Svartedal won Stockholm last year with bib 29, and Otepaa before that with bib 30 -- so qualifying high clearly isn't requirement for success.

In lieu of further hand-wringing, let's look at some real data. The data set is 12 World Cup sprint races from 2007-2009, so we have 355 data points (apparently 5 people got DQ'ed during that time -- Ivanov in Whistler 2009, Rotchev in Stockholm 2008, Kershaw in Kuusaamo 2008, Kruikov in Drammen 2008, and someone else I can't seem to find).

The coefficient of correlation between qualifying position and final position is 0.466. Since 1 would be "perfect correlation" and zero would be "no correlation at all," we're actually closer to qualifying position meaning nothing thanat we are to it meaning everything. Combine that with the fact that the lower places (12-30) are partially ordered by qualifying position and a 0.466 is even less impressive.

Here's the master graph and table -- it's a lot to look at. You can come back later.
In the table, rows are qualifying position and columns are finish position. So we can see from the top left that guys who qualified in the top 5 finished in the top 5 26 times (out of 60 attempts). This is actually the strongest correlation on the entire chart -- 43% of the time, a top-five qualification is converted into a top five finish.

At the other corner we see that the bottom 5 qualifiers finished in the bottom five 16 times, only 29% of the time. So it's more likely that you'll qualify well and finish well than that you'll qualify poorly and finish poorly.

Let's look at where the top five and bottom five come from:

Note that 71.6% of the top five finishers qualified at least 10th, and nearly 87% qualified in the top 15th. Our dataset only has one winner from outside 15th place (Svartedal in Stockholm) and only two in 2nd place (Hetland in Kuusaamo, Kjoelstad in Davos), and two in 3rd place (Pasini in Dusseldorf, Larsson in Kuusamo). It's safe to the say that moving onto the podium from outside the top 15 is very hard.

On the flip side, though, the bottom five distribution is more spread out. The 26th-30th qualifiers are the most prevalent, but after than everyone from 5th-25th is consistently represented. Remember that 26th-30th places are the five people who lost quarterfinals -- in 12 races, someone who qualified 6th-10th straight-up lost their quarterfinal 9 times.

In other words, you can expect someone who should advance to crash out or otherwise botch things completely about 75% of the time. I wonder why this is -- the 6 thru 10 qualifiers are the guys who should theoretically get the second automatically advancing spot from quarters, so perhaps they feel the pressure of being a guy who SHOULD advance, withouth actually having the confidence of knowing they're the fastest in the heat? The 6th-10th finishers lose the heat more often than 21st-25th, probably because they are more likely to crash or blow up trying to hold onto the front than to just try to pick up a few places like the later qualifiers.

The one group that seems to be immune from losing quarterfinals are the top five qualifiers -- in 12 races, this only happened once. One guess who it was.

For the sake of space we'll look at the 6th through 25th spots as line graphs. First up are the distributions for the 6-10 and 21-25 finish spots:
The interesting thing here is that the 6th-10th places are more likely to be occupied by someone who qualified in the top 5 than in the 6-10th slots! This goes along nicely with the "6-10 seeds crash out a lot" theory. And we stay sane by noting the the 21st-25th places are most often occupied by someone who qualified in them.

The least likely occurence here is a top-5 seed falling to 21st-25th (the lowest red point), which only happened twice. This is finishing second-to-last in your quarterfinal after having the top seed, an ignominy reserved for Dusan Kozisek in Canmore and Tore Asle Gjerdalen in Lahti. In Kozisek's defense, he also has one of the four "qualify 21-25, finish 6-10" data points where he qualified 22nd and finished 6th at Lahti.

Finally, the midsection -- 11th through 20th:

The 16-20 graph spikes at 16-20, letting us know that not all is crazy in the world, although this is the lowest spot we seen a decent number of top five qualifiers finishing at-- 7 out of 60 top seeds finished fourth in their quarterfinal.

The 11-15 graph is the flattest of them all -- there are as many top 5 seeds ending up here as bottom five! These are the guys who lost the small final, or finished third in their quarterfinal. Finishing here is a good goal for the 26th-30th qualifiers, who got this high 9 times -- but only broke into 6-10th four times and 1st-5th three times.

There's not too much concrete information to take away here -- the bottom line seems to be, qualifying doesn't mean too much. We can say that qualifying in the top five usually leads to a top 10 finish; qualifying outside the top 15 almost never ends on the podium. But a bad qualifying spot doesn't doom you to a bad finish -- at least on the men's side.

We'll run these numbers again, for women, in the near future -- I'm expected a much higher coefficient of correlation and more absolutes, like "no one has ever made the final with a bib higher than X." Stay tuned.

