Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Long Race: 50km

I love that the Worlds (and the Olympics) end with the 50. I mean, it's logical, from a fitness and attrition perspective, but it's also just right that the last event is the toughest, longest race. And the Liberec 50 has a chance to be a memorably brutal race. Temperatures have been rising through the last few days: it was about 40 degrees F for the women's 30km today, warm enough that FIS nordic chief Joerg Capol ordered that the course be salted in an effort to improve conditions. The forecast for Sunday shows about the same temperature, plus rain or snow.

That's ugly enough, but the course itself is going to be brutal. Though the Liberec organizers haven't (as far as I can tell) published any good course maps, one can extrapolate from the results sheet for the women's 30km to generate some scary information about the 50km: something on the order of 1,600 meters of total climbing over a thirteen or fourteen lap course. Expect a lot of DNFs and lapped racers. (The women's race had two lapped racers, five DNFs [including Kuitunen], and six non-starters [including Renner, who got sick].) Interestingly enough, racers will be allowed to change their skis during the race, which should ensure good wax.

A number of big names are missing from the start list, including Axel Teichmann and Dario Cologna (who are atop the distance World Cup) and Lukas Bauer (disappointing the Czech fans, no doubt). On the other hand, I'm a bit surprised to see both Petter Northug (who isn't renowned for his long-distance skills) and Anders Soedergren (who was too sick to race the relay) on the list. I wouldn't be a bit disappointed if the marathon podium shared two-thirds of the racers as the pursuit podium - with the other third occupied by anybody by the dirty Norwegian. And of course I'd especially like "Sodo" to win. The guy's just a few months past a testicular-cancer scare (and operation), but has the balls to write on his blog, "Anyone who wants to beat me can prepare for hard tempo and pain." Nice. Nonetheless, my picks from among the 72 starters:

men's 50km freestyle mass start
1. Pietro Piller Cottrer
2. Giorgio di Centa
3. Anders Soedergren
Babikov: top 10

The Longer Race: Vasaloppet

The World Cup season parallels and occasionally intersects with the Marathon Cup, the FIS-sponsored circuit of long, really long, and crazy long races that are also held under the Worldloppet banner. This season, the Marathon Cup includes ten races, starting in the middle of December with La Sgambeda, a 42km skate race in Italy, and concluding in late March with the famed Birkebeiner in Norway, 54km in classic style. Just as with the World Cup, the FIS awards points to racers based on finish placings and the overall FIS Marathon Cup title to the racers with the highest point totals. Currently, Italian Marco Cattaneo leads the men's standings with two wins, two third places, and two fourth places in six races, and Swede Jenny Hansson leads the women's standings with two wins and two second places in four races.

The overall championship is just part of the season, however. The Marathon Cup season has two focal points: the 70km classic-style Marcialonga, running from Moena to Cavalese in northern Italy in February, and the 90km classic-style Vasaloppet, running from Mora to Salen in central Sweden on the first Sunday in March - tomorrow, just a few hours before the 50km caps a spectacular World Championships.

The Marcialonga is especially important as a tune-up for the Vasaloppet, and, after the Vasaloppet, the second-most prestigious race to win. Like most of the Worldloppet races, the Marcialonga covers a predominantly flat course that ends abruptly after a buttonhook turn in Molina that sends over the racers up over the Avisio River and then, at about kilometer 68, up the steep Via Cascata, which climbs about 145 meters (from 850 meters elevation to 995 meters) in about 2,000 meters of racecourse - overall, a solid 7% grade, with some ramps up over 20%. We're in hors-categorie territory here. (This animation of heart-rate and GPS data of an actual racer does a good job illustrating the course.)

It's no surprise, then, that the Marcialonga almost always comes down to the last two k, where either an attack or simple attrition determines the winner. In 2004, when the race was run as part of the World Cup, Anders Aukland (Norway) and Giorgio di Centa (Italy - and a resident of Moena) broke free of the field and headed to the climb together. Before a head-to-head battle could truly start, di Centa took a crazy gamble by stopping to apply some kickwax. He clearly hoped that he could stride back up to Aukland, who was doublepoling the entire climb, but it didn't work out, and the Norwegian won.

This year, similar craziness occurred on the trail. Marco Cattaneo, a freestyle specialist who was hoping nonetheless to become the first Italian to win the Marcialonga in years, was in the small and shrinking lead group as the race neared the decisive climb to Cavalese, but then he had to stop for the most mundane reason: to take a leak. The leaders kept going, of course, and ultimately Jerry Ahrlin of Sweden pulled away, doublepoling up the steeps to take his second Marcialonga title in 2:56:52, nine seconds ahead of Joergen Aukland.

