Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How Bad Are the German and Italian Men?

Pretty bad.

Through nine individual events in this World Championships season, the Italian and German distance-racing men are really stinking it up. I dunno what the nordic-skiing communities in either country are saying about this, but I'd wager it isn't good: Worlds are only two months away.

In the head-to-head matchup of dismal distance teams, the German men have a slight advantage. Thanks to a sixth-place finish in the 10km classic race in Kuusamo, Filbrich ranks 21st in the WC overall. The young Tscharnke is in 23rd, just a few points behind. After that, though, it's a long way down to Teichmann in 46th (on the strength of a 5th in that Kuusamo classic event) and even further to Goring and Angerer in 57th and 58th - so far from the Red Group, they're only faintly pink. And none of the German sprinters - er, the German sprinter, Wenzl - have scored meaningful points.

So far, the best Italian men's finish is Scola's second in the Dusseldorf skate sprint. Ranked 12th in the overall, Scola also finished fourth in the Davos skate sprint, to go along with two twenty-something finishes earlier in the season. The only other Italian man in the top 30 of the World Cup overall is another sprinter, Renato Pasini, in 25th; his best is a fifth in the Kuusamo classic sprint. The once-vaunted Italian distance skiers are nowhere to be seen: di Centa is 39th, on just three point-scoring races (two 15ths and a 22nd), Hofer is in 49th, Piller-Cottrer is in 67th, Checchi is in 68th, and Clara is in 85th.

Counterpose these dismal accomplishments first to the respective teams' female racers: Germany has two women in the overall top 20 (Fessel in 5th and Zeller in 20th) while Italy has two in the top 10 (Follis, 3rd; Longa, 6th), one more in 30th (Genuin), and some promising skiing from Rupil, ranked only 44th but holding a 9th in the La Clusaz skate race.

Counterpose the men's results next to their early-season results last year. By the Christmas break in 2009, Teichmann had a 7th place in the Kuusamo classic race, di Centa had finished 4th and Filbrich 5th in the classic mass-start at Rogla, and Angerer had garnered a shock 2nd in the classic sprint at the same venue. Even Piller-Cottrer had an 11th, a 10th, and a 9th to his name.

What to make of all this? At the very least, it bodes poorly for good German or Italian results at Oslo, either individually or in the relay. In the latter discipline, the Germans' and Italians' weakness means that the track is clearer for Sweden and Russia, for Norway (not an untroubled men's squad), and even for outliers like Finland, Switzerland (winners of the La Clusaz relay) and the Czech Republic (with their bronze at Vancouver).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bibs and Boards: La Clusaz

I've got lots to say about the last races and the upcoming ones, but no time to say it. Until I do, here's a cheap post - a bad screen-cap of the terrible bibs worn at the La Clusaz race, here mercifully covering some of the hideous suits worn this year by France. Awful, awful, awful - so bad that Eldar Rønning seems to prefer looking closely at Maurice Manificat's ass than the bib.

For what it's worth, these bibs advertised the Rhone Alpes region of France and the city of Annecy's bid for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Annecy is in a part of the world that is neither ugly nor flat, so it seems like a good spot for the WOGs - though I'd hope that another site would host the cross-country skiing events, since the round-and-round format of the La Clusaz races leaves something to be desired.

Maurice Manificat

Saturday, December 18, 2010

La Clusaz Parte Deux

The La Clusaz mass starts were great races, though surprising in lots of ways. I didn't expect Northug to be playing his A- game (second!), and I didn't expect either Kalla or Hellner to be playing their C- games (14th and 29th, respectively). Seeing Northug in the lead group with a thousand meters to go, I sure didn't expect to see him get outsprinted. And I was happily surprised to see a bunch of Canadian men toward the head of the race (Kershaw 13, Babikov 17, Harvey 24), Freeman with a good-but-not-great 25th, and two American women inside the top 20: Stephen 18, Arritola 19. Good stuff.


And but so, the mass starts definitely show which countries oughta do well in the relays on Sunday.

Finland has only two good skiers right now, Roponen and Lähteenmäki, so I don't see them figuring. Russia is a cipher, and Sweden looks to be at least one in-form skier from contending - though if Kalla gets up for the race, they'll be on the podium.

1. Norway I (Johaug will turn in the fastest classic lap, I'll eat the wax on the bottom of my iron)
2. Italy (Follis, Longa, and Rupil were all in the top 10 in the mass start)
3. Norway II (Jacobsen and Kristoffersen went 8, 10, 30 in the mass start)

Switzerland and/or Canada might pull off a top 5 in this event, but the usual suspects will be on the podium.

1. Russia I (Belov, followed by Legkov [third in the mass start], Sedov [10] and Vylegzhanin [1])
2. Norway I
3. Sweden

Friday, December 17, 2010

Clues about La Clusaz

This weekend's World Cup races - the last events before the Tour de Ski starts on New Year's Eve - take place at high altitude in La Clusaz, France. La Clusaz is Vincent Vittoz's home, but he won't be racing this weekend as he continues to recover from the injury that knocked him out of the Gällivare relay.


On Sunday, La Clusaz will stage the second relay races of the season, following on Saturday the first mass-start races of the season: a 15k free for women and a 30k free for men. Both races be run on a short 2500 meter course, which means the women will ski six laps and the men twelve. This track-meet format doesn't please some racers, such as Grumpstyna Kowalczyk: "Both Justyna and her coach have many objections to the prepared by the French route, which according to them is not suitable for performing at the highest level of competition."

Someone give Justysia a gold medal for lowering expectations, eh?

The last time La Clusaz hosted races,* two years ago, Petter Northug won a two-up sprint against Dario Cologna, while Kristin Størmer Steira won on a breakaway, finishing 13 seconds up on Aino-Kaisa Saarinen for only her second WC win. I don't think either Norwegian will win again on Saturday, though both might figure in the podiums. Here are my picks, as submitted to the excellent WhoWins prediction game over at World of XC. If you're the kind of person who reads Nordic Commentary Project, you're definitely the kind of person who'll like WhoWins - go over and enter your own picks for La Clusaz.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Therese and Pølsa

I'm not sure why the Swix website is letting Therese "Energizer Bunny" Johaug show us why she ditched her last boyfriend, but there you go.


What's that, Pølsa? Really?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Picture of the Weekend

Bjørgen, having closed her 30 second gap to Kowalczyk, sits in on the descent to the finish line at Davos. "Hey, Justyna. I'm glad I caught up to you. Have you seen my inhaler? I thought I had it, but maybe you have it. Pass it back, wouldja?"

I almost wished that Marit had come around Justyna on the straightaway, just as a "fuck you." She didn't, but then again she didn't need to. The yellow bib speaks for itself.




Saturday, December 11, 2010

Davos Sprints

My picks for the distance races didn't suck: I wound up finishing second among "Who Wins" 106 predictors of the Davos distance races. If I hadn't been such a homer, picking Freeman in fifth, I'd have done even better. I hope my picks for Sunday's freestyle sprints are as good:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Davostupendous

I love the racing in Davos. Last year's predictions were way off, but I was right on in describing the course as
"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."