Monday, January 19, 2009

They Just Don't Make False Starts Like They Used To

I'm sure by now you've heard that Garrott Kuzzy was disqualified from the Whistler Sprint World Cup Friday for, according to fasterskier, "false starting twice." At the time fasterskier went to press there was no video available, but this has since been remedied. You can view the sprints at Universal Sports now, on demand.

So the fasterskier article made Kuzzy sound like a real clown, I mean, what kind of guy manages to get DQ'ed by false starting twice? The kind of guy who doesn't understand how the FIS sprint rules have changed, apparently. Based on the incredible number of false starts we saw throughout the day, it's safe to say that many other athletes don't either.

The first false start is charged to the field, so it doesn't matter who was responsible for the first false start in Kuzzy's heat -- he was responsible for the second, so he's out. (Although, he was clearly responsible for the first false start, so that may have swayed the jury.)

Anyway, in the past a false start has been enforced as "breaking the wand before the gun fires." At Whistler, a false start was defined as "flinching after the SET command is heard." Multiple women's heat were run where someone moved a bit after they said "SET," and they all were called false starts. It happened with such frequency it's hard to believe the athletes were aware of the rule change/strict enforcement (whatever you want to call it). And clearly Kuzzy was not -- on his second false start he only teetered and dropped his hands a split second before the gun fired. The gun went off, but then immediately went off again, signaling a false start. Kuzzy can be heard protesting "but I didn't break the wand" and is obviously incredulous that he's been charged a false start. Of course, the officials werent't even remotely sympathetic, not that they should be.

It will be interesting to see, going forward, if this is a real change dictated by FIS, or a case of the Whistler judges choosing to enforce the rules completely differently than the rest of the World Cup season. Furthermore, based on what my eyes could see, the "false start" that got Kuzzy DQ'ed was complete and utter BS, as several athletes flinched that much in other heats without getting charged. To put it simply -- I blame Canada.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Callaghan Team Sprints

The Callaghan sprint course is long, so much so that Devon Kershaw joked on his blog that "it felt a lot like a distance race out there in [the] qualifier." With the exception of the all-rounder Justyna Kowalczyk, though, none of the men's or women's individual-sprint places were occupied by a distance racer. Thus, duh, it's still a sprint course. My picks for the freestyle team sprints:

men's team sprint
1. Sweden (Bryntesson/Joensson)
2. Russia II (Kriukov/Ivanov)
3. U.S. I (Koos/Newell)
Interesting to see Freeman/Kuzzy as U.S. II, Piller Cottrer/di Centa as Italy II, and of course no Norwegian teams.

women's team sprint
1. Sweden I (Andersson/Olsson)
2. Italy I (Genuin/Follis)
3. Sweden II (Ingemarsdotter/Norgren)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Callaghan Pursuits

The individual sprints on Friday didn't exactly yield a bumper crop of high North American finishes. The best results were Andy Newell's seventh, winning the B final, and Devon Kershaw's eighth. The U.S. and Canada went back-to-back on the women's side, too, with Kikkan Randall and Sara Renner finishing fourteenth and fifteenth.

Can we hope for better in Saturday's pursuits? Sure, why not! But I'll put my money (such as it isn't) mostly elsewhere:

men's 2x15km pursuit
1. Pietro Piller Cottrer
2. Giorgio di Centa
3. Ivan Babikov

women's 2x7.5km pursuit
1. Justyna Kowalczyk
2. Arianna Follis
3. Valentina Shevchenko

Newell Qualifies in Top 4 Again!

Very nice of Andy to qualify 3rd after we wrote an article about his qualify high/finish low struggles just last week. We'll see if he can break the curse in just a few hours from now.

Live feed is here along with full qualifying results. 6 North American women also made the heats, but only led by Kikkan Randall in 16th, so they have an uphill battle to make the finals. In addition to Newell, 4 other American men and 3 Canadian men have also advanced.

Universal Sports will probably have coverage in a few days, or if you're good with Sopcast you might be able to get NRK from here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Callaghan Sprints

The big pre-Olympic races start on Friday at the Vancouver-Whistler Olympic Park. Though they're the last chance to test the trails ahead of the 2010 Olympics, the fields for the races - individual classic sprints on Friday, double pursuits on Saturday, and freestyle team sprints on Sunday - are pretty thin, with Norwegian, German, and Russian racers in particularly short supply. But no matter - there are beaucoup Canadians and Americans on the start lines! Picks:

men's classic sprint
1. Ola Vigen Hattestad
2. Emil Jonsson
3. Andy Newell

women's classic sprint
1. Justyna Kowalcyzk
2. Arianna Follis
3. Britta Norgren

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tour de Recap

During this interim between the end of the Tour de Ski and the pre-Olympic World Cups at Callaghan Valley, all the cool kids are reading recaps of the Tour, like the offical FIS brief, the blog post by French coach Pierre Mignerey, the media-saturated page from Universal Sports, Fasterskier's summary of Nordic press accounts, or the several reports on this ski blog.