Ahrlin's win puts him in a good position for the Vasaloppet, a race which Sweden expects to be won by a Swede. Indeed, oddsmakers have him near the top of the list of favorites - but behind Anders Aukland, who recently won the Tartu Maraton in Estonia by pulling away from a small group with a few kilometers to the finish and who has two Vasaloppet titles to his name. Ahrlin is bracketed on the odds table by two fellow Swedes: Oskar Svaerd, a three-time Vasaloppet champion, and Daniel Tynell, a two-time Vasaloppet champ. The bookies put even odds on Tynell and last year's Vasaloppet champion, Joergen Aukland (Anders' younger brother), whose best results this year were second places in the Marcialonga and the Tartu Maraton.

I'm putting my (figurative) money on Ahrlin, though. Last year, he let the Auklands' Xtrapersonnel team dictate the pace, but then could not respond when Joergen finally jumped clear. This year, the Auklands are, if anything, bringing a bigger and better team, including Simen Oestensen, Jens Arne Svartedal (yeah, the sprinter), Espen Harald Bjerke. But I think Ahrlin's both canny enough to let the forerunners clear the track and burn up the lead group and fit enough to handle the Auklands when they attack. My picks:

1. Jerry Ahrlin
2. Joergen Aukland
3. Anders Aukland

Thursday, February 26, 2009

30km to the End

Though there are many storylines to tomorrow's 30km freestyle mass start race, a dominant one is whether Aino-Kaisa Saarinen can make the podium and thus earn a medal in every event at the Liberec Worlds. A win and a fourth gold would put her ahead of the three-gold hauls of teammate Kuitunen at the '07 Sapporo Worlds and Marit Bjoergen at the '05 Oberstdorf Worlds.

I don't think the gold is in the offing: the brutal 30km course is just too tough. Still and all, a ridiculous 69 women are in the start list, including all the big names except Majdic and, unsurprisingly, Bjoergen. Six North Americans will start: Renner, Swanson, Gaiazova for Canada; Stephen, Arritola, Compton for the U.S.

women's 30km freestyle mass start
1. Kristin Stoermer Steira
2. Charlotte Kalla
3. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen     Renner: top 10

Petra Majdic: Awesome

I'm bummed that Petra Majdic is leaving Liberec without a medal, because she seems pretty cool, as this English-language interview from Swedish TV shows. The bit at 2:20 about the origins of her famous excitability is especially great.

Relay Day II

The women's relay was an incredible contest: Kowalcyzk going out harder than hard at the start, Japan hanging in third place deep into the third leg, Steira skating so fast that she closed down a 31.8s gap to Finland in just 3500 meters, giving Kristoffersen an 8.2s lead at the start of the fourth leg. And then the fourth-leg war between Kristoffersen, Saarinen, Nystad, and Kalla - wow. Every medal was in play at the start the last leg, and the silver and bronze were up for grabs until the finish line. I have to think the Norwegian coaches will be rethinking their relay-team selection process after seeing poor young Marthe collapse on the anchor leg, sliding from gold down to fourth. Ouch.

We'll be lucky if the men's race is half so interesting. There should be a biggish pack (five teams, maybe?) right up to the anchor leg, at which point the attacks will come and the jet-powered one will emerge. I can't see the Czech team pulling out a win, much less a medal: Bauer and Koukal (2 and 4) can make up entirely for Jaks and Magal (1 and 3). My picks:

men's 4x10km relay
1. Norway (Roenning, Hjelmeset, Hofstad, Northug)
2. Sweden (Rickardsson, Olsson, Soedergren, Hellner - what, no Matti Fredriksson?)
3. Italy (Clara, Checchi, Piller Cottrer [who's had a bad Worlds, no?], di Centa)
     U.S. (Freeman, Cook, Southam, Newell): top 15
     Canada (Kershaw, Grey, Babikov, Harvey): top 10, inside 2:00 of the winner

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Relay Day I

Man, the sprint events have been good appetizers* for the main course: the four days that include the women's and men's relays (Thursday and Friday) and the 30km and 50km freestyle mass start races (Saturday and Sunday). The Vasaloppet - effectively the world ski marathon championships - occurs on Sunday, too, as a sort of dessert.

