Saturday, February 28, 2009

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


Luke S said...

I wonder if Ahrlin will DP the entire course again this year at the Vasaloppet. Its especially impressive that he got third considering the amount of distance the Aukland bros put on him in each and every hill.