Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tour de Ski Prologue Picks

Others have already weighed in with picks for tomorrow's mostly-flat Tour de Ski prologue (course profile available here), but by god I have to offer my one-fiftieth of a dollar, too.

men's 3.7km freestyle prologue
1. Northug
2. Legkov
3. Teichmann

women's 2.8km freestyle prologue
1. Nystad
2. Kowalczyk
3. Follis

And while I'm at it, picks for the overall TdS podiums:

1. Northug
2. Legkov
3. Cologna

1. Kowalczyk
2. Follis
3. Steira

Hoffmann: Busted (?)

From that well-known ski-news site, the Malaysian Mirror:

Austria's 2002 Olympic 30 kilometres cross country skiing champion Christian Hoffmann was suspended with immediate effect on Thursday by the Austrian Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) over suspicions he is involved in a blood-doping ring.
Let the record show that we were on this story a long time ago.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Original Plans for the Tour de Ski

A couple days ago, I dug up an old video of the men's relay at the 2005 Oberstdorf World Championships, which is a great race* but which also included a little preview by Jürg Capol (then and now the race director for FIS cross-country skiing events) of what was still being described as a ski version of the Tour de France. Said Capol:
I guess today it's a little bit difficult to find out who is the best - really the best - cross-country skiers. Is it the one who goes fast in the sprint, or is it the 50k man, or whoever it is? And as we can see in cycling, they have this Tour de France which extends over all the rest of the season as the biggest highlight. And there you can see all the big names, if it's Mr. Zabel [who] takes part or Mr. Armstrong… [The ski tour] will mostly be some several stages... Now the plans [are] that we would have a prologue, a kind of a prologue in Munich with a a 3 to 5 kilometer prologue. And we would have a team event in Reit im Winkl. We would have a kind of pursuit here, in Oberstdorf. We would go to Zurich for a skate sprint. We would have a king-of-the-mountain in Davos, that means an Alpe d'Huez… where the finish is higher up than the start line. We would go to Italy and have some mass starts and another sprint. And then we end up on the last stage as we can start in all pursuits [sic] with the first coming to the finish, he will win the overall tour.
Capol added that the FIS planned to award the top 30 finishers of each stage the same number of points as a regular World Cup race, and that he expected women to race a total of about 4.5 hours over the entire tour, men about 5.5 hours.

The former prediction sorta came to pass. In the first year of the TdS (2006-2007), racers only received WC points at the end of the Tour, based on the final overall standings (at a rate of four times the usual points, so that first place yielded 400 points, 2 yielded 320, etc.). In subsequent years - including this one - finishers have received half the usual WC points for each individual event and then more points at the end of the Tour based on overall ranking.

Capol's latter prediction sure didn't come to pass. The three Tours de Ski so far have all put the athletes through far fewer hours of racing than Capol's original expectation:

2006-2007 - six stages
Angerer: 3:29:49.7 (last finisher: 3:51)
Kuitunen: 2:20:15.3 (last finisher: 2:44)

2007-2008 - eight stages
Bauer: 3:38:07.4 (last finisher: 4:11)
Kalla: 2:43:01.0 (last finisher: 3:11)

2008-2009 - seven stages
Cologna: 2:56:05.4 (last finisher: 3:24)
Kuitunen: 2:06:41.4 (red lantern: 2:19)

*The 2005 Oberstdorf men's relay was very entertaining. A sizable pack held together for about half of the first leg, at which point Hjelmeset made the race's big selection by trimming the lead group down to just four: himself, Filbrich, Pankratov, and Di Centa. Early in the second leg, Estil and Rotchev cut the group in half, establishing a 1-minute lead over four chasers. On the third leg, Berger and Dementiev stayed out front until late, when Berger accelerated to open a narrow 2.7s gap for Hofstad (remember him?) over Russia's Bolchakov. Hofstad methodically and easily extended the lead to take the win by 17.7s.