Same goes this year, course-wise, though I'm now making my picks on the cool"Who Wins" feature at World of XC, a great XC skiing news aggregator. My picks for the Davos distance races:

Since you can only pick the top five at Who Wins, I'll add that I see Kershaw in the top 15, Randall in the top 30, and good old Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset in the top 20. Dude turned 39 just a few days ago. Another old classic specialist, Andrus Veerpalu, is racing at Davos, too. He's a lock for the top 30, but probably not better - he was only 29th in the 10k classic at Kuusamo.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Düsseldork

The team sprints at Düsseldorf were fine events, lemme just say. The Italy I duo of Genuin and Follis led from wire to wire in the women's event, giving Follis her second win of the weekend. Norway I - Brun-Lie and Falla - eked out a frankly unimpressive second place, just ahead of Canada's Gaiazova/Crawford team, which finished in a shock third after Slovenia's anchor, Visnar, tripped over her own pole on the finishing straight. Follis and Genuin outclassed everyone in positioning themselves as one of the favorites for the team sprint at Oslo, though that race will be run in classic. Depending on whether Bjørgen races the TS, and on who composes the Swedish team, Italy could be on the top step of the podium.

By my count at least five of the ten teams in the final crashed at least once, with Visnar's self-inflicted tumble being the most significant. A slow-mo collision between the Finnish and Swedish team in the exchange zone was the most entertaining, with some shouting and pole-swinging.

The men's race was comparatively cleaner, with (in my viewing) no serious crashes until the last S-turn before the "downhill" to the finish. There, Germany II's Wenzl, running in first, moved hard to the inside of the turn, trying to fend off Norway I's Dahl, who was trying to sneak past along the barriers. Elbows rubbed, shoulders bumped, and Dahl's ski went under Wenzl's, bringing them both down.


Everyone else zoomed by, setting up a sprint that Norway II's Gløersen took by a toe ahead of Sweden I's Jönsson, with Italy I's Hofer taking third. Amazingly, the Russian teams of Kriukov/Parfenov and Petukhov/Morilov went five and six, fading badly on the last lap (and finishing behind Austria [Austria?]). As the sprint was decided 400 meters away, Wenzl and Dahl discussed their situation. Great stuff - setting things up nicely for Oslo, where I'll be shocked if the Germans figure.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bibs and Boards (Kuusamo Edition)

Having received widespread acclaim* for the first "Bibs and Boards" post, after Gällivare, I thought I'd do another for the races at Kuusamo.

In Friday's sprint races, everyone wore the bibs seen here on the blogger-like upper body of John Kristian Dahl:
It's actually kinda difficult to figure out just what Weber is, though the company's web page is a model of corporate-speak. Eventually one learns that Weber is "a leading manufacturer of easy to apply products in the facades, construction mortars, flooring systems and tile fixing markets." Nothing says aerobic sport like concrete! More importantly, I guess, the company supports the Norwegian women's XC ski team under its Leca brand name. This might be why I think of lightweight expanded clay aggregates whenever I think about Steira and Johaug.

With the bibs worn by the masked racers during Saturday's 5/10k classic races, we get right into doping. Or at least dope, for ratiopharm describes itself as "Europe's leading generics brand." The company makes 950 different drugs, with "the largest share (around 25 per cent)... aimed at treating blood circulation problems" and other products designed to treat asthma. Put differently, Russia loves ratiopharm and Kowalczyk hates 'em.



In the final race on Sunday, the men's freestyle pursuit, racers like winner Alexander "V2 to Death" Legkov sported these bibs, which are the best of the year. The Eurosport commentators could hardly wait to pun about Legkov's "gutsy" attack late in the men's 15k, an attack which might well have been powered by Gutzy's energy drinks and bars. It's Finnish Gatorade, basically.


Finally, I have to say that I welcome the trackside sound of vuvuzelas. They're not quite cowbells, but they're pretty good - and much more distinct on the broadcasts. I'm sure the Norwegians are opposed to this innovation, even as they secretly prepare a horde of the world's best vuvuzela-blowers to swarm into Holmenkollen for Worlds.


* This acclaim was "widespread" in intensity and credibility, consisting as it did of one tweet from the world's best nordic-skiing journalist.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Puursuutamo

I've gone on record on this blog and in the world-renowned Fasterskier podcasts as being emphatically in favor of pursuit-style races, and Sunday's freestyle pursuits at Kuusamo only reinforce my support. (Pursuit-start races will occur at least four more times during this World Cup season: three times during the Tour de Ski and once during the Finale in Falun.)


The Kuusamo pursuits are going to cover some of the same brutal trails as today's 5/10k races: a descent right out of the stadium, a long half-kilometer climb followed by a steep descent to the halfway point of the 5k lap, a series of small/medium/large climbs over the next 2000 meters, and then the hard climb back to the stadium. It's a great course for pursuits, where some racers will cluster naturally, according to start intervals, while others have to ski alone. Marit Bjørgen should be able to ski alone for the entirety of her race, but some jockeying should occur behind her as Majdic (starting 26 seconds behind), Kowalczyk (+35s), and Kalla (+43s) chase. My picks:

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Kalla
Randall: top 20

On the men's side, we should see even more place-swapping, since sprinters Joensson and Poltaranin are the first two starters. Cologna, starting 10 seconds behind Joensson, should have no problem catching them. Behind, Harvey has been told by his coaches to ski with Legkov and perhaps Rickardsson all the way through the race, catching the sprinters and positioning himself for a podium spot - which would be a brilliant result. Starting in 13th place at +49s, Freeman should be able to move up quite a few spots past sprinters and/or classic specialists. A top 10 is almost certain (on the assumption that Poltaranin, Joensson, Roenning, maybe Filbrich, and Eriksson won't maintain their positions), and a top 5 is possible. Whatever the results, it'll be a great race.

1. Cologna
2. Legkov
3. Harvey
Freeman: top 7; Kershaw: top 15

Friday, November 26, 2010

"Ruka Triple" Pt. II

Friday's sprint races were as usual pretty interesting. The venue is picture-perfect (though a bit cold, judging by the full-head buffs that pretty much everyone wore), and the tracks are simple and brutal, with the last steep uphill leading into a nasty left-hand corner that seemed to affect at least a couple skiers in every heat. The surprises for me were, first, Charlotte Kalla being a factor in a classic final (even with Saarinen absent and Kowalczyk disqualified, this is notable); second, the presence in the finals of Madoka Natsumi; and third, the 13th-place finish of the Chinese skier Qinghai Sun (fluke or challenge?).


Given all that, I'm looking forward to seeing how the 5/10k classic technique races go off on Saturday - even though I don't think we'll see many surprises on the podium. (For what it's worth, neither do the guys at Skifaster.net.)

1. Bjørgen (dominant so far)
2. Kowalcyzk (seeking redemption for the second straight weekend after her DSQ today)
3. Kalla (I'm thinking she'll want to position herself for Sunday's freestyle race)
Randall: top 20

1. Cologna (on form and raring to go)
2. Jauhojärvi (in good shape and eager to fly the Finnish colors)
3. Johnsrud Sundby (who's on form and who won here in 2008 over 15k)
Harvey, Kershaw, and Freeman: top 20; Newell: top 30

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kuusamo "Ruka Triple"

This weekend, the fabled Ruka ski center near Kuusamo, Finland, will host a new(ish) event on the World Cup circuit: a "mini-tour" comprising a classic sprint on Friday, a classic 5/10k individual start on Saturday, and a freestyle 10/15k pursuit on Sunday, all linked in such a way that finishes in one event determine starts in the next, and the first racers over the line on Sunday will win the whole event.


Shorter than the Tour de Ski at midseason and closely akin to the World Cup finale that Falun has hosted the last few years, the "Ruka Triple" will be an interesting test. Members of the U.S. team like their chances, and I'd think that the Canadians would be equally excited about the short-medium-long race format, both because they have, in Kershaw and Harvey, some good all-rounders and because they stunk last weekend at Gallivare and need to redeem themselves.