So, to join in the fun, a bit of analysis and commentary.

First, big props to Ivan Babikov, who won the Final Climb stage in what amounted to a sprint against Tom Reichelt of Germany. Stealing from Le Grimpeur, a cyclist who is obsessed with the climb up l'Alpe d'Huez, I plan to post some information on the Final Climb stages (now that we've seen six of them) later, but suffice to say that Ivan's time up the climb looks to be the tenth-fastest ever. On the women's side, the skiing fairy Therese Johaug won the stage by juicing with coffee and cola. Yum. And I don't mean the drink.

Second and conversely, you gotta feel for Eldar Ronning. He skied well in the Nove Mesto sprint and the Val di Fiemme mass start, holding third place on the final morning, but then utterly blew up on the climb, giving up a whopping eleven places and winding up 14th on GC. With this detonation, he earns the dubious distinction of attaining the worst performance of anyone who starts the last stage in a podium position. Alpe Cermis is not kind to oversized classical specialists.

Third, and last, it's worth noting that the finish of the Tour saw the most competitive last stage so far. In the men's race, we saw Northug overtake three racers, including Teichmann within sight of the finish line, to finish second overall. His Brashness's attack was the climax of plans developed the previous day, in the classic mass start, when coaches refused to let Martin Johnsrud Sundby try to break away for the win, out of fear that if Cologna and Teichmann chased Sundby down, they would put a lot of time into Northug. So Sundby was shackled, Teichmann took the win, and Northug finished seventh - six seconds behind Teichmann, four seconds behind Cologna, and well within striking distance on the final day. Ahh, team tactics...

The women's Final Climb was something like a tournament. First, Saarinen and Majdic battled for second and third, with the Slovenian attacking but failing to break the Finn, then failing to counter the inevitable counterattack from "Aikku." Second, Saarinen caught onto Kuitunen, attacked, but - déjà vu all over again - failed to break away, and then letting Kuitunen pass her back and stay away for the win. Were this blog more Velonewsy, we might be able to analyze the extent to which Majdic's ill-timed attack allowed Saarinen to catch a tow up the mountain and launch her own attack on Kuitunen. Suffice to say that the video seems to show that Saarinen uses one surge to catch, pass, and drop Majdic, then extends it to catch, pass, and try and drop Kuitunen.

Only it doesn't work. I know they're teammates and apparently decent people, what with
all the un-Nordic hugging and whatnot, but I gotta think that Saarinen is just dying to beat Kuitunen in a head-to-head race. She doesn't have long to wait: both are skiing in Whistler, and the world championships women's pursuit is on February 21.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Why Can't Andy Win?

Andy Newell already has the weight of the entire US ski community on his shoulders, so no harm in piling on with a blog post, right??

See, Andy Newell has this thing he does, where he qualifies really really well and then finishes not so well. Which isn't to say he's a bad sprinter -- in the cutthroat sprinting world, where you can win one day and miss the heats the next, he's been a remarkably consistent contender, week in and week out. Seriously, Andy Newell is very good, and this article is not going to dispute that.

But we are fickle American ski fans. Andy has broken my heart over and over with his qualify-high-finish-low antics. The last two weeks, he's qualified 3rd, finished 26th (Davos), and qualified first, finished eleventh. I cannot take it any longer! I must analyze his shortcomings numerically!

All data is from (or linked to) his FIS profile.

Since the start of the 05-06 season, Andy has qualified in the top four an impressive 14 times. This is close to being the best racer on the circuit over that time -- I checked a bunch of the "heavy hitters" and only Bjoern Lind had more (15). Interestingly, many of them had far, far less -- like Tor Arne Hetland (3).

Unfortunately, our hero has only converted those 14 top-4 seeds into 3 top-4 finishes.

As shown above, Andy drops an average of over 8 places between qualifiers and finals -- when he qualifies in the top four, anyway. Dear god, Andy can't close the deal! Say it ain't so!

Well, it might not be so. After all, when you qualify 1st, there's nowhere to go but down. Everyone who qualifies at the front is more likely to drop places than gain them. Don't despair just yet -- let's look at how the other top qualifiers did, in the fourteen races Andy qualified in the top four. (Actual data hidden for brevity; if you really want the excel sheet, leave a comment.)

So the average top-4 qualifier drops about five places, while Andy drops 8.7. At this point, it's safe to say that Andy is noticeably worse than the other top qualifiers at living up to his seed. Of course, you can be "noticeably worse" that the best in the world and still be very, very good -- but it appears as though Andy is not just as likely to win as any other guy who qualifies in the top four. It may not just be a matter of time until he wins the first modern World Cup for an American male.