The women's relays are almost always good for a surprise and some good competition. At Torino, the surprise came when Norway failed to medal in the event; the competition in the tight race between Germany and host Italy for the silver and bronze (behind Russia). At Sapporo, the surprise came when Virpi Kuitunen used her lead leg to destroy the field; the competition in German anchor Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle's climb from fourth at her handoff all the way up to silver.

Based on the strong showings by Saarinen in the 10km (an event in which Kuitunen just missed the bronze), Muranen in the sprint, and Kuitunen and Saarinen in the sprint relay, Finland appears ready to defend its title. My picks:

women's 4x5km relay
1. Finland (Muranen/Kuitunen/Roponen/Saarinen -- they'll win going away)
2. Norway (Bjoergen/Johaug/Steira/Kristoffersen -- what, no Jacobsen for spills and thrills?)
3. Sweden (Andersson/Norgren/Haag/Kalla -- I can see this team being a mess on the tracks, but the I'm trusting Kalla's mostly-fresh legs to keep them in contention)
Italy (Confortola/Longa/Valbusa/Follis) will be close behind, but I think the success of Longa and Follis will work against them in the relay.

* Joo see Japan hang with Sweden and Italy right into the last lap of the sprint relay? Wow. A shame they had to accept the wooden medal.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Ode To Kristin

One of the greatest things about fantasy sports is that it allow you to develop a bizarre, one-way bond with an athlete, where you spend an entire season being a superfan all because you put down more imaginary money next to their name than anyone else. If this athlete happens to be an attractive member of the opposite sex, all the better -- and if you'd like to argue with my definition of "attractive" you should know that I consider scary fastness to be really hot.

Anyhow -- two years ago I spent a whole season developing a bizarre affection for Kristin Steira, as she carried my fantasy team to a season win, and this affection was in no way reduced by this video. This year, I gloriously predicted Justyna Kowalczyk to win the World Cup Overall (let's not forget my co-blogger picked Astrid Jacobsen) and put my money where my mouth was with a huge fantasy bid for her.

So Saturday's pursuit was basically the happiest I've been watching a ski race in years.

Here's the thing -- Kristin Steira can't sprint. She is a female version of Anders Soedegren. Her sprinting claim to fame is finishing 56th/60 in a Tour de Ski Sprint in 2006. So when the lead group of five transitioned onto skate gear in the pursuit, she knew the only way she was going to win a world championship gold was to reduce that group to one person.

Steira went to the front and drilled it. For 7.5k. A rarity, in the new hey-let's-all-draft-till-the-finish style of mass start racing. No one came around her, and it wasn't that they were being clever and forcing her to work -- they just couldn't.

After 2.5k, all four were still there. She opened a gap on the big hill, prompting Kowalczyk to move all the way from fifth up to second to close it (what were you doing back there anyway, Justyna??) but eventually it all came back together. Some people -- for example, anyone in the men's field -- would have given up at this point and started being "tactical," which is to say "boring."
Kristin instead decided to try punching everyone else in the face again to see who could really hang. Maybe her coaches told her that everyone was in difficulty last time she did that, or maybe she just knows that people don't generally like chasing the lightest person in the race up the steepest hill in the race. In any case, on lap two Shevchenko and Longa were immediately evicted from the front group, with Saarinen hanging on by the thinnest of margins. Only Kowalczyk (whom I predicted would be very good this year, in case you forgot) seemed to be handling Steira's pace.
On the third lap, Steira kept the hammer down and put away Saarinen easily, whittling the group to two. Kowalczyk continued to look relatively comfortable, but Kristin didn't care; she just stayed in front and kept the pace as high as possible for as long as possible.

On the second to last climb, Justyna made a play for my heart by attempting to come around, but Kristin was so determined to lead -- even faced with the reality that Kowalczyk was feeling at least as strong as her -- that she would have none of it, any drag raced the Pole side by side to the top.
In the end, Kowalczyk won, because she has more than zero fast twitch muscles in her body AND she was the only woman in the whole field that could even stay in Steira's draft. Had it been an interval start, I assume Steira would have won -- but it wasn't, so she didn't, but at least gave us a hell of a show in the process.