While the overall event will probably be won by an all-rounder - I pick Bjørgen and Cologna (in Northug's absence) - Friday's classic sprint races, as the first sprints of the season, will be prime opportunities for the sprint stars to see if they're on form for the World Championships, where the sprint will be staged in the other technique. My picks for the sprints, to be held on the typically tough uphill-finish Ruka course:

1. Bjørgen
2. Majdic
3. Kowalczyk
Randall: top 10; Crawford: top 30

1. Joensson
2. Newell
3. Hattestad
Kershaw & Freeman: top 30

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who Wins Relays? (Part I: Women)

The 4x5 and 4x10 relays are the only direct tests of national teams. Apart from including only half as many skiers (and only one technique), team sprints require skills too specialized to make them true tests of an entire team's fitness - and a distance race that features team tactics is a rare event. Not for nothing, then, are the men's and women's relays viewed as the best opportunities to see which country has the best all-round squad.


With that as background and with the relays at the Oslo World Championships ahead of us on March 3 and 4, 2011, it's worth looking more closely at the relay events over the past few years to see which teams (and which racers) win, which countries takes the place and show spots, and how many teams vie for relay medals in any given year.

To that end, I've compiled information on the important teams (and team members) in all the key relay races since the 2005-2006 season: each relay in the Olympic Winter Games or World Ski Championships and each relay that occurred in the run-up to those big events. (I didn't include any relays that occurred after the Olys or Worlds, since they didn't have any effect on the makeup of the teams at those events. I also didn't include any races in the 2007-2008 season, when neither a Worlds nor an Olympics occurred.) The list of women's relays is available here.. Take a look at it for the information behind my conclusions below.

First of all, the number of "important" relays (i.e., before and at the Worlds/Olys) varies from two to four - a significant number when you consider the need to figure out both who should ski and in which order:
  • 2005-2006: two World Cup races and the Torino Olympics
  • 2006-2007: three World Cups and the Sapporo Worlds
  • 2008-2009: two World Cups and the Liberec Worlds
  • 2009-2010: just one World Cup before the Vancouver Olympics
  • 2010-2011: three World Cups - at Gällivare, La Clusaz, and Rybinsk - before the Oslo Worlds
Second, and without accounting for the effect of the simple number of relay events in a given year (that kinda crunching is more Statistical Skier, less Nordic Commentary Project), fewer countries are contending for the podium spots from one year to the next. In both 2006-2007 and 20o5-2006, five different nations put teams on the podiums at World Cups or the Olympics/Worlds. In 2009-2010 and 2008-2009, four nations made the podiums - just one team, but a 20% drop. Part of the explanation for this narrowing is that Russia has completely dropped out of the relay competitions since the 2005-2006 season, during which they made the podium in one World Cup and won the Olympic gold at Torino - with at least one doper (Tchepalova) on the team.

The smaller number of contenders can also be partly explained by retirements: of the Italian stalwart Gabriela Paruzzi and of the Czech superstar Katerina Neumannova. Until Gällivare, Italy hadn't made a relay podium since 2005-2006, and the far weaker Czech team hadn't done so since 2006-2007 - when Katka was their anchor.

Third, and as the Neumannova example illustrates, superstar skiers can only do so much for a relay team - see also Poland and Slovenia and, to some extent, Sweden, at least prior to Kalla's maturation in 2008. Germany is a case in point: without a single skier on a par with Kalla, Bjørgen, or Kowalczyk, they managed nonetheless to use Kuenzel-Nystad and Sachenbacher Stehle as half of a pretty successful squad, one that earned silver medals at Vancouver, Liberec, Sapporo, and Torino (and three World Cup podiums). Not even Norway did as well in the big races, earning "just" a gold at Vancouver and a bronze at Sapporo (plus eight WC podiums in Worlds/Oly seasons - but who's counting?). Can we say that Claudia and Evi are the best relay racers around?

A fourth, fairly obvious observation: teams that don't make the podium early in the season have a hard time making the podium at Worlds or the Olympics. Sure, sure: it's because fast skiers win. Over the past five years, this has happened only three times - which may it's frequent (three out of the four big races) or rare (three medals out of twelve possible). Italy missed the podiums in the 2005-2006 World Cup but then won the bronze at Torino, and Germany won two big-race medals after failing to make the podium earlier in the season - at Vancouver (after just one World Cup relay) and at Liberec (after two, one of which they didn't even enter).

Before inviting reactions to these conclusions or other assessments of the data, one and a half last points: it's not always best to run your "best" skier last, but it helps. Norway and Finland have well with Bjørgen and Saarinen skiing anchor, but they've done well with other orderings, too: Norway with Johaug last won gold at Vancouver, Finland with Muranen last won gold at Sapporo. On the other hand, Sweden hasn't reached a podium without Kalla on anchor since the 2006-2007 season (and later missed the Sapporo podium with Nordgren as anchor).

For what it's worth, then, I think the Gällivare podium will be the Oslo World Champs podium: Norway with gold, Sweden and Italy for the minor medals. Even with two more relays to go - at La Clusaz in the middle of December and Rybinsk in early February - no other recent relay contender seems to have enough racers to make a serious run at Oslo. Is it too late to petition FIS to allow a superteam of Majdic, Saarinen, Sachenbacher Stehle, and Kowalczyk?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bibs and Boards (Gällivare Edition)

I was struck, this summer, by the way that the FIS's updates accented news about sponsors. Granted, there wasn't much racing to comment upon (rollerski world cup, anyone?), but I was still interested in press releases like this:

FIS Marketing AG, in close cooperation with FIS and its member National Ski Associations, is proud to present a new marketing concept for the FIS Cross-Country World Cup beginning with the upcoming 2010/2011 competition season.

The most significant elements of the new concept are a streamlined sponsorship model with just five main sponsors - 1 presenting sponsor and 4 main sponsors - internationally to create a consistent look and feel for the FIS Cross-Country World Cup. This approach is poised to improve the presentation of all partners and increase the visibility of their brands while enhancing the level of exclusivity for each.
Whatever that might mean, it probably means that money makes the cross-country ski world go 'round, and it surely means trackside boards like this:



Four-wheel drive Beemer, anyone?

And of course it means bibs like this in the women's relay



and like this in the men's relay



So what exactly are LKAB and Boliden? Glad you asked - since their dollars (err, kronor) helped make the racing at Gällivare happen, from the grooming to the prize money.

LKAB describes itself as "an international high-tech minerals group" - a mining company. LKAB has always been based in Sweden's iron fields, which are located around Gällivare. In other words, they're homers. Good on them! I'm only disappointed that nobody calls Hellner the "LKAB Man." I'm sure it'd trip off the tongue in Swedish.

Boliden, on the other hand, is a totally different kind of company - a zinc and copper mining company based in central Sweden, not an iron-mining concern based in Lapland. Sorta: they have a giant open-pit copper mine near Gällivare. It must have been into this pit that Kowalcyzk fell during the skate race last Saturday.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Relaying the Favorites

After the traditional first-weekend relays go off tomorrow in Gällivare, I'm going to do some analysis - not quite Statistical Skier-level analysis, but analysis nonetheless - of how early-season relays may (or may not) indicate outcomes of the big relays later on - World Championships and Olympics. For now, though, I'll follow up my so-so predictions for the Gällivare individual races* with these predictions for the relays:

women's 4x5k
1. Norway I (Bjørgen, Bjørgen, Bjørgen)
2. Sweden (Kalla will pull them back up the field)
3. Norway II, or maybe Germany if they can find some legs
USA: top 10 (out of 21 teams on the start list)

men's 4x10k
1. Sweden (Hellner on anchor + no Northug = handy win)
2. Russia I (Sedov looks like a great complement to Vylegzhanin and Legkov)
3. Norway I (Jesperson and Rothe look pretty decent - and the latter's skied on a winning WC relay before)

CAN: rallying after the skate races for a top 10
USA: top 15, but with Freeman running with the leaders on his second leg

* Pick Analysis of the Individual Races
Women: I picked Kalla to win, but she came second to Bjørgen, whom I had in third. Kowalcyzk, my pick for second, finished something like millionth. I did see Kikkan in the top 30, and she finished 19th - a great early-season spot.