Let's look at the results for two other guys who qualify fast with regularity, Swedes Bjorn Lind and Emil Joensson:

Lind has dropped an average of 4.4 spots in 15 attempts (2.7 spots in 9 attempts during his insane 05-06 season), while Joensson is even better, falling only 1.88 places in 9 races. If Andy is "noticeably worse" at heat racing than the other high seeds, these guys are certainly "noticeably better."

So what makes the Swedes good? What makes Newell not as good? This is the uncomfortable part, where a random blogger attempts to get all Vordenberg about things, without upsetting anyone.

First off, it's evident that qualifying fast and sprinting fast are different skills. They are related, to be sure, but there's a big difference between a 3-minute, all-out time trial and a 3-minute, head-to-head cat 'n mouse sprint heat. Newell may be the best 3-minute time trialist in the world, but winning heats is more about short, raw bursts of speed than sustained velocity, at least on the men's side, where skiing the whole race from the front frequently leads to getting passed on the final straight.

My humble opinion is that Newell verges on being too polished in his technique to be a successful sprinter. He's incredibly powerful when he's turning over a steady V2 on his terms, racing his tempo, but all too often he lacks the extra, thrashing, gear to come from the back on the final straight, or to hold onto a lead to the finish. He's beautifully smooth, to the very end -- unlike someone like Petter Northug, who is almost legendary in his flailings.

His constantly perfect technique may be the cause, or just a symptom, of his missing burst, but the results suggest it's not up to par -- how else to explain the poor heat results? I'm sure this isn't news to him or any of his coaches, and damned if I know how to fix "not being the fastest guy in the world." He only needs a small improvement and/or a little luck to win a World Cup.

There's another factor to heats beyond pure speed, though -- tactics! Nowhere is this better recapped than Devon Kershaw's account of the Prague sprints, where he qualified #1 and then crashed himself out in quarterfinals, only to watch eventual winner Tor Arne Hetland come from the back successfully in each of his heats. Hetland is one of the oldest sprinters out there, but he just keeps winning, even though he's almost never a top qualifier, by being fast and crafty when it matters.

So what do Hetland, Lind and Joensson all have in common, other than winning a lot? They're all on strong Scandinavian teams. Tor Arne can replicate a World-Cup-quality sprint heat just by calling up his five next-door neighbors (assuming he lives next to Hattestad, Northug, Roenning, Kjoelstad and Svartedal), and that's a huge competitive advantage. Lind and Joensson can race Toby Fredriksson, Peter Larsson, Petter Myhllback, Robyn Bryntesson -- plus all those Swedish club skiers who made the heats in Stockholm last year. Not as star-studded as the ultimate Norwegian heat, but still leaps and bounds above the best six the USA has to offer.

And it makes a difference! How many "sprint simulations" do you think Andy can do over the summer, when he can beat any guy on this continent just leading from the front for three minutes (ok, maybe not Torin Koos)? How many times does he find himself at the back of a six-man, world-class field, outside of the World Cup? Possibly never. There's no way he has the experience that the Scandinavians do in terms of fighting through traffic for the last qualifying spot, and it shows in his results.

In some ways, this is a bigger problem for Andy than his burst, because short of training with the Scandinavians there's nothing he can do about it. The only bright side of is that he can still get quality experience in the World Cup, and guys like Hetland (and Zorzi?) show you can be a competitive sprinter well past age 30. He's got plenty of time left to figure it out.

Disclaimer: This whole post isn't meant to be an attack on Andy or the US Ski Team; They have done a remarkable job consistently competing with, and beating, the best in the world -- with a smaller budget and an ocean in the way. All we're doing here is examining the extent of Newell's heat-racing problems, and suggesting some possible causes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

US Nationals Temperature Debacle

With the World Cup on a two-week hiatus we can now turn our attention to the second attraction for many an English-language nordic fan: US Nationals.

Of course, there's not much to see -- only one race in three days, and it's not looking good for tomorrow, either.

A lot of people paid a lot of money to head to Alaska, and it could end up all being for one race. They are, understandably, upset. A common sentiment I've heard in the tropics of Boston is "why the hell did they decide to hold Nationals in such a goddamn cold place??"

The answer might be complicated, but the simple part is that Anchorage isn't a goddamn cold place.

Here's the average January high for the last 3 Nationals Sites:
Rumford, ME: 27 F
Houghton, MI: 22 F
Anchorage, AK: 22 F

You'd be hard-pressed to look at those numbers and say "we should have known this would happen."

(I would not recommend having nationals in Fairbanks, with its average January high of 2 degrees, anytime soon.)

And, if you'd like to complain about a race site that requires some pricey air travel from probably 75% of the competitors -- we won't stop you.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tour de Ski Final Climb Liveblogs

Val di Fiemme is graced by glowing sun and brilliant blue skies today as the women prepare for the last stage of the 2008-2009 Tour de Ski, the 9000 meter race to the top of Alpe Cermis. The men's and women's races both start in the stadium at Lago de Tesero, site of the 2003 World Championships, then cover trails used for the famous Marcialonga ski marathon to reach the foot of the Alpe Cermis, which covers 3500 meters of race course and 425 vertical meters. The purity of the race is its core appeal: you have to climb well, and you have to avoid being caught.