The real race happened behind Hofstad. Teichmann started his anchor leg 95s down to Berger, 93s down to Bolchakov in second, and 39s down to Zorzi in third. But Teichmann pushed and pushed, and on the last lap around the 3.3km track, he caught Zorzi on the biggest climb, and then closed on Bolchakov as they entered the stadium. There, in front of thousands of cheering German fans, Teichmann outsprinted the Russian to take the silver - Germany's first medal at the home-snow Worlds. So overcome with emotion was Axel that he subtly pumped his fist as he crossed the line. (The next day Teichmann paired with Angerer for silver in the team sprint.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rogla Wreck

As I should have expected given the venue's mascot,

getting any picks right was devilishly hard this weekend. Rogla saw some wacky stuff, from reportedly poor track prep in the sprints to Saarinen getting DQ'ed for knocking Majdic down in the 15k and massive attrition in the 30k (3 DNSs and 19 DNFs). Below, my picks with the racer's actual finishing spots in parentheses.

women's classic sprint
1. Majdic (3)
2. Prochazkova (30)
3. Saarinen (5)
Randall: semifinals (38); Renner: heats (37)

men's classic sprint
1. Hattestad (21)
2. Kriukov (4)
3. Dahl (31!)
Newell: finals (6); Koos & Harvey: heats (46 & 35, respectively)

women's classic 15k mass start
1. Bjørgen (2)
2. Kowalczyk (1)
3. Majdic (7)
Renner and Randall: top 30 (24 and 30, respectively)

men's classic 30k mass start
1. Northug (1)
2. Angerer (11)
3. Jauhojärvi (DNF! WTF!)
Freeman: top 10 (DNF); Harvey: top 15 (22)

Based on Legkov's racing form so far, I'm predicting he wins the Olympic 50 after the Russian squad runs Northug into the ground with breakaways and such. First, though, it's Tour de Ski time - just 11 days until the prologues at Oberhof on New Year's Day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Rogla

Tobi Angerer on a sprint podium, huh? Okay. It's happened before on the World Cup: two freestyle individual-sprint bronzes in 2003 at Reit im Winkl and 2007 Rybinsk (both in freestyle) and freestyle team-sprint medals in 2006 at Sapporo, 2004 at both Duesseldorf and Oberstdorf, and in 2003 again at Duesseldorf. On top of that, he has a silver in the team sprint at Liberec this year. Not shabby, and more importantly a good sign he'll be in fightin' shape 29,800 meters into Sunday's classic race of many laps (12, to be exact about it) - though it seems very, very likely that he'll trail at least one particular dude over the finish line. My picks:

men's classic 30k mass start
1. Northug
2. Angerer
3. Jauhojärvi

Freeman: top 10; Harvey: top 15

Speculation elsewhere about the Russians showing up in force seems misplaced: Legkov and Shiraev are men you want in freestyle races, not classic ones. Vylegzhanin, maybe...

As the women take their six laps of the short, sharp course at Rogla, I think there will be plenty of time for Petra Majdic to think through her disappointing third-place finish in Saturday's sprints and figure out how to get on the podium, either by out-descending the others on the second half of the last lap or just overpowering others on the way to the line. I don't think she's got the goods for the win, though...

women's classic 15k mass start
1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Majdic
Renner and Randall: top 30

A few notes:
1. It's going to be pretty cold at Rogla for the race (5°F/-15°C), though apparently sunnier than on Saturday.
2. These distance races - like the last long races, those at Trondheim last spring - will include opportunities to gain additional World Cup points: at the 5k and 10k marks in the women's race, and at the 7.5 k, 15k, and 22.5 k marks in the men's. The first three racers over those lines get 15, 10, and 5 points, respectively, which means that someone who sweeps all the points and wins the race could garner 130 points in the women's race and 145 in the men's. Not a bad incentive, though arguably last spring Petter Northug raced himself off the Trondheim podium and out of the World Cup overall title by challenging for all the sprint points in the race at Trondheim.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rčng In the Lnd of Fw Vwels

Cheery little Zlodej here is the mascot of the upcoming World Cup races in Rogla, Slovenia. The World Cup has
only visited Slovenia proper once before, for a men's 15k skate race at Bohinj in January 1993. (The podium: Smirnov,
Mogren, Daehlie.) Before that, the World Cup had staged a few other events at Bohinj and at Sarajevo in the 1980s and 1990s, back when both places were loc
ated in Yugoslavia. These events included the 1984 Winter Games, where the XC events were dominated by Sweden and Finland. Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi took golds in all three of the individual women's races.

This year, the racing will feature Slovenes somewhat more prominently than those Cold War races did, with the native daughter and current World Cup leader Petra Majdic (who appears here and there in the Rogla organizers' program) a favorite in both Saturday's classic sprints and the 15k mass-start classic race on Sunday.

The courses at Rogla - which Andy Newell described as "basically in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain" - are woven into the side of that mountain.

The sprints - 1400m for women, 1500m for men - are longish and undulating, with at least three significant climbs and descents. The distance course has a profile that resembles last weekend's up-and-down Davos courses. The difference here is that the Rogla course is just 2500 meters long, which means laps aplenty. The downhill run into the stadium should ensure that there's a a very big pack until the last few hundred meters of the race, at which point a short, sharp uphill will probably help with the selection.