Liberec Team Sprint

Well, ain't Kikkan wonderful? A silver is a damn good result for the Red-Haired One. Now let's see what those Norwegians can do in the team sprint.

women's classic team sprint
1. Italy (Longa & Follis)
2. Finland (Kuitunen & Saarinen)
3. Russia (Shapovalova & Matveeva)
U.S. (Valaas & Randall): top 10

men's classic team sprint
1. Norway (Kjoelstad & Hattestad)
2. Sweden (Joensson & Larsson)
3. I got no idea
U.S. (Freeman & Koos) and Canada (Grey & Kershaw): top 10

Monday, February 23, 2009

World Championship Sprints

If the pursuits were any indication, the freestyle sprints at Liberec will be won and lost on the last climbs of the course. (course profile) My picks, including the splash of the "WTF?" that seems to flavor the big sprints - Crawford and Darragon at Torino, f'instance. (This is really just a way to say "who the hell knows, if your name's neither Majdic nor Hattestad.")

women's freestyle sprint (96 racers on the qualification-round start list!)
1. Majdic
2. Muranen
3. Brun-Lie
Randall: top 12

men's freestyle sprint (135 racers on the qualification-round start list!)
1. Hattestad
2. R. Pasini
3. J├Ânsson
Newell: top 12
Harvey and Koos: top 20

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Men's Pursuit

I misunderestimated the female racers, and especially Kristin Stoermer Steira. Why did I not know she has three medals from pursuits at Olympics and World Champs? I did correctly pick the Polish Speedster to win, though. Kowalczyk showed some tactical acumen by forcing Steira to lead, then using her own sprint speed to pass for the win. Saarinen, I figured incorrectly to be gassed from the 10k win.

Now that Norway has a medal, I think the scene is set for Petter Northug to redeem himself for the silly pole-between-the-legs fall at Sapporo. My picks for tomorrow's men's pursuit, which is almost certain to not end in a breakaway or a two-up sprint:

men's 15km + 15km pursuit
1. Northug
2. Cologna
3. Piller Cottrer
Kershaw and Babikov: top 15

Friday, February 20, 2009

Freeman Repeats!

I think we can all agree that Kris Freeman's 4th place in today's 15k Classic at World Champs was completely predictable. After all, this is the same guy who got 4th place in the 15k Classic at the 2003 World Championships in Val di Fiemme. There's not much you can bank on in skiing, but Freeman getting 4th in a 15k classic at Worlds? Duh!

Seriously though -- in the six years between his two fourth places, Freeman's career could charitably be described as "showed some promise" and un-charitably be described as "generally mediocre." The only thing more impressive than his fourth place today was the manner in which it was achieved.

Freeman wore bib 21, seeded well ahead of all the favorites. He passed through the 5k check in 2nd, trailing only Franz Goering (#9), which was interesting but not particularly foreboding. By the time all the favorites had come through, Freeman's 5k time had slid to 21st-best, 32 seconds behind the leader, Lukas Bauer.

However, Freeman started his second loop just before Bauer started his first, giving Freeman the opportunity to race head-to-head with arguably the race favorite. Except he had already skied 5k, and Bauer had not.

Nevertheless Freeman was able to hang with Bauer, and began a swift ascent up the standings by keeping pace with the race leader. When Freeman reach the 6.85k he was still 2nd on the course, but his time only fell to 14th by the end; at 8.15k he had moved ahead of Goering to set the fastest time at that check, eventually dropping to 10th there. He led at all splits beyond that point.

At 10k Freeman was 6th overall, and only 27 seconds behind Bauer, whom he was still following on the course; at 11.8k he was 4th. With just over a kilometer remaining in his race, he passed Bauer as Bauer set the best time at the 8.9k mark.

This is surely a very rare occurrence -- the race leader getting passed by an athlete who has skied 50% further than he has!



In the last 10k of the race Freeman skied the fastest split of anyone, 25:53, beating the eventual winner Veerpalu by 6 seconds, Bauer by 21 seconds, and 3rd place "Finnisher" Matti Heikkinen by 25 seconds.

Freeman managed to ski negative splits for the race -- 13:18.8, 13:00.2, 12:52.2, also a very rare occurrence in elite competition. Could he have been 1.5 seconds faster and made the podium with a more even pacing strategy?

Probably not. With Bauer starting 13:30 behind him and being the event's favorite, it was almost assured that Freeman would be caught by Bauer just after starting his second lap. The dirty secret of World Cup interval starts is that you have to draft the hell out of anyone you can, and a huge number of "breakout" races are actually due to starting 30 seconds ahead of someone fast enough to tow you to a good spot once they catch you. Knowing this, Freeman's strategy would have been to either hitch himself to Martin Johnsrud Sundby, #47, or Bauer, #48, after a lap. To link up with Sundby he would've had to post one of the fastest first laps of the whole race, and even then, would you trust your race to a "Norwegian" named John?