Women's 9km
On the women's side, Tour de Ski overall leader Virpi Kuitunen goes first for the women, 32s ahead of Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, 49s ahead of Majdic, and 1:36 ahead of Marit Bjorgen. Unless someone further down the field can pull a staggeringly great skate race out of her cap, those four are likely to vie for the podium.

At the start, Kuitunen powers away in a fast but not outrageous V2, exiting the stadium just as Saarinen begins her pursuit. With much of the field still starting, Kuitunen comes back through the stadium and through the first, 1.7k checkpoint at 4:18. Saarinen comes through at 34.8, Majdic at 50.3, and Bjorgen at an amazing 1:52.0 - having already given up 16s to Kuitunen! If this early split is any indication, the Norwegian won't be able to wrest the third podium place from Majdic.

At the 3.5km time check, a lovely little spot of trail in the the forest, Kuitunen has extended her lead to 43.4s over Saarinen and 54.0s over Majdic. The Slovenian has taken almost half of Saarinen's gap away from her. Bjorgen comes through at 2:06.8, giving up even more time. She's cooked, and looks it, skiing even more stiff-legged than usual. Justyna Kowalczyk has already caught up to Marianna Longa, and the two are now skiing together, about 2:57 behind Kuitunen. Kowalczyk's is the biggest move of the day so far, and that's not saying much. Just a bit further down, Therese Johaug has moved ahead of Riita-Liisa Roponen; the two are traveling together with Canadian Sara Renner.

At about 13:56, Kuitunen has hit the climb near the 5.7km mark, and is now passing between the downhill-racing flags used - ironically - to mark the climb itself. Both Saarinen and Majdic have given up more time, running 49.1s and 56.0s down, respectively. A great snowmobille shot shows Kuitunen using a V1 that is easy, if not as elegant as some of best skate technicians. Of course, they're not leading the Tour de Ski on the last day, either. Bjorgen has slid further behind and now, as the climb steepens, is in some danger of actually letting Longa and Kowalczyk catch up. The two are still 40s down, but with the big steeps still to come, anything could happen.

Kuitunen hits the 6.9km mark at 18:33, but Saarinen and Majdic seem to be closing, and can at least see the leader, 42.4s up on Saarinen, 46.4s on Majdic. The next group is barely visible on the dappled snow: Bjorgen maintaining a labored stroke ahead of Longa and Kowalcyzk. The Norwegian comes through the check at 2:39.0, just about eight seconds ahead of the next two. They seem certain to catch her.

Up the mountain, Kuitunen has hit a 26% ramp that is the steepest of the day. A good crowd lines the course there, as Kuitunen essentially walks up the hill, getting very little glide. Behind, Majdic has caught Saarinen, and is using a herringbone skate to pull away! Amazing: the Slovenian is for real!

Now Kuitunen has hit a section of switchbacks, where the race seems to compress as racers pass within a few up-and-down meters of one another but remain separated by some distance of parcours. Saarinen is hanging with Majdic, who seems to use the traverses to actually accelerate a bit.

Out of the switchbacks, Kuitunen continues to use a light but strong left-side V1 to move up. Saarinen and Majdic are side by side behind her, visibly tiring but in visual contact. The Slovenian looks to be working at the limit, while the Finn is still relatively fresh, taking back Majdic's momentary lead. As they hit the 7.4km time check, they've closed the gap by half: Saarinen is 17.7s down, Majdic 19.8s. Behind them, Kowalczyk has led Longa past Bjorgen and now hits the check in fourth, 1:56.1. Where is Bjorgen?

Now on the final stretches of the hill, only Saarinen has any snap to her skate, using a forceful right-side V1 to close on Kuitunen! Majdic is well back now, and probably out of the contest for the win As Kuitunen hits the half-hour mark, Saarinen swings wide on a left-hand corner and moves around her teammate. A grueling 28% ramp - what a spot to attack! Can Saarinen hold on, much less extend her lead? Will Kuitunen give away a second straight Tour title in the last 2000 meters of racing?

As the two Finns approach the summit, Kuitunen moves back into the lead and somehow finds the energy to actually accelerate into a V2 around another switchback and then up the ensuing incline. Within a few meters of steep, Kuitunen puts ten seconds into her teammate! Saarinen's attack was clearly mistimed, and even though she is herself digging deep, she is only giving up more time. Majdic is out of sight. With 200 meters to the finish, Kuitunen has a solid lead. Saarinen is visibly working harder now, even using a V2 while Kuitunen relaxes into a V1 and works her way over the finish line for the win! Two Tour de Ski championships, bookending a second place. Amazing.

