Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some Thoughts on Kershaw

Posted on my personal blog, since they're analysis-free.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Marathon Day II: 50,000 Meters

That was a hell of a 30k, no? Epic conditions, ski changes, a pack that finally fractured under Bjørgen's pressure, then Kowalczyk's comeback, and the all-out sprint to the line. Why oh why did Bjørgen throw in those three or four strides just before the line? She had a teeny lead until she that, but the loss of speed necessary for those few kicks let Kowalczyk, still double-poling, edge past. The margin of victory was 3/10ths of a second, meaning - after 1:33 that the Norwegian finished 0.005521% behind the Pole - about 1.5 centimeters, after 30,000 meters of racing.

Would that the men's 50k is so close! Certainly it'll be shaped by the same factors as the 30k: crazy weather (predicted to be variably cloudy and about 4°C/37°F), heavy legs from all the Olympic racing, the incredible distance, and - perhaps most importantly - the option to change skis in search of that perfect mix of boards and wax. Add to those factors two more: first, the presence of some wild card racers like long-distance specialist Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset and especially Andrus Veerpalu, who has aimed at this particular race all season and, second, the fact that recent mass-start 50k races have been even tighter than the equivalent women's races:

2009 Worlds, Liberec (freestyle): Northug, Vylegzhanin (+0.7s), Angerer (+2.0s)
2009 World Cup, Trondheim (classic): Jauhojärvi, Angerer (+21.8s), Harvey (+33.2s)
2007 Worlds, Sapporo (classic): Hjelmeset, Estil (+0.4s), Filbrich (+4.5s)
2006 Olympics, Pragelato (freestyle): Di Centa, Dementiev (+0.8s), Botvinov (+0.9s)
2005 Worlds, Oberstdorf (classic): Estil, Hjelmeset (+0.7s), Aukland (+1.4s)

We can be pretty sure that the gold and silver will be separated by a fraction of a second, and almost as sure that the bronze will be behind by no more than another second. But I still think that the finish will be a drag race between savvy distance specialists, not all-rounders. By this I mean "no Petter." Picks:

1. Angerer
2. Bauer
3. Olsson

I think the North Americans could show up well, too:
Harvey and Babikov: top 15; Freeman and Grey: top 20; Kershaw and Southam: top 30

Whatever the podium for the last race of the Olympics, the event should be a doozy.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Marathon Day I: 30,000 Meters

They don't race the marathons much: once a season at the Holmenkollen each March (always in individual-start format, and alternating skate and classic from one season to the next), plus once at the World Championships or the Olympic Games, lately in mass-start format and kinda-sorta alternating between freestyle and classic.

The rarity of the marathons is one key problem in trying to pick the podium. Another factor is that the marathons are substantially longer than the next-longest races: the men's 50k is two-thirds again as long as the men's pursuit or occasional 30k, while the women's 30k is twice as long as the women's pursuit.

History can offer a bit of help in seeing who's likely to win. Leaving aside the individual-start Holmenkollen races, here are the podiums of the recent mass-start 30k races:
2009 Worlds, Liberec (freestyle): Kowalcyzk, Medvedeva (+8.8s), Shevchenko (+9.3s)
2009 World Cup, Trondheim (classic): Majdic, Kowalcyzk (+11.7s), Ishida (+12s)
2007 Worlds, Sapporo (classic): Kuitunen, Steira (+6.9s), Johaug (+22.8s)
2006 Olympics, Pragelato (freestyle): Neumannova, Tchepalova (+1.4s), Kowalczyk (+2.1s)
2005 Worlds, Oberstdorf (classic): Bjørgen, Kuitunen (+8.9s), Baranova-Maskolina (+10.3s)

One name that jumps out here is Ms. These Tracks Are Too Easy, Justyna Kowalczyk, with three podium spots in five races. She'll be gunning for her first Olympic gold, and she's got a good shot.

But so far the 2010 Olympics are playing out a lot like the 2005 World Championships, where Marit Bjørgen won three golds (the mass-start classic 30k, the team sprint, and the relay), a silver (the pursuit), and a bronze (the 10k freestyle). (That year, she also won the 30k at Holmenkollen.) With three golds and a bronze in four races at Whistler, Bjørgen has to be the favorite for the marathon - and all the moreso because Petra Majdic won't be racing. Hence:

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk (+10s)
3. Steira (+11s)
Renner: 8; Randall: 17; Brooks: 24; Arritola: 32

I'll confess that my pick for bronze is wholly sentimental. I dunno if KSS can really do 30k in classic, but I hope she can race well enough to finally take that individual Olympic medal.

I'll also confess that I hope the distance and/or the weather* rip the field into little packs and let some other racers get into the mix, if not onto the podium. I'd love to see Ishida duplicate her success at Trondheim, or Johaug show off her renewed form, or or or... Given the distance, the variable weather (which is surely going to catch someone out, over an 80 or 90 minute race) and the fatigue that almost everybody should be feeling, we could see a wild race.

* As of 11:35 CDT, the Canadian Weatheroffice (rilly!) is predicting "Rain showers or wet flurries, high plus 3" (37°F!) at Whistler on Saturday. The race kicks off at 11:45 local time, so it could be messy. Hairies and zeros, anyone?