Men: I correctly saw Hellner winning, but I just couldn't believe Cologna would do well. He did, finishing second just ahead of Daniel Rickardsson. My third-place prediction, Legkov, finished a bit further down, in a respectable 6th. On the other hand, my pick for second, Manificat, finished in Kowalczykian style in 17th. And while the Canadaians had a forgettable day on the tracks, Kris Freeman turned in an excellent 9th place. Not too shabby.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Yay Yay Yay for Gällivare

Finally, the World Cup is back. No more (okay, much less) reading about training plans and coaching changes and all that frippery. Now we can focus on the racing - and of course, talking at some length about the racing, as Colin and I do on our podcast over at Fasterskier.


I aim to get back to blogging here as frequently as I can bear, but I'll kick things off for the season with predictions for the season's inaugural races at Gällivare - from which a certain Norwegian superstar is abstaining:

1. Charlotte Kalla
2. Justyna Kowalczyk (if she bothers to do the entire race*)
3. Marit Bjørgen
Kikkan Randall: top 30

1. Marcus Hellner
2. Maurice Manificat
3. Alexander Legkov
I see good things for the North Americans: at least three of the Big Four - Freeman, Kershaw, Harvey, Babikov will wind up in the top 30. You read it here first!

* The Overtrained One protested the extension of a planned 5k to 10k last weekend at Muonio by simply dropping out at the halfway point. Awesome.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hard Man

From a short interview with Lukas Bauer translated and published by the FIS:

Q: How did you survive summer with your health?

LB: I stayed healthy the whole summer. Only during the last week on our camp in Obertiliach I pulled my thigh muscle. I ran forty-five 100 m sprints and still feel uncomfortable. I will have it checked by a physiotherapist
4.5 kilometers, 100 meters at a time. Nice.

On related note, only 5 months and 10 days until the 2011 World Ski Championships at the Holmenkollen!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Race Tags



No matter what the upcoming racing season brings - more Northug dominance, duels between Bjørgen and Kowalczyk, Majdic's triumphant return to racing, the Oslo Worlds (and the question of whether the Norwegian men's relay will even medal on home snow) - I hope that race organizers use stickier race numbers than they did at Vancouver. I was distracted watching them flap in the wind; I wonder if the racers were bothered by them.


(Photo credit to Fasterskier.com)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Podcastage

The long-lost NCP Podcast is back! The guys at Fasterskier called us up to talk smack about Canada and other nations with inferior potassium. Listen to our best attempts to add insight without enraging the fasterskier commentariat here!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ending With a Crash

1. The chickens have come home to roost in Russia:

Vladimir Loginov quit as president of the Russian cross-country skiing federation (FLGR) on Monday following the country’s dismal showing at last month’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Tell me I'm not the only person who thinks the abbreviation for the Russian ski federation is fantastic.

2. The infamous bridge at Falun - steep and placed at the bottom of a fast descent - claimed quite a few victims in Saturday's pursuit. I know this video clip has already showed up everywhere, but it's still awesome.

The crash itself - especially #20 Teodor Peterson's out-of-control tackle of #53 Brian Gregg (where's the yellow card, ref?) - is amazing, but I particularly enjoyed seeing Lukas Bauer slip through just ahead of the crash on the snow outside of the v-boards. Let the record show that it was Anders Svanebo (#50) who started this whole mess.


3. Then, at the end of the same race, we see Daniel Rickardsson going all out in a sprint against Andrus Veerpalu for 30th place. Until he wasn't.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Falun and Done

One more pair of races for the World Cup season? At least it's a good one. I love the hunter-style pursuits, and think the FIS should expand the use of them beyond the Tour de Ski and the Grand Final. My picks for Sunday's skate races, which again involve a lot of Mördarbackening, are complicated by Kowalczyk's bad result in the pursuit on Saturday and by the tight field in the men's race.


I don't think Kowalczyk can pull back 50 seconds on Bjørgen in 10,000 meters, especially with Bjørgen being arguably in better form right now. My god, she can lift anchors! The race for third will be determined by how many racers wind up in the pack with Kalla, who is I think going to go nuts from the gun. If Kowalczyk is going badly, I could see Kalla working with Steira to catch her. And Kikkan! A hell of a good result in the pursuit means she is positioned to do very well in the skate race. That'd be a nice cap to a good season.

women's 10k freestyle handicap start
1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Kalla
Randall: top 10

Northug's 40s lead should be unassailable, given his win in the pursuit and his desire to end his first World Cup championship season with another win. Behind, the group that starts from +1:20 to +1:51 - including Angerer, Södergren, Cologna, Bauer, and other notables - will probably coalesce to chase down Larsson, if not Hellner. Honestly, I'd love to see Hellner turn on the jets to catch Northug in front of the Swedish crowd, but the tough, wet conditions and the lateness of the season make that unlikely - and we all know how a sprint would probably turn out.

men's 15k freestyle handicap start
1. Northug
2. Hellner
3. Angerer

Friday, March 19, 2010

Falun Pursuits

Saturday's pursuit races at Falun should be good, for two main reasons. First, as the course map/profile shows, the skiers are apparently going to have to climb the Mördarbacken several times: twice in the women's 2x5k race (two laps), four times in the men's 2x10k race (four laps). Brutal. Second, thanks to the way the Stockholm sprints affected Friday's Mördarbacken prologues, the start lists are interesting mixes of pure distance racers, pure sprinters, and all-rounders.


Skiers in the last group will show up best on Saturday, of course. I don't think Kowalczyk will either gain or lose much time on Saturday, meaning she'll hold onto her narrow lead over Bjørgen in the general classification. On the other hand, Mats Larsson will give up his lead in the men's standings, and see at least Cologna and Northug move past him.

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Kalla

1. Northug
2. Cologna
3. Hellner

(What, by the way, happened to Bauer? He didn't do a thing in the prologue - too short a distance, I guess.)

"Queen of Mördarbacken" Liveblog

(All times Central Standard Time, U.S.A.)


5:41: It's a warm day at Falun, and the snow cover looks thin and wet - a klister day if there ever was one. So far, only a couple racers have finished, though already some strong skiers have hit the top of the Mördarbacken climb, establishing decent times at the 1.0k mark there. So far, the best time for the full distance is that of Kristina Smigun, at 8:49.5. Olga Savialova, who has the best time at the early split, 3:57.1, is soon to cross the line, through.

5:42: Here's Savialova, crushing Smigun's time: 8:35.2. Savialova was only the 8th of the 48 starters today, but this is a good time!

5:44: Watching the women climb the Mördarbacken is interesting. Everyone is breaking into a herringbone but the fastest skiers so far have been able to stride further up the hill and then run smoothly. None of this is not surprising, of course, but it's striking. A lot of skiers of slipping and tripping badly as they herringbone, whether from fatigue, wax, or lack of practice at herringboning for a full minute.

5:46: Anna Haag comes in juuust behind Savialova's time, +1.6s. Not bad!

5:48: Kristina Størmer Steira hits the climb timecheck way outside the lead. This is just too short a distance for her - she's barely warmed up after 1,000 meters.