Saarinen crosses 7.2s behind and falls into the snow next to Kuitunen. As they embrace, Majdic pushes over the line, 34.5s down. What a great race for the Slovenian! Kowalczyk crosses next, having moved up two spots to finish 1:21.1 down, 15 seconds ahead of Marianna Longa, the first Italian, in fifth (advancing one spot). Therese Johaug crosses at 2:20, jumping from 11th to 6th, then Anna Haag at 2:26, Arianna Follis at 2:35. Steira comes in at 2:51, and then finally Bjorgen at 3:12 - a terrible performance. After a few more racers cross, Valentina Shevchenko comes through at 4:06, presumably not winning the stage with the fastest Final Climb today, presumably. It's likely that the little Johaug won that prize, moving up five spots.

Men's 10km
With the women now atop the hill, the men begin queuing up at the stadium. Cologna will start with advantages of 34 seconds to Teichmann, 65s to Ronning, 1:19 to Rotchev, and 1:23 to Northug. It's easy to imagine Teichmann catching Cologna, and to imagine Northug catching both Ronning, a better classical skier than freestyler, and Rotchev, a better sprinter than distance man. Will it be a tight race for all three podium spots?

While Cologna leaps off the start line and zooms away, Teichmann uses his characteristically upright and light-seeming stroke to give chase. Ronning jump-skates away from the line, and then Rotchev starts, followed closely by Northug, who clearly makes an effort to immediately catch to the Russian, perhaps for some companionship, perhaps out of sheer competitiveness. Even further down the field, the racers cluster at one- and two-second intervals, lending a mass-start aspect to the race.

At the head of the race, Cologna moves quickly up a slight incline, switching into a V2 as soon as possible. Teichmann passes a convenient sponsor's sign about 41 seconds back, and then Ronning, Rotchev, and Northug move past as a group, roughly 1:10 behind Cologna.

Cologna makes the hairpin turn back through the stadium soon after the big group of late starters leaves the line, and then passes the first, 2.7km check at 6:41. Teichmann follows at 45.6s, having let the Swiss put 11 seconds into him in just about a quarter of the race distance. Not a good sign. The trio of Rotchev, Ronning, and Northug follow at about 1:16 - a marginal gain for Rotchev and Northug but nothing that will put them onto the ski-tails of the two leaders. On the other hand, this cluster seems likely to fight it out for the third podium spot, which should make things interesting on the hill.

Back in the stadium, Lukas Bauer - last year's Tour champion - gestures impatiently to John Kristian Dahl, demanding that the Norwegian pull their small four-man group for a while. Dahl refuses, and Bauer has to lead out of the stadium.

At the 4.5km check, Cologna - still flowing over the snow with an easy high-hand technique - maintains a 50-second advantage over Teichmann. Behind, the Rotchev-Ronning-Northug group is trading the lead, but gaining no real time. If they really pushed, they might be able to get up to Teichmann, but that would be a huge effort.

After Martin Johnsrud Sundby at 2:15, a big ten-man group with some heavy hitters comes through at about 2:30: Chebotko, Jauhojarvi, Mae, Piller Cotter, di Centa... Devon Kershaw comes through in 21st, 3:42.8 behind, having picked up one spot so far.

Cologna hits the 6.7km mark at the base of the climb at 15:41.6 , working a slightly tired-looking V1 through a small cluster of spectators. Teichmann comes through at just less than 60s, having pushed his glasses up onto his hat and looking rather tired himself. The Ronning/Northug/Rotchev group comes through at 1:15 - ten seconds closer to the German and to putting the silver-medal spot into play. Further down the field some big groups are traveling together, di Centa's black cap prominent in the lead.

But the leader is alone, navigating the 7.9km time check by himself. Within sight of him, Teichmann is ceding big chunks of time to the Swiss and to the trio behind. Teichmann comes through 7.9km at a staggering 1:23, the trio at 1:40, and then a big cluster of others at about 2:30. Di Centa is at the head of that group, seeking to replicate his great climb into second position from last year.

Cologna herringbone-skates through a 26.5% pitch, looking for the first time like he's working hard. As Teichmann reaches the base of that slope, Rotchev, finally leading his group just a little further down the hill, throws off his hat and goggles. Time to get to work! The trio hasn't gotten much closer to him, though now Ronning is falling off the back, slipping down toward the big group led by di Centa.

Cologna reaches the 8.4km timecheck at 25:38, doing a smooth if labored herringbone skate up a 24% slope, his red suit stark against the white snow. Teichmann is moving very slowly now, clearly depleted. Rotchev and Northug are closing fast, and putting more energy into their skating than the German, who hits the 8.7km check at 1:29. Bareheaded Rotchev comes over at 1:39, Northug less than a second behind in fourth. It seems likely that both will catch the German. The big di Centa group has disintegrated into two lines moving abreast up the hill; the Italian is in front, having passed Ronning. If di Centa has enough left to shake his pack mates and if Teichmann has too little to give, the Italian might move up as far as fourth - improving 10 spots.