Indeed, Sundby eventually finished 2:30 down, so even if Freeman had skied with him up after a lap, he still would have been caught by Bauer soon enough.

(The fact that Sundby was dropped, hard, by Bauer, shows that "just draft Lukas Bauer" isn't as simple a strategy as it might sound, especially when you've skied 5k further than he has.)

So, Freeman was almost definitely going to meet Bauer on the course regardless of how fast he started, and since Bauer's superhuman, taking a slightly easier first lap knowing he'd have to ski out of his mind to hang with Lukas was probably the right strategy. If Freeman was to make up 1.5 seconds, he'd have to do at the end -- and his final lap of 12:52.2 was the second-fastest lap of the entire day, behind only Bauer's first lap.

Which is pretty cool, I'm just trying to say.

Pursuity

The women's pursuit at Liberec takes place as Norway, always expecting little short of domination, finds itself lacking any cross-country medals. I doubt they'll fix that in the pursuit, though Kristin Stoermer Steira is showing some good form and could do well. With so many good skaters in the mix, I think the race will wind up in a pack finish featuring big guns like Steira, Charlotte Kalla, and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen. My picks, though:

women's 7.5km + 7.5km pursuit
1. Kowalcyzk
2. Shevchenko
3. Longa
Renner: top 10

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Liberec: Men's 15km

Two years ago at Sapporo, the men's individual-start 15km skate race was quite a mess, owing to a blizzard and a giant field. The biathlete Lars Berger pulled off an unexpected win, while Tobias Angerer raced very hard to pick up the bronze - just behind then- and now-unknown Belarussian Leanid Karneynka, who won a shock silver.

Odds are running against any such craziness at Liberec, even though the venue is socked with snow and wind. The field has 75 racers in it, rather than the 121 on the start list at Sapporo. My picks:
men's 15km individual-start classic race
1. Bauer
2. Olsson
3. Johnsrud Sundby
Kershaw: top 15
Freeman: top 30

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Liberecated

The Nordic Ski World Championships are finally open in Liberec, Czech Republic. A colossal slate of competitions, with the largest-ever complement of athletes and countries, started today with an unusual event: short qualification races to help determine who would be permitted to start in the 10km women's and 15km men's classical races, to be held on Thursday and Friday, respectively. (155 women and 236 men from 60 countries are registered for XC events.)

I hope we can provide some analytic coverage of the cross-country racing between now and Sunday, March 1, but for now I'll just offer my picks for the first XC race:

women's 10km individual-start classic race
1. Kowalcyzk
2. Majdic
3. Johaug
Renner: top 10
Randall: top half of the 76 registered starters

Friday, February 13, 2009

Distance Tune-Up

My six predictions for today's sprints were hit or miss. I didn't predict a single one of the women on the podium, even though I'd promised myself to always bet on Majdic. (I is so disappointed in me.) On the men's side, I hit Hattestad right on the head-estad, and Pasini did make it into the final. But Alexey Petukhov? Who?


Anyhow, here's how tomorrow's classical-technique individual start races are gonna go down:

1. Cologna
2. Johnsrud Sundby
3. Olsson

1. Saarinen
2. Majdic
3. Johaug

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Peaking

World Cup racing resumes this weekend with the first-ever visit by the tour to Valdidentro, Italy, one of those crappy mountain towns with nothing going for it besides eye-popping scenery, charming villages, delicious food, and very little oxygen. Why the place is "Valdidentro" rather than "Val di Dentro," like "Val di Fiemme," I have no idea. Couldn't pay the tax on the spaces, maybe?

Anyhow, the racing is off center by one day: the sprints - freestyle - are on Friday, and the distance races - 10/15km individual-start classic - are on Saturday. Sunday, everybody packs up and heads to Liberec, where the FIS World Ski Championships start on the Wednesday, February 18. Even alleged Russian dopers are skiing there!

Given the proximity to Worlds, the Valdidentro races are important tune-ups, but not so critical that some big names can't skip them. Virpi Kuitunen's opting out of the freestyle sprint, for instance. My picks:

women's freestyle sprint
1. Arianna Follis.
2. Justyna Kowalczyk
3. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen

men's freestyle sprint
1. Ola Vigen Hattestad
2. Bjorn Lind
3. Fabio Pasini