5:51: Being the reversed form of the finishing ranks from the Stockholm sprint, the start list might be represented as a kind of U-shape, with many good distance skiers at the top and the bottom of the list, and sprinters in the middle. Savialova's time could well hold up right to the end of the day, when Saarinen, Kowalczyk, and Bjørgen come through.

5:53: One thing that Eurosport has that NBC didn't during the Olympics is trackside audio: you can hear the athletes' breathing, the sound of their skis and poles, the coaches' instructions. It adds a lot to the race.

5:54: Johaug comes through, far off the lead. She looks pissed off about it.

5:55: Here's Kikkan Randall, who looks pretty strong going up the climb. Two minutes down the track is Virpi Kuitunen, who doesn't look to have recaptured her form of two years ago. Virpi does show a nice smooth herringbone, though, and comes through the timecheck at +4.0s.

5:59: Charlotte Kalla has just started, to a happy cheer from the crowd. She could do very well today, though she'd probably prefer a skate race.

Up the track, some of the sprinters - Magdalena Pajala from Sweden - look horrible on the climb, nearly stumbling to their knees.

6:01: Kuitunen is in the stadium, and working hard. She hits that long, famous uphill to the finish line just as Savialova's time passes. Virpi comes over at +11s, which isn't bad and sets her up well for the pursuit.

6:02: Follis comes through the finish line with a great time, just 3.1s off Savialova. She descended very well, taking back almost eight seconds on the track back to the stadium.

Aino-Kaisa Saarinen is on the climb now, and looking strong. She comes through the check in second. Behind her, though, Kalla is motoring, and sets a new best mark at the 1.0k timecheck, 3:52.5 - 4.6s faster than Savialova!

6:05: Bjørgen starts, and roars out of the stadium. She looked as relaxed as Kowalczyk, starting one minute later, looks nervous.

6:08: Kalla comes back into the stadium as Saarinen crosses the finish line, +5.3s in fifth. Kalla is working very hard, double-poling like Northug and gritting her teeth up the climb to the finish. She annihilates Savialova's time - 8:24.8, most the 10s faster than Savialova. That'll be very hard to beat, even for Kowalczyk or Bjørgen. The Pole is going to have trouble on the descent, I think. Nearly a thousand meters of fast descending does not suit her.

6:09: Bjørgen comes through the kilometer timecheck at +3.0s, but Kowalczyk comes over just a few seconds later and sets a new best time, 7.5s ahead of Kalla - that, after slipping and sliding on the climb.

6:10: Anna Olsson, the day's last starter, is doing a creditable job, placing fifth at the kilometer mark.

6:12: Bjørgen is already back in the stadium, riding her skis out as far as she can and then launching into her customary powerful striding. She hits the bottom of the finish climb with lots of time on Kalla, and sets a new best mark at the finish: 8:16.6. Bjørgen's excellent descending paid off; this time should hold up for the best or second best of the day.

6:14: Here comes Kowalczyk! She's crushing it, and knows it, relaxing with a few meters to the finish line and gliding to an easy win - 8:07.9, 8.7s ahead of Bjørgen and 16.9s on Kalla.

6:15: Olsson, the day's last starter, finishes well, taking seventh on the day.

6:16: The final standings are funny-looking: Kowalcyzk at 8:07.9 in first, 8.7s ahead of Bjørgen and 16.9s ahead of Kalla. After that, starting with Savialova in fourth, is a huge group of racers separated by a second or so from one another and ranging from about 30 to 40 seconds behind Kowalcyzk. This should lead to a big pack of racers working together in tomorrow's 10k freestyle pursuit.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Grandest Final

As we showed last year, NCP loves the Grand Final or mini-Tour de Ski or whatever you want to call it. My only quibble is that the Stockholm sprint is a day too far away from the other three events. Move the sprint to Thursday, get to racing in Falun on Friday, and let 'er rip.


One twist to this year's Grand Final is that the prologue is being run in classic technique. At Bormio in 2008 and then at Falun in 2009, the prologues were freestyle races; Claudia Nystad won both women's races while Pietro Piller Cottrer won at Bormio and Axel Teichmann at Falun. The prologue events in the Tour de Ski are usually run as skate races, too; the exception was in 2007-08, when Nove Mesto hosted classic prologues won by Kuitunen (ahead of Saarinen and Kowalczyk) and Bauer (ahead of Teichmann and Hjelmeset).

Things will turn out differently this year, given that the Mordarbacken will be a tough bastard in classic technique. My picks:

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Johaug

1. Bauer
2. Northug (please please please, Petter: double pole the whole course!)
3. Hellner

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tough Guy

Here's a skier who's probably even tougher than Lukas Bauer or Justyna Kowalcyzk:

Haitao Du #5 of China competes in the men's standing 20km free cross-country skiing race during Day 4 of the Winter Paralympics on March 15, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. (Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)



Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fit for Royalty

Stockholm sprints. More racing in the middle of a city. Course goes out and back, most of the way around a palace! Kings and stuff. Track profile done with MS Word. Opener to the Grand Final series, so everybody has to race the sprints. Picks:


1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Olsson

1. Jönsson
2. Newell
3. Northug

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Olsoprinter

The 30k and 50k at Holmenkollen today were hella good races. As Topher Sabot says at Fasterskier, the long mass-start race has been improved dramatically by

several clever decisions by FIS. The addition of bonus World Cup points at intermediate distances manufactured attacks and despite many of the drawbacks of ski switching, the ability to stop and swap skis created another opportunity for strategy and breakaways.
Kudos to the Capol, Ulvang, and the rest for making mass starts interesting and competitive again. I hope it keeps up.

Rather than recapping the races (which has already been done well at Fasterskier for both the men's and the women's races and at Nordic Xplained for both), I'll skip straight to the fool's errand of trying to pick the podiums for the freestyle sprints. Skiing 30,000 and 50,000 meters on Saturday will, I think, keep both Bjørgen and Northug out of the limelight on Sunday - and the rollercoaster courses, which include very little flat terrain, will be tough on the rest.

1. Kowalczyk
2. Falk
3. Fabjan
Randall: final

1. Jönsson
2. Newell
3. Petukhov

Friday, March 12, 2010

Holmen Cow

I was dismayed to learn that the 30k/50k races at the Holmenkollen park in Oslo on Saturday are being run as shudder mass start shudder skate races.


sigh

This is not progress, no matter what TV ratings tell the FIS. If they're not gonna run big-loop individual start races on skiing's holy ground, then the best I can hope for are competitive, tactically interesting races that do not end in bunch finishes. With the addition of bonus sprint points (five for 75 bonus points for the men, three for 45 bonus points for the women) and ski exchanges (three for the men, two for the women), good races could happen - as they did at Trondheim last year and at the Olympics this year. Three engaging mass starts in a row?

At the very least, it's going to be cool to see so many racers on the jagged 8.3k loops - 70 men and 59 women. Unlike NCP's Canadian friend, I think the Norwegian hordes are going to go home happy.

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk Kalla
3. Kalla Follis
Compton, Stephen, Arritola: 40s

1. Northug
2. Hellner
3. Angerer
Babikov: top 10; Kershaw and Harvey: top 15; Southam: top 30

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Drammen Drama

[Edited to clean up stupid mistakes, as pointed out by a commenter.]
I love the springtime World Cup's springtime tour of the Nordic countries. I'm still hoping that they'll hit Copenhagen for a sprint event one of these years, but I understand that the capital of Denmark has as little snow as Düsseldorf. In the meantime, we'll have to be satisfied with the almost-traditional circuit through Lahti, Drammen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Falun. Which doesn't suck.