Cologna, now clearly feeling that he has the race in hand, astoundingly uses a V1 to climb another steep ramp that's lined with fans leaning into the 28% slope. 200 meters down the hill, Teichmann continues to hold off Rotchev and Northug, even as he passes within a few meters of them in the switchbacks. All four of the leaders are inside the last kilometer now. Gut-check time...

Cologna V1's through a thickening crowd near the summit, working hard but still smooth. Teichmann is still ahead of Rotchev and Northug! He still has ten seconds, maybe more! Northug senses that Rotchev is blown, and finally makes the pass, decisively switching into full-on chase mode. And now di Centa is there within a few meters of Rotchev! The 36-year-old Italian is by himself now, having dropped his group. Ahead, Northug is tearing up the hill, using a phenomenally rapid turnover to close to within a few meters of Teichmann. Di Centa, similarly, is closing on Rotchev! What a battle for second and third and fourth!

There is now battle up the hill. Approaching the final slope, Cologna grabs a Swiss flag and thrusts into the air. The decisive win is entirely his.

Simultaneously, within sight of the finish-line kite, Teichmann senses Northug on his tails and switches back to a V2, trying to keep ahead! He does momentarily, but then Northug finds more and comes up as they reach the incline to the finish! Northug moves into his characteristic high-stepping V1 to complete the pass and pull away by three seconds, finishing 59 seconds down to Cologna. Teichmann comes over in third, 1:02, and then di Centa in fourth, 1:22. As the skiers cross the line, they all collapse into the snow. Race officials step over and remove their skis, clearing space for followers. Ronning finishes in 14th. Canadian Devon Kershaw is in 21st, at 3:55.

Wow. What a great win for Cologna. He only won one stage of the Tour, but he mastered the event with smart racing throughout, and then delivered on the Alpe Cermis. The sky seems to be the limit for this guy right now - though I half-suspect that his season will go the way of Kalla's last year, and he'll wind up with many fewer wins and points between now and March. Still, he seems to have all the tools to vie for medals at Liberec.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Final Climb Predictions

Today's mass start classical races were great, with more-or-less predictable results. Each of the three Tours de Ski has featured this kind of mass start race as the penultimate event, with mixed results on the final standings. Today, Virpi Kuitunen continued her domination of this event, winning her third in three years, rather handily and aggressively. Axel Teichmann, who simply worked harder than everyone else, won the bunch sprint at the end of the men's race. With the bonus seconds on offer, the mass starts thus created these standings in advance of the Final Climb:

1 Kuitunen - 1:29:14.5
2 Saarinen - 1:29:46.2 (+31.7)
3 Majdic - 1:30:03.6 (+49.1)
4 Bjoergen - 1:30:50.7 (+1:36.2)
5 Longa - 1:31:56.5 (+2:42.0)

1 Cologna 2:20:53.4
2 Teichmann 2:21:27.5 (+34.1)
3 Roenning 2:21:58.6 (+1:05.2)
4 Rotchev 2:22:12.5 (+1:19.1)
5 Northug 2:22:16.8 (+1:23.4)

On the women's side, I don't think Majdic's newfound skating ability is going to be enough to hold off a determined Bjorgen for the third podium spot. Between Saarinen and Kuitunen, though... Virpi's back is apparently acting up, which was the trouble last year when she gave up her lead to Kalla - who trailed Kuitunen at the start by more than Saarinen will tomorrow. Of the two Finns, Saarinen has done better in the season's two distance skate races: 3rd at Gallivare (Kuitunen was 13th) and 2nd at La Clusaz (Kuitunen was 9th). Still, I don't think a racer with the killer instinct like Kuitunen will give up on the hill. My picks:
1. Kuitunen
2. Saarinen, +10s
3. Bjorgen, +45s

On the men's side, it's even tighter. Northug showed, with his respectable race in today's mass start, that he has just enough oomph to ski well on Sunday. I think he'll catch Rotchev, who won't be able to go the full distance, and Ronning, who is better in classical, and take third. Further up the mountain, it will be a battle between Teichmann and Cologna, who should be neck-and-neck for much of the climb. With three stage wins so far in the Tour, Teichmann should want to take the overall away from Cologna, who has used high places and bonus seconds to maintain his lead since the second stage. I think Cologna will give him a run for it, though, and prevail near the top thanks to his superior skate-sprinting ability. It'll be the closest men's finish in the short history of the Tour de Ski:
1. Cologna
2. Teichmann, +5s
3. Northug, +60s