Against the context of the whole Olympic season, the Rogla events could be quite significant. The sprints are second of four classic sprints that build toward the classic sprints in Whistler on February 17, and the mass-start classic races are first of just two such events before the Olympic classic marathons on February 27 and 28. (The other mass-start classic events are the World Cup the 10k/20k races at Val di Fiemme during the Tour de Ski in early January.) In other words, it's here that the classic specialists, especially over the long distances, need to impress their coaches with Olympic fitness.

While all that might liven up the short-course racing on Sunday, the sprints on Saturday should put the usual suspects on the podiums. My picks:

women's classic sprint
1. Majdic
2. Prochazkova
3. Saarinen
Randall: semifinals; Renner: heats

men's classic sprint
1. Hattestad
2. Kriukov
3. Dahl
Newell: finals; Koos & Harvey: heats (Kershaw tweeted that he's out sick)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Midweek Videos

Last week, the FIS linked to a video of one of Matti Heikkinen's training days at Ramsau. The video's sponsored by Polar, the Finnish heart-rate monitor company, so it is a bit Euro-cheesy and pretty heavy on the HR data, but it's still an interesting look into an elite athlete's training regimen. I guess his "long hard hill workout" (1:40 and 24km long, with an average HR of 160 bpm and 40 minutes over anaerobic threshold) had the desired effects, given that Heikkinen won the Davos skate race a few weeks after the video came out.

The Internet emitted another slick-and-cheesy training video this week, as well: a piece produced by NBC and the National Science Foundation that looks at the basic physiology of skiing and focuses on American Liz Stephen. An installment in a series that's part of NBC's Olympic coverage, the video is worth a look - if only to snicker when they use a clip of Virpi Kuitunen to show the body generating energy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Shows what I know: "Surprises don't often happen" at Davos.


Try, "surprises will account for 5/6ths of the podiums in the distance races." Everyone on the men's podium was a surprise, with the possible, slight exception of Hellner, who can be sort of expected to do well in a skate race. I love to see Heikkinen do well and start to help round out a Finnish men's team that might form a medal-ready relay squad at Vancouver. But on the topic of a good relay team - five Frenchmen in the top 8, with Magnificat in third? Qui est cet homme?

More satisfyingly, I did pick Kalla to make the women's podium, but I sure as hell did not see Khazova (née Artemova) ahead of her by a colossal margin (the winner's gap of 27 seconds was equivalent to 170 meters) or Smigun barely behind her.

For the other places, I did pick Renner, Freeman, Kershaw, and Babikov correctly, though I underestimated Kershaw's speed and overestimated both Randall's and Harvey's. Next time!

If I had a ten-sided D&D die, I would label each side with one of the top ten sprinters, and then roll it to guess the podims for the freestyle sprints. But I don't, so I'll just see who's done well in freestyle sprints this season. The Davos sprints are microcosms of the distance races: out and back, and up and down.

women's freestyle sprint
1. Korosteleva
2. Falk
3. Bjorgen
Randall: finals; Crawford: top 10

men's freestyle sprint
1. Gløersen
2. Petukhov
3. Morilov
Newell: finals; Koos: top 15. (No Canadians are racing.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Da Climb at Davos

The distance course at Davos this weekend is about as simple as it can be. On the x axis, you go out, then you come back. On the y axis, you go up up up, then you come down down down - a 41m max climb at worst, but 180m total climbing each lap, including a couple sharp ramps on the "downhill" half of the course. Repeat twice if equipment makers might manufacture pink boots for you, thrice if not.

Possibly because the course is so straightforward and demanding (don't forget the Alpine elevation: the starting line is at 1550 meters), this perennial stop on the World Cup tour is almost always the site of a win by one of the big guns. Surprises don't often happen here. In the races since 2006, for instance, the winners have been named Svartedal and Kuitunen (February '06), Vittoz/Livers (tie) and Kuitunen (February '07), Teichmann and Kuitunen (December '07), and Olsson and Kuitunen (December '08). As that list suggests, Davos is very much Virpi's stomping grounds, with six podiums (including four wins) in distance and sprint events here. I don't think the Finnish veteran will do that well here this year, though. My picks:

women's 10km freestyle (start list)
1. Kalla
2. Saarinen
3. Steira
Randall and Renner: top 30.

men's 15km freestyle (start list)
1. Northug
2. Legkov
3. Vittoz
Freeman: top 10. Harvey: top 20. Kershaw and Babikov: top 30. Hafsås isn't skiing.

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...