Thursday's Drammen sprints are pretty cool, being run smack in the center of town and involving lunatic hordes of Norwegians both on and off the track. Not surprisingly, Norway has not dominated the winner's chair at Drammen. In events held since 2003, they've won two of the six women's sprints and all six of the men's - twice with Norwegians on every step of the podium.) but none of the women's. What? Bjørgen has never won here? Nope. She hasn't. That, I suspect, will change this year. I think something like this will continue this year.

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Olsson

1. Jönsson
2. Kriukov
3. Pettersen

Feed Zone


Watching the Olympic races, I marveled at the team support: feeds, pole replacement, the ski exchanges in the 30k and 50k. I've never seen a good article describing how a team - even a smallish one like the U.S. or Canadian ones - gets organized to support its racers (only you can help us, Nat Herz!), but this piece on Langrenn.com about the team supporting the Aukland brothers at the Vasaloppet is pretty interesting:
Nothing is left to chance when Team Xtra personnel are at work. 21 men, three runners and one flows. All with the common goal-to Anders and Jorgen Aukland and Jerry Ahrlin to do the best. "Team-work is the key to success and long races, it is more and more important with a good support system," said sports director Nils Marius Otterstad.
The article claims that the Vasaloppet skier Daniel Tynell had 60 people supporting him when he won the race last year. 60 people seems incredible until you watch some of the race video and see how frequently the top guys are taking feeds - every few k, right up until inside the last 5k.

I dunno if the FIS will ban race radios, though.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Birkie Cam!

This has nothing to do with World Cup skiing, but I spent way too long rigging a camera on my drink belt for the Birkie to not share it.

Birkie Cam from colin reuter on Vimeo.



In answer to the obvious question -- yes, you should do the Birkie next year.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Vasaloppet Live Blog

(all times Central Standard Time, March 7, 2010)

3:45 a.m.: Having just passed through the 62 kilometer checkpoint at Oxberg, about two-thirds of the way through the race, two members of the Mora ski club - Rickard Andreasson and Lars Suther - are leading the race. A huge chase group, easily 25 men, is within sight, about 25 seconds back. This is fairly late for such a big breakaway to be working, though with 27k to go, there's still plenty of time for them to be reeled in. Still, they're giving the crowds in Mora, where the race ends, a nice thrill.


3:55 a.m.: And now the catch. The chasing group has swallowed up Andreasson and Suther on the rolling hills about halfway between Oxberg and the next checkpoint, Hökberg, at 71k. At least twenty men are now more or less together, though with spread along over fifty or a hundred meters of the track.

4:02 a.m.: Sandra Hansson has a good lead in the women's race, having just passed through the Oxberg checkpoint. She takes on a drink there, and then quickly shifts to a choppy stride that pulls her away from the men just behind. She's about 15 minutes behind the leading men, and has a 1:43 gap on Susanne Nyström in second.

Up front, all of the leading men are double-poling most of the time, but there is a surprising amount of striding. Someone is likely to be trying to duplicate the increasingly common feat of double-poling the whole race, but it's not obvious who that is yet - or if it will be an advantage. We could see a duplication of Jørgen Aukland's win a few years ago, when he was able to use some uphill striding to escape from Jerry Ahrlin and take the win. At any rate, most the favorites are in the lead group: Oskar Svärd, Daniel Tynell, Jørgen Aukland, even Jörgen Brink and Mathias Fredriksson. The only notable who's not in the lead group is Anders Aukland, who's a dangerous 43s behind the leaders.

4:10 a.m.: Just outside Hökberg, we might be seeing a real break! Burly Daniel Tynell and Fredrik Östberg have surged off the front of the group with some insanely strong double-poling. The move instantly shatters the group and only a couple racers were able to try to cover the move. As they cross the Hökberg checkpoint, a small group is at about +7s.

4:16 a.m.: A half-dozen racers have connected with Tynell and Östberg, but the two continue to lead the race. The bridging group includes Jørgen Aukland and perhaps Oskar Svärd, but visual IDs are tough to make. The group is seven strong. With 16k to go, this could be the decisive selection.

4:24 a.m.: Now the Czech Stanislav Rezac comes up to join Tynell and Östberg at the front. He's a notable, for sure, though he's never yet won the Vasaloppet. Swedish TV is providing the time gap between the leaders and Erik Eriksson, a Swedish racer who's a veteran Vasaloppet racer and the grandson of Nils 'Mora-Nisse' Karlsson, who won the Vasaloppet a record nine times in the 1940s and 1950s. Erisksson probably won't figure in this race, though, which is has now been definitely taken over by the seven men up front. They're eyeing each other and trying to arrange pulls, but nobody is trying anything crazy as they pass through the 14k checkpoint.

4:30 a.m.: The tension has got to be mounting! The lead group is about to be joined by a Mora skier, but everyone seems to be doing the skiing equivalent of softpedaling - conserving energy for the inevitable attack and counterattacks. Tynell is leading, looking like a bear on skis. Buit more like a whippet, Jørgen Aukland is just behind him. It looks like the seven leaders also include Jörgen Brink and, surprisingly, the Italian freestyle specialist Marco Cattaneo.

4:33 a.m.: At the Hökberg checkpoint, Susanne Nystrom has cut nearly 30s off of Sandra Hansson's lead, and now trails by 1:17. That's still a big gap, but one that can be closed in the subsequent 20k.

4:35 a.m.: Jørgen Aukland took a pull on the front, but the pace in the leading group is still fairly low. Everyone is doing plenty of looking at everyone else, and the lead changes frequently as one and then another takes a feed. As the group climbs a small rise, only Tynell appears to have any real snap to his kick douple pole; everyone else takes as small a kick as possible.

4:37 a.m.: Only 10k to go! This is turning out to be a chess match, not a ski race. The Mora IFK skier who's been dangling off the back - Erik Eriksson! - has now made it onto the group, making it eight: Rezac, J Aukland, Tynell, Brink, Cattaneo, Svärd, Östberg, and Eriksson. Tynell is doing most of the pulling, with Svärd notable as someone who's not up front at all.

4:41 a.m.: As they pass through a feed zone, Tynell attacks with ferocious double-poling! Lifting off his skis almost to the point of toppling, he pulls away momentarily, but Östberg and Aukland cover the move and bring Rezac and the rest along. No - someone has dropped off! 8,000 meters to go.

4:43 a.m.: Tynell takes a short rest, drifting to the middle of the group, and then attacks again! He nearly sneaks past Aukland, looking the wrong way, but others counter. Tynell still hasn't escaped, but he is hurting the group badly. This time only Rezac, Aukland, and Brink follow; the rest of the group falls back and out of the race.

4:45 a.m.: Now Rezac attacks at the 7k mark! He takes a 10-second turn, then Tynell comes through to continue it! Aukland and Brink look to be barely hanging on, though the surge-rest-surge-rest pattern isn't knocking them out, either.

4:47 a.m.: Barring a crash, three or these four racers should be on the podium. Tynell is visibly strongest, throwing in surges of powerful double-poling at will.

4:49 a.m.: The surge-rest pattern continues, this time with Rezac doing the damage. The gap back to the chasers is growing with every meter. Tynell takes a feed, bobbling the bottle but getting a few swallows. He's changing lanes almost as often as he poles. The sides of the track are now often lined with advertising boards, a sign they're nearly to Mora.