Just for the record, here's the final climb itself:

Friday, January 2, 2009

Closing Time (Updated)

Heading into the last two stages of the 2008-2009 Tour de Ski, it might be worth looking back at the last two Tours in the hopes of speculating about this year's winners. My thinking is prompted by a post today on an official Tour blog by Pierre Mignerey, the French team's head coach (the Norwegian "sportssjef" sounds so much better, no? why not adopt it for all of cross-country skiing, just like "directeur sportif" is the norm in cycling?):
As planned, the situation has cleared up after the two Nove Mesto stages. The gaps have widened and we can now see a bit more clearly into the fight for the final victory for the men as well as for the women. The main front-runners are now well in control of this Tour de Ski. Indeed, 5 men and 5 women appear to be breaking away from the pack. Since the beginning of the Tour, they’ve appeared so dominating and, for most of them, steady, that on paper, it’s hard to see what could keep them from fighting for a podium place.
Looking at the last two Tours offers some ways to test these - admittedly loose - hypotheses. (I've compiled some data on a publicly-available spreadsheet.) It is true that some separation now exists between the top five athletes and the rest of the fields. On the men's side, only 55.9 seconds separate the top quintet, but the gap between five (Teichmann) and six (Dahl) is 20.1 seconds. On the women's side, only 52.8 seconds separate the top quintet, but the gap between five (Follis) and six (Kowalczyk) is 41 seconds.

The question, thus, is how big a gap can be overcome? Or, put differently, how hard is it now to get or stay on the general classification podium on Sunday afternoon? Looking at the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 Tour results starts to provide some answers.

First and foremost (and, admittedly, with a small body of evidence), nobody's who's been leading the Tour before the two Val di Fiemme stages has failed to make the podium, and in fact the leader after the last sprint has won the Tour three out of four times - Kuitunen's inability to hold off Kalla last year being the exception. This bodes well for Cologna and Saarinen. Barring something terrible in Saturday's mass start or Sunday's final climb, these two racers should be on their respective podiums.

Second and however, being in the top three after the second sprint is no guarantee of being on the podium at the end of the Tour. Each year, someone has slipped off: Gjerdalen from 2nd to 4th and Rotcheva from 3rd to 5th in 2008; Northug from 3rd to 4th and (gulp) Saarinen from 2nd to 4th in 2007. (Concomitantly, a top-1o position after the second sprint is no guarantee of a top-10 overall finish. Among several examples [see the "big losers" info beneath each top-10 grid], the worst offender is Natalia Korosteleva, who in 2008 slid from 6th to 22nd after a horrible final climb - the 42nd slowest of the 45 completed.)

Third, and more positively, it is possible to move up within the top five, and even within the top 10, to the podium. Last year, Follis moved up one spot, displacing Rotcheva for third even while letting the winner put 16 seconds into her, and both Sommerfeldt and di Centa - by staging their now-famous private race up Alpe Cermis - reached the podium after starting the day in 9th and 6th spots, respectively (victimizing Piller Cottrer and Gjerdalen, among others, in the process). Neither man took much time out of Lukas Bauer, however.

The inaugural Tour in 2007 saw even bigger jumps. Shevchenko and Legkov roared up the mountain to climb from 7th to 3rd (moving from 3:27 down to 0:54 down) and 10th to 2nd (moving from 2:13 down to 0:46 down), respectively. Legkov's ascent of Alpe Cermis was the second fastest Final Climb that year, behind only Sergeij Shiraev. No comment on the fact that Shiraev is now suspended for doping.

So what does this mean for the GC this year?

I'd bravely hazard a guess that the top three women today - Saarinen, Kuitunen, Bjorgen, with a mere 37s between them today - will constitute the podium on Sunday. I'd further wager that Kuitunen will be on the top step. She's won the Val di Fiemme mass starts in each of the last two years, and - after her New Year's Eve performance in Nove Mesto - seems on form to do so again, accumulating bonus seconds that will cushion her on the last day.

The men's competition is tougher to call, since the top three (Cologna, Rotchev, Ronning) are separated by 32s and the top five (Northug and Teichmann) by 56s. But I'm going to go ahead and, echoing Vegard Ulvang, make the trendy call that Cologna will take the title, ahead of Teichmann and Northug. Ronning might do well in Saturday's classical mass start, but he is too big and too much a classical specialist to do especially well on the final climb. Rotchev simply doesn't have the long-distance legs for the climb. Of course, I hope that Kershaw will go nuts on Saturday and move up from seventh (+1:26) into the top five or at least inside the 60-second bubble. But I don't think anyone can challenge Cologna's form this year.

Then again, Saturday's mass start will probably shake things out quite a bit. The races-within-the-races for bonus seconds (15, 10, and 5 seconds at one intermediate point and again at the finish) will be almost as gripping as the race itself.