Monday, March 16, 2009

Trondheim 30k Classic Mass Start Recap

If we were an actual news outlet we would have had this post up Saturday afternoon, however, writing an actual recap of an event that is virtually impossible to view in the USA takes a bit of time. Admittedly it can be gotten live if you're deft with your peer-to-peer-tv internetting, but I was busy getting crushed at Bretton Woods during that time, so live viewing was out. Thanks to the miracle of Universal Sports, I caught up with the 30k Sunday night. Happy now, Zach?

Everything was going pretty normally until about the 7k mark, with 14-18 women in a lead group and and growing trail of stragglers behind them. Everything was cool, until Saarinen attacked on the downhill back to the stadium, leading into the lengthy climb to the first World Cup bonus points. Her decision to "do it from a long way out" seems questionable to me but it sure detonated the field, with only Kowalczyk and Majdic being able to respond. Just before the line, Kowalczyk got back on terms and took the first-place points. Big Petra lost contact, though, and started fading back towards a 6-10 skier chase group.

Somewhere after that (before I started taking good notes :)) Johaug jumped across to the leaders, probably due to her ridiculous tempo, and those 3 stayed at the front for the duration of the first 15k. Saarinen and Johaug were the main instigators here, with both opening some small gaps from time to time, but it kept coming back together on the descents.

15k was the logical place for a ski change and all competitors did so -- however this appeared to be a disastrous change for Saarinen, who looked confident and in control right up until she got new skis. She immediately struggled (looked like bad glide to me?) and began a steady trip backwards for the second half of the race.

The main chase group came through 30 seconds behind the leaders and everyone changed skis except Petra, who accidentally went all the way to the end of the lane (assuming the WC leader and bib #1 would have skis there) only to realize the Slovenia team's area was nowhere near there. She skied through without changing, getting a nice 8-10 second jump on the group, but they caught her within a k anyway, possibly showing the benefit of new skis?

Even with 10k to go, eventual podiumers Ishida and Majdic were still well back in the chase group, with Kowalczyk and Johaug leading. Kristin Steira was able to bridge across during this time and the 30s gap to the chasers was coming down.

With 8k to go, Steira made contact and it was two Norwegians against one Pole at the front, with the home crowd going wild. They were chased by Saarinen, Longa and Sachenbacher, now just eight seconds back at the 7.5k to go mark. Ishida was now at 15s, and Petra at 20s. This time through, Majdic successfully found her skis -- but only she and Ishida changed skis (forebode!), both dropping further back from the leaders. There were 11 athletes within 33 seconds of the lead at this point.

Out on the final loop, Longa dropped her companions to move into fourth, and Ishida was also moving up, soon catching Sachenbacher and Saarinen.

As the hill continued the combination of fatigue and warmth led to more and more missed kicks -- perhaps Petra's later ski change helped here, as she was looking good for the first time in half an hour, still in 9th at 23.6k, but moving past a flagging Roponen. At the front Kowalczyk took to opportunity to up the tempo at the 24.3k mark to pick up more bonus WC points, and both Norwegians started paying for their earlier work. Johaug especially was rocking a massive pain face here while Steira looked a bit better, and even retook the lead later on.

Majdic went through the 24.3k check 32 seconds down in 8th, having still dropped 12 seconds over 1.8k (albeit having changed skis). Ishida was now leading the first chase group with Sachenbacher and Longa in her draft.

On the next descent Petra started moving clear of the 2nd chase group (probably due to the gravitational advantages) and set off solo in 7th place.

What happened next was fairly ridiculous, as the camera was focusing on the leaders descending back to the stadium, when out of nowhere Petra in the yellow bib comes gliding into the picture, having passed Longa, Sachenbacher, and Ishida on the descent, latching onto the leaders at 26.2k time check, having just closed thirty seconds in only 2k of mostly descent. The only explanation I have for this is newer (cleaner) skis and her "gravity-athlete" build, but let's just say her odds for victory suddenly looked really good at this point.