4:53 a.m.: With three hours and 53 minutes of racing under their skis, the four leaders now have just about 4,000 meters to go. Aukland, seeking his second Vasaloppet win, has just taken a pull on the front, but now Tynell and Rezac move back to the head of the race. Brink is studiously avoiding the lead. On a small rise just before 3k, Tynell and Rezac easily establish a gap, which they then relinquish. A few spectators are on the course now, cheering the leaders.

4:56 a.m.: It should be noted that Sweden has a 50/50 chance of getting a home-country winner this year, which always matters in Mora. Will it be Tynell or Brink? Tynell still looks to be the strongest, doing the vast majority of the work, but Brink could be saving himself for a superhuman sprint - or perhaps he's just not strong enough to move out of his fourth-place position.

4:59 a.m.: The leaders pass under the highway overpass, Tynell in the lead. They clouds above them look gorgeous, with just a few specks of blue sky visible. Rezac has moved into the trailing spot with 2k to go, meaning that the lead group is Tynell, Aukland, Brink, Rezac. More easy double-poling now, on the outskirts of Mora, but Tynell looks to me to simply be waiting to strike.

5:01 a.m.: Oh, almost some trouble as Rezac comes forward to try to attack - Aukland doesn't see him and almost steps on his ski tips. That attack falters, but now they're on the straightaway to the finish line! Tynell and Aukland are side by side, but Tynell pulls away, with Brink just behind! Brink jumps out and tries to come around! Tynell counters! Brink surges and wins the race!

5:06 a.m.: As Brink, sounding only slightly out of breath, does the requisite interview on Swedish TV, it's worth reflecting on his career. About ten years ago, he was a fine young skier on the Swedish World Cup team, along with Mathias Fredriksson and Per Elofsson. A versatile skier, Brink amassed a number of top-10 finishes, including a few appearances on the podium in sprints, relays, and distance events, including a win in 2003 in a 30k mass-start classic event at Otepää and three third places at the 2003 Val di Fiemme World Championships - where he also had the worst moment in his career: an inexplicable blackout while skiing the anchor leg of the relay. He nearly stopped on the track, allowing Thomas Alsgaard and Axel Teichman to pass him and fight for the win. Though he did take a bronze in the 50k skate just a few days later, Brink's results tailed off soon thereafter. He tried some biathlon for a year or two, then switched to the Marathon Cup series, where he has had some good results - though nothing so impressive as this win in the Vasalopppet.

5:22 a.m.: While the top men's finishers trickle under the famous arch at the finish line in Mora, the women's race is still being decided, about 5k down the course. Susanne Nystrom, skiing for IFK Mora, has overtaken Sandra Hansson, and looks to have quite a bit of power in reserve. The two skied together in a group with several men for a while, but then Nystrom upped her poling tempo slightly to pull away. She now has a substantial lead as she nears Mora and cuts through traffic. She's slipping a bit as she strides the uphills, but her rapid double-poling is very strong and her face is composed. I note that she's not looking behind her at all! She should carry this to the line...

5:34 a.m.: And Nystrom does! She wins in 4:33:07, about a half-minute up on Hansson. With her come-from-behind win, Nystrom is the first IFK Mora skier to win the race since Elin Ek in 2007.

All in all, the 2010 Vasaloppet was a great race, with lots of action, a surprising contender in the men's race, and of course Swedish winners of both events. Grattis to Brink and Nystrom! (And good luck to all the other 15,000 skiers still on course...)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Weekend Races: Two Little, One Giant

This first post-Olympic weekend sees some interesting racing in Scandinavia. Surprisingly strong fields have turned out for pursuits at Lahti, Finland - part of the 85th Lahti Ski Games, one of the few moments at which the cross-country, nordic combined, and ski jumping World Cups all visit the same venue at the same time. Assuming that there won't be too big a dropoff in form from the Olympic Games, these are my picks:

1. Kowalcyzk
2. Bjorgen
3. Sachenbacher-Stehle
Randall: top 15

1. Angerer
2. Bauer
3. Tscharnke
Southam: top 30

The next day, one country over, another longstanding nordic tradition will continue, with the running of the 86th Vasaloppet. This year, 16,368 skiers are registered for the big race, 90km of striding and double poling from Sälen to Mora, Sweden. As usual, a good number of more-or-less elite racers are in the field, including, on the women's side, the SuperTour racer Kristina Strandberg as well as two-time Vasaloppet champion Sandra Hansson and this year's Marcialonga winner Jenny Hansson.

In the men's race, far more top-notch skiers will try to win, including Jörgen Brink, the now-retired Swedish World Cup racer; Oskar Svärd, who won this year's Marcialonga and three of the last eight Vasaloppets; Daniel Tynell, who has won the Vasaloppet three other times in that span, including last year; and a couple sets of notable brothers: Thobias and Mathias Fredriksson, now both retired from the World Cup; and Anders and Jørgen Aukland, who each have one win. The Auklands are well-known marathon racers who have for the past few years skied as a pro team, "Team Xtra Personnel." Last year, the Norwegian sprinter Jens Arne Svartedal joined the Aukland squad, and will race the Vasaloppet. So too will another relative newcomer to Xtra Personnel: Jerry Ahrlin, a great Swedish distance racer who has won several big ski marathons but never yet the Vasalopppet. He's the Kristin Størmer Steira of the event.

Last year, Tynell sealed his win with a hard attack just before a growing lead pack of racers reached the 5k-to-go mark, after just about four hours of skiing. Furious double poling gave him an initial gap, which he then maintained by pushing just slightly harder than the disintegrating chase group. Unlike many top Vasaloppet racers, Tynell kickwaxed his skis, and he stretched his lead each time he was able to stride up one of the few short hills in the last stretch to Mora. At the 3k mark, as the clusters of spectators grew thicker, he had a good 10s in hand on his only serious pursuer, Svärd. Tynell won the race in 4:10:55, 23s ahead of Svärd, who was himself about fifteen seconds ahead of a five-man group.

Tynell hasn't shown the same form yet this season, and neither has Ahrlin. As much as I wish Ahrlin could win the big one, someone else is going to win this year. Conditions on the 90k meter course are apparently fantastic, and more skiers are doing the Vasaloppet and its sibling races this year than ever before. Oddsmakers are tipping Svärd and Anders Aukland as the favorites, posting 1 in 3.75 odds that one of them will win. According to the race's own calculations, Svärd is considered the greatest current Vasaloppet racer by quite a margin, having amassed those three wins on his way to finishing in the top 10 for eleven straight years. Behind Svärd and A. Aukland come Thomas Alsgaard at 1/4.5, then Tynell at 1/6 and Ahrlin and Jørgen Aukland at 1/7. Interestingly, the Auklands claim that if they come into the finishing stretch together and with a gap, they'll try to cross the line simultaneously, as the brothers Anders and Örjan Blomqvist did in 1988. That won't happen!

My picks:

1. Anders Aukland
2. Ahrlin
3. Svärd


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Seven Olympic Nordic Skiing Answers

Following up on NCP's "Seven Olympic Nordic Skiing Questions" from the middle of February...

How many golds will be won by Norway's Petter Northug and Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk?
2/14/10: "My own guess is that Kowalczyk will win two golds, in the 10km skate and the classic sprint, and medal in the pursuit and the classic mass start. I think Northug will do even better: golds in the 15km skate, the pursuit, and the relay and lesser medals in the classic mass start and the team sprint."

Four and three, respectively - good, but not the best performances by an XC skier at the Games. Northug won golds in the team sprint and the 50k, silver in the relay, and bronze in the individual sprint (not quite the five medals I predicted). Kowalczyk took gold in the 30k, bronze in the pursuit, and silver in the individual sprint (not the predicted four). Neither's haul is anything to cry about, but neither did as well as the Queen of Whistler: Marit Bjørgen, who won five medals, one in every event she raced: a bronze in the 10k, a silver in the 30k, and golds in the pursuit, the relay, and the sprint.

