Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Point-to-Point, But Mostly Down

Wednesday afternoon's stages in the Tour de Ski are odd ones: point-to-point skate races over fairly long distances - almost 16km for the women and 36km for the men (the longest race of the season so far), both winding up in the Italian mountain town of Dobbiaco.

Or rather, winding down to Dobbiaco, for both races - as the course profiles show - incorporate k after k of downhill terrain. In the women's race, in fact, only a snippet at the beginning and a bit at the end are not downhill. The men's race is tougher because that long descent (and a few ramps in the last 5,000 meters) is the sequel to a tough, relentless ascent from Cortina d'Ampezzo - site of the 1956 Winter Olympic Games - to about 16k. Then it's one long snowplow - and probably a goodly number of crashes, like the faceplant demos in the Oberhof sprints.

Tactically, anything could happen in these odd but probably-exciting races. As in the second stage at Oberhof, the races are pursuits from a handicap start. After the rash of abandons today, Saarinen will be staked to a 25s lead in the women's race while the top dozen men will start inside a minute.

In the women's derby, I expect a big group to form behind Saarinen early in the race, one including all usual suspects: Kowalcyzk (+25s), Follis (+32, and maybe Longa, though she starts at +1:47), Steira (+1:15), and especially Majdic (+30, and a good descender, as she showed in last year's Trondheim 30k). Though the longest descent I can ski here on the northern prairie is maybe 45s long, I'll venture that all that downhilling will make for some wobbly legs by the time the leaders hit those sharp little climbs at the end - and plenty of good crashes before that point. (If only Krashy Korosteleva hadn't abandoned today...) On the hills, the light climbers will move away to vie for a memorable win in this wacky stage:

1. Kowalcyzk
2. Steira
3. Follis

In the men's race, 16k of climbing will do a great job of separating any natural groups among the starters, but by the crest of the climb, the strong men will be bunched or nearly so: Northug, Cologna, Teichmann, Hellner, Jauhojärvi, Kershaw, Angerer. It'll be fun to watch them handle the descent, and to see if anyone can use the drop to chase onto the leading group, like certain cyclists can do on long mountain stages. (It's a shame that Wobbles Legkov has gone back to Russia to take care of his "sickness" - he'd be entertaining to see on the downhill.) The podium will come from the usual candidates, though a wipeout could screw up anyone's chance for a good place:

1. Northug
2. Hellner
3. Cologna
Kershaw: top 5; Harvey & Babikov: top 20