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.


Cyrus said...

Replace Teichmann with Sodo and we would have seen some fireworks.

Laura Gardner said...

I completely agree with this article! I watched this race expecting Teichmann to make a move at some point, or at least force Northug to lead. I don't know what the hell the Germans were thinking, their "strategy" was awful, it was like they'd never seen Northug ski before.

Colin R said...

Exactly! -- Sodo can't sprint for crap and he accepts that fact, which leads him into attacks that destroy both himself and the competition. I'd still take Northug in a head-to-head 10k, but he'd at least have to work for it.

Christopher Tassava said...

Or: Angerer. He seems - apropos of his name, maybe? - to have a Soedergrenian aggressive streak, and he can sprint, at least at the end of races. (Rybinsk's the only example this year, but his World Cup champion years had some other good examples.)

And maybe this is the right forum for a question about tactics: why not mount a team effort, as cycling teams do, to wear Northug down, or to get him tangled up in traffic while someone else tries a breakaway? Basically, tire him out, physically and psychologically, well ahead of the actual endgame. What's to stop such tactics?

ADS said...

I agree with you guys. Teichmann needed the mentally that Sodo carries..."it'll hurt me, but it'll hurt you more."