As soon as the course went back uphill, though, the gravity advantage was gone and Kowalczyk hit it hard, quickly breaking away to an 8 second lead over the two Norwegians and Petra. Further down the hill, Saarinen looked completely horrible, either due to the fatigue from instigating the first 15k or from terrible skis.

Steira and Johaug were both trying to cling to Petra on the climb (not a good sign for the skinny girls), and Ishida skied right up to the back of them here, making a chase group of four.

At the top of the climb (27.3k) Kowalczk had 11 seconds over the four chasers and looked good, but as soon as they were going back downhill Petra was immediately gliding away from the chasers in 2nd. Kowalczyk frantically double-poled across various flats while Petra was just tucking, resting, gaining all the while -- and they came together with two climbs left to the finish. A few second back Ishida and Steira were also going head-to-head on the climb, while Johaug looked cooked.

Justyna wasn't even on the same planet as a rejuvenated Petra, though, and as the race turned into a 2k classic sprint Petra blew her away, taking 6 seconds on the penultimate climb and skiing totally away on the second. Ishida and Steira even caught Kowalczyk on the second-to-last downhill, setting up a 3-way sprint for 2nd.

Ishida led out the sprint with Kowalczyk pulling alongside, and the experienced Pole pulled away down the stretch with a mean double pole. Ishida barely held off a frantically striding Steira for the first podium by a Japanese woman in... forever? Sachenbacher and Longa both overtook and exploding Johaug, who finished 7th.

The story of the race was Petra rising from the ashes in the last 7.5k to dominate the field. She was exceptionally fast on the descents, but also able to climb with Johaug and Steira and drop Kowalczyk on the final climbs -- so the explanation isn't just "Petra's dense." I'd credit the adrenaline rush of knowing you have better skis, and realizing the race you'd thought you'd lost was suddenly back within reach. Along with Ishida's end-race rise up the standings, I'd bet you see almost all the front runners change skis with 7.5k to go next time they do one of these things.

On the flip side, Saarinen's ski change looked to be quite harmful, and Katrin Zeller changed skis at 22.5k in 11th and finished 17th, so it might not be the magic bullet Majdic and Ishida would have you thinking it is.

North America is rightfully stoked about Alex Harvey's 3rd place in the men's race (more on that later around here), but Masako Ishida's 3rd place in the women's race is an even bigger deal historically. There's a precedent for Candian distance success, and it's Alex Harvey's dad! You tell me when the last time a Japanese woman podiumed in a World Cup. Freaking amazing.

I hate to say it, but two things I initially hated about this race (ski changes and bonus sprints) seemed to have contributed to making an incredibly exciting race. It's almost like the FIS knows better than I do. I think putting the bonus sprint at the top of the hill (instead of the stadium) makes a huge difference in having the gaps stick, instead of having people sprint out of the field, get the points, and go back into it. We'll have to watch the men's race to see if that theory holds.


ZC said...

Very happy - I'll always wait for somebody to write something intelligent rather than read something that tells me less than I can see on the results sheet! This blog is just about the only place around where I can see a better analysis of a race than I'm capable of providing for myself on a glance at the results sheet. You guys provide a great service - bringing sophistication and understanding to the masses. At least to those masses, like myself, who are interested enough to look for it!

Alex said...

Was the snow very dirty? Changing skis more than once in a 30k seems almost like overdoing it, although clearly it was beneficial. I just didn't think you could pick up that much dirt from 7.5k of skiing. It would make sense if the snow were changing, but it didn't sound like it was.

Great analysis! I enjoyed that.

Colin R said...

The snow was clean. I think Petra only changed once, like everyone else, but she did it at 22.5k instead of 15k. It was a warm day, so we're talking red klister, which might very well degrade significantly over 7.5k. In the Men's race, Jauhojaervi was one of the only guys to change skis at 41.6k, and he went on to win...