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.


Colin R said...

I'm surprised the men are skiing a short-course 15k mass start -- that seems like a recipe for a 30-person bunch finish.

The only thing is, 15k in one technique is short enough that maybe one of the specialists will be willing to give a break attempt a go -- after all, if you attack at the midpoint you only have to hold on for 20 minutes or so. Not like attacking on the classic leg of a 30k skiathlon.

But yeah. It's probably going to be a stupid race.

Colin R said...

Wow, the men's race had 33 guys in the first 20 seconds.... sigh...