Has any other racer or team figured out a way to beat Northug?
2/14/10: "Northug's main rivals would love to beat him, and I hope for some tricks and outright hard efforts to accomplish that goal. "

Sorta. In the pursuit, Sweden mounted a concerted effort to slow down the chase of Johan Olsson - an effort that everyone understood was centered largely on Northug. The chasers finally broke through in the last kilometer or so, but then Northug had some pole trouble and couldn't get in position for a sprint onto the podium. In the individual sprint, the Russian pair of Kriukov and Panzhinskiy went for broke from the start line, building a good gap and capitalizing on a crash behind them to ensure that the only suspense at the finish line would be which of them took the gold. And in the relay, Sweden again took charge, taking advantage of the Norwegian team's weak classic skiing to build a small but solid lead going into the anchor leg. Northug skied hard to get back into the front of the group chasing Marcus Hellner, but only managed to take the silver.

On the other hand, Northug took his two golds by using his speed and savvy to negate even the best tactics. In the team sprint, the German #1, Tim Tscharnke, tagged to Axel Teichmann with a small lead, but Northug caught a ride up to the front with an overeager Alexei Petukhov, and then surged past Teichmann for the win. In the 50k, a slow pace until the last lap allowed Northug to lurk, saving himself for a sprint for the win - which he did. I was amazed to see the marathon field unlearn everything that had worked in the pursuit, and let Northug simply ride up to the line. A few tough attacks in the last 10k would have blown up the field and given someone else a chance for the gold medal. But then again, the last half-hour of an Olympic 50k isn't the best place to start strategizing.

How many medals will be won by the American nordic combined skiers?
2/14/10: "The only question is whether the Americans' performance will be so-so, with a bronze or two, or dominant, with golds and silvers in the two individual events - and even a win in the team event."

Four altogether, including America's first-ever Olympic medal in this discipline, and America's first-ever Olympic gold medal in a nordic sport. On the morning of the normal-hill event at the Games, I was still hoping that the American team could run the table by taking golds in all three events, and adding a couple silvers and bronzes. That didn't quite happen, but Johnny Spillane ended the NC-medal drought right away by winning a silver in the small-hill event. Second-best skis led to a well-earned second place in the team event, and good jumping off the large hill put Bill Demong and Spillane in position to take the gold and the silver in that event. All together, the U.S. won four of the seven medals they could have won - not a bad performance at all.

Will American cross-country skiers win any medals?
2/14/10: "I will be surprised but enormously pleased to see an American win a medal at Vancouver."

Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to be surprised: the U.S. cross-country skiers did not win any medals at Vancouver. Many are saying, in fact, that the American results, especially on the men's side, were a disappointment. I won't weigh in on that, but I will point out that both American teams made it into the finals of the team sprint event, which is no minor accomplishment. As half of the women's team sprint pair, Kikkan Randall had a good Games: the sixth there, an eighth in the the individual sprint (just 0.6s from making it into the medal round), and a surprising 24th in the 30k classic.

Will Canadian cross-country skiers win any medals?
2/14/10: "I won't be surprised if a Canadian wins a medal at Vancouver."

I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed that the Canadians did not win a medal, what with their crazy uniforms - which actually grew on me, as the Games progressed. Canucks came awfully close: Babikov placed fifth in the pursuit, Kershaw placed fifth in the 50k, the team of Harvey and Kershaw placed fourth in the team sprint, and the men's relay squad turned in a decent seventh. The women, lacking a clear-cut star like Beckie Scott, had less impressive results, but the retiring Sara Renner did team with Dasha Gaiazova for a seventh in the team sprint, and finish 10th in the pursuit.

Can Tim Burke medal in the biathlon?
2/14/10: "Though his form has declined a bit... he could well recapture it at Vancouver, and must be considered to have a decent shot (pun!) at a medal in 2010."

Sadly, no: Burke did not win a medal. He actually raced quite poorly, finishing in the 40s in the sprint, the pursuit, and the individual, and managing an 18th in the mass start. Teammate Jeremy Teela had the best American mark of the Games with a 9th in the 10k sprint.

Who will be caught for doping at the Olympics?
2/14/10: "I would expect a Russian or even (sadly) Justyna Kowalczyk, who simply performs at too high a level too often. But god, I hope it's a clean games."

So far, nobody has been caught - which is good in and of itself, after the fiascoes at Salt Lake City and Torino. We shouldn't exhale quite yet, though. Commenting on Canada's fourth in the team relay, a commenter on Fasterskier said, "With Russians in front we Canadians don’t know the results for a few months, sometimes even a year!"

Turns out, that's not quite true - it could be eight years before we're sure that the Vancouver Games were doping free, for that's how long the IOC keeps samples for possible retesting. And Canadian labs are still analyzing samples taken during the Games. We could hear the worst at any time.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Top Excuses of the Olympics

Jumping right over the shark tank of assessing whether and why the U.S. team "underperformed," here are a few other notable excusemaking exercises from the Olympics:

2/10/10: Justyna Kowalcyzk, on why she might not tear it up at the Olympics:
"I know that the course is too easy."

2/16/10: Norway coach Morten Aa Djupvik, on Norway's terrible performance in the opening 15k skate:
"Today we didn't have skis that were good enough. If we're going to be able to fight for our honor we have to have skis that can compete with the best, and we didn't have that today."

2/20/10: Vegard Ulvang, on how the world's best sprinter could have crashed while training for the sprints:
"We didn't fence it off and we should have done but there are no rules that all of a cross country course should be fenced off... The place where she fell ... she didn't follow the ideal line."

2/21/10: Lukas Bauer, on Sweden's team tactics in the men's pursuit:
"They tried to block the track. In some parties, it was not fair play. I was very angry and considered to break the stick to Hellner by a couple of cases where he ran the whole game."

2/23/10: on why Petra Majdic won a mere bronze in the individual sprint:
"Majdic thinks she punctured the lung in the sprint finals because she felt something go bad at that point."

2/23/10: Justyna Kowalcyzk, on losing to Marit Bjørgen twice in three races:
"I must admit that Marit Bjørgen is very ill. Although she does not look like it, but it is so. It is a pity, being healthy and strong and losing to an unhleathy person. After the sprint I thought: 'Damn, to lose to this kind of ill person.' But I sincerely congratulate her... How does asthma help my rivals? Before the start they are allowed to take steroids that expand the airways. I think I do not have to explain in detail what advantage it gives to allow more air into the lungs in a sport like ours."

2/24/10: Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset, on his bad decision to ski the second leg of the men's relay on hairies:
"It was my choice to take rub skis. The shape is good."

2/25/10: The aptly-named Norwegian nordic combined racer Magnus Moan on the large-hill jumping that supposedly left him too far back to contend for a medal:
"It's a joke."

2/25/10: Austrian NC racer Felix Gottwald, on the same topic:
"This jumping competition has nothing to do with fair competition."

2/28/10: Justyna Kowalcyzk, on why she would not talk more about her accusations regarding Bjørgen's asthma:
"This is not a good time to talk about this question or my opinion."

2/28/10: Petter Northug, on why he didn't need to pass Axel Teichmann in the men's 50km any earlier than he did:
"I had another gear available, but didn't need to use it."

And for pure Gallic drama, Vincent Vittoz (2/22/10) on the aftermath of the team sprint:
"Petukhov got an warning for an unsporting gesture against Cyril But this evening he sleep with his medal and us we have just our eyes to cry."