Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hafsås's Chånces

Fresh off his surprising win in the 15km freestyle race at Beitostølen, the Norwegian biathlete Ronny Andre Hafsås has stated a desire to ski - and win - the same race at the Olympics. The kid's got some serious zip, of course. Though he won the 15km by just a tenth of second over Vincent Vittoz, he had more substantial gaps to other great skaters: 11 seconds to Petter Northug, 20-odd seconds to the likes of Alexander Legkov, Johann Olsson, and Marcus Hellner. The next day, predictably, Hafsås was less speedy, turning in just the seventh fastest third leg in the relay, and letting Russia's third skier - Mr. Legkov - put 10.5s into him while moving Russia up from sixth to first at the handoff to the anchormen. (Cue Northug.)

Since the races at Beito, Hafsås has continued to show his speed at the opening World Cup biathlon races at Östersund, Sweden. On December 3, he finished 57th in the 20km individual event, shooting poorly and slowly but turning in the day's fastest ski time, 11.5s up on Lars Berger - another Norwegian biathlete who's had some success on the cross-country World Cup. Two days later, in the 10km sprint, Hafsås finished 11th, partially compensating for more poor shooting and slow range times with in the second fastest ski time, +2.1s to Berger.

So the man can ski fast right now. Got it. Will he be able to hold his world-class - or at least Christmas Advent star - form until the 15,000 meters at Vancouver on the afternoon of February 15, 2010?

I'm going to say, "No," for the predictable reason that few skiers with race-winning form in November or December can hold - or lose and regain - that form later in the season. It's not that nobody can - it's that only the elite can. A look at the winners of the opening races over the last seven seasons bears this out.

In short, only three women have won the first race of those respective seasons and won anything at Worlds or the Olympics, three or so months later: Bente Skari-Martinsen in 2002-2003, Marit Bjørgen in 2004-2005, and Katerina Neumannova in 2006-2007.

This is heady company. Having won 41 World Cup races, five World Championship golds, an Olympic gold, and four overall World Cup championships, Skari-Martinsen is arguably the greatest female cross-country racer in history. Bjørgen - with quite a few accomplishments of her own, including the overall, distance, and sprint World Cup championships in 2004-2005 and overall and sprint champs in 2005-2006 - ranks as one of the top ten or so female skiers in history. For her part, Neumannova won four 10km freestyle races in the 2006-2007 season, including the season opener at Gällivare, the "final climb" at the Tour de Ski, the Worlds tune-up at Changchun, and the World Championship at Sapporo.

In counterpoint, we have last season's phenomenon of Charlotte Kalla handily winning the season-opening 10km on home snow at Gällivare, then pretty much disappearing until the end of the season, when she returned to the podium with the prologue in the World Cup Finale at Falun.

Ronny, Charlotte. Charlotte, Ronny.

Kalla-esque dropoffs are pretty much the rule on the men's side. Since 2002-2003, none of the winners of the first 15km races in any season later won that race at the Olympics or Worlds. After winning at Gällivare to start the 2004-2005 season, Axel Teichmann appallingly failed to medal in a distance race at that season's Oberstdorf World Championships, though he did win a pursuit and another 15km on the way to winning the overall World Cup. In 2005-2006, Tor Arne Hetland won the opening race at Beitostølen, but then focused on sprint events and didn't return to a distance podium that season (including the Olympics).

Even in seasons without a pinnacle event, male winners of season-opening races haven't exactly maintained form all season long. Pietro Piller-Cottrer won the first race in 2003-2004, but made the podium just once more that season and finished 18th in the overall World Cup. Good old wooden-faced Axel won the first race in 2007-2008 and another 15km before Christmas, but then tailed off dramatically and finished 8th in the overall.

That's not exactly a well-set track, but there are two especially bad precedents for Hafsås. One is the young Swede Marcus Hellner. Last season, Hellner started the season by winning on home snow at Gällivare, but then vanished for the rest of the season. He missed the medals at the 2009 Worlds at Liberec and only made a WC podium once more, at the other end of the season in the pursuit at the World Cup Finals at Falun, just before tallying a 22nd in the overall World Cup standings.

The other bad - that is, even worse - precedent for Hafsås is his fellow biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who won the opening skate race in the 2006-2007 season - again at Gällivare - but managed just 15th in the infamous blizzard 15km at the Sapporo World Championships. (Of course, that season Bjørndalen did clean up on the biathlon circuit, winning a shelf of medals at World Cup events and taking two golds and a silver at the world championships at Antholz-Anterselva.) The man who did win the Sapporo 15km was another biathlete, Berger. But even beyond the crazy conditions for the Sapporo event, Berger had quite a bit of form to develop between the Gällivare 15km, where he finished fifth, and Sapporo.

Hafsås, conversely, is in great form right now, which means that he faces very, very long odds to win the 15km at Vancouver. Though he's not asking me for advice, I'd nonetheless recommend that he either become a woman and hope to follow in the tracks of Skari and Bjørgen, or take a long break sometime soon so he can build back to his current form by Valentine's Day. Or, of course, he could try the Russian route to lasting speed...


Luke S said...

I declined to bid on Hafsas in Fantasy. Clearly not worth the investment, as you just summed up here. I put down cash for Hellner last year and paid for it.

Anonymous said...

Well you also got the fact that Hafsaas focuses on biathlon. He won`t race most of the xc ski races so that makes him a very bad investment for fantasy.

I mean if he isn`t there he is not getting you any points. That said if you can get him cheap go for it.

And if he does not ski more xc ski races i don`t think he shud be allowed to represent Norway in the Olympics.

keeron said...

My entire league passed on Hafsaas - no one has enough faith in him starting to even auction him off.
Which is fair - the chances of him getting another start are slim.
You restarting the 'Pick the Podium' game this year?

Anonymous said...

Well if you can get him cheap you shud its not unlikely that he will get another start and well 6 dollars isn`T that much :)

Got Natalia Korosteleva for 6 dollars so at that cheap you can afford to gamble.

Byw is there anyway to see the standings in other leagues then your own ?
Would be kinda cool to see how other leagues are doing. Ik now there not comparable as some will be harder then others but would still be cool to see.


Christopher Tassava said...

The masses have spoken, so I am going to make some predictions later this week for the Davos races. Join me via comments or posts, as you're so inclined.

ADS said...

I'm in for Pick the Podium again this year. It was pretty fun last year.

Dutch Skater said...

Are athletes not allowed to take it easy mid-season? In cycling at least, you know, the sport with the short off-season, exceptional talents can get wins early and late in the season. Hard to tell in which season each win exactly is.

Luke S said...

Consistency is the only thing that is valued on the world cup overall.

Anonymous said...

Still some racers will take periods off in the hops of peaking for big championships.