Ski Førterer, Kristin!

Kristin Størmer Steira, you know we love you here at NCP, so we write this post with only the best intentions.

Tomorrow is the last race of these Olympic Games: the mass-start 30k classic. This race is your last chance to get an Olympic medal for about 1,440 days, so I'm begging you, Kristin: ski faster.

Though you have a silver in the mass-start 30k classic at the Sapporo World Ski Championships (where you gave Virpi Kuitunen a good run for her gold), you also have an impressive and depressing list of fourteen fourth places. Fourteen! You've had eight on the World Cup, two at the World Championships, and four at the Olympic Games - including a wooden medal in the 30k skate at Pragelato in 2006 and the horrifying fourth in the pursuit a week ago.

Please don't add to this list, Kristin! Don't let the race come down to a sprint, or even a pack finish. If you want a medal, you have to be skiing solo by 29k - or else be ready to lunge like you've never lunged before. Ski førterer, Kristin!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Relay Day I

Ah, the relays. Normally the most exciting, or at least most highly-anticipated, races at the Olympics, the men's 4x10 (today) and the women's 4x5 (tomorrow) at Whistler are going to have to be phenomenal to live up to the drama of the pursuits or team sprints, or even the individual sprints.

But it could happen. Even beyond the weather - which looks to be set to "Epic" - a half-dozen men's teams are serious contenders for the medals (as both Lanngren and Nordic Xplained have outlined), including all the usual suspects and the strong Canadian team. God, but I hope the Canadians ski their guts out and garner medals for the home crowd.

Before the Games, I made these picks for the men's relay (having, of course, not seen either who was on form or the start lists):
1. Norway (Sundby, Hjelmeset, Berger, Northug)
2. Sweden (Richardsson, Olsson, Södergren, Hellner)
3. Germany (Filbrich, Teichmann, Sommerfeldt, Angerer)

5. Canada (Kershaw, Harvey, Babikov, Grey)
8. US (Newell, Koos, Kuzzy, Hamilton)

I'm going to stick with these picks for several reasons. First, Italy and Finland are racing poorly at the Games, so they're out. Second, while Switzerland had a great first day at the races and France has looked good recently, neither has enough all-around speed to vie for medals. Third, Russia looks good on paper, but we haven't seen any good results from the Russian distance racers yet. Canada too looks good, but just won't have enough to stay with the leaders to the finish - even though I would desperately love to see them on the podium.

Fourth and most importantly, Northug will want this race too much, and he'll be set up perfectly by Berger, who has fresh legs and showed in Sapporo that he can ski in crap conditions. Northug will be able to overcome the attacks that other teams have used to beat him and Norway on the Tour de Ski and now in the Games - hit him hard early, and then keep hammering him. (Clearly, last year's NCP post on this matter has been widely read by World Cup athletes and coaches.)

For what it's worth, my pre-Games predictions for the women's relay were these:
1. Norway
2. Russia
3. Finland

Monday, February 22, 2010

Team Sprint

The team sprint is a wacky event, neither fish (an individual event) nor fowl (a true one-leg-per-racer relay) and rarely contested (just once or twice a season). But damn if it doesn't have some exciting racing every time. The round-and-round format is a good way to generate plenty of lead changes, the duration of the full event - amounting to 3-by L5 intervals - nullifies the advantage of pure sprinters, and yet the short(ish) laps takes away some of the advantages of the long-distance racers. My picks, even as the first heats are being run:

women's freestyle team sprint
1. Sweden (Kalla & Haag)
2. Italy (Genuin & Follis)
3. Finland (Roponen & Sarasoja)
Canada: 7; USA: 11

men's freestyle team sprint
1. Sweden (Hellner & Peterson)
2. Norway (Pettersen & Northug)
3. Russia (Morilov & Petukhov)
Canada: 5; USA: 7

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ben Koons: Balls of Steel

Unlike the Men's 15k, the Men's 30k pursuit is not open to just any old scrub from a snowless country who weaseled his way into the Olympics. No, just lining up for the start of this race requires 5 races under 100 FIS points. As a result, EISA standout and sole New Zealand entrant Ben Koons was virtually the slowest skier in the field, and lined up on the back row.

So the fact that he decided to pass the entire field on the first climb is kind of ridiculous.

Dario sez: "Who the eff?"

Given that his goal coming into the race was "don't get lapped," this was clearly a very bad idea, and it sure didn't end well. And that's why we love it.

Good on ya, Ben!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kristin Steira: Not an NCP Reader

Kristin! You had it! You put down the best sprint of your life, and were just about to lift the curse of 3 fourth places! But you didn't read our article on how to ski throw!

Don't worry, we still love you, but all this could have been avoided.

Prediction: Steira will finally get an Olympic medal in the 30k classic next Saturday, especially if it comes down to a ski throw.

Picking the Podiums

I can't say I'm doing terribly well so far in picking the podiums of Olympic races. I had two out of three in the women's freestyle (including being dead right on gold and bronze) and three out of three in the women's sprint (though only silver in the right spot), but I picked only one eventual medalist in the men's freestyle race (and then put him in the wrong spot) and none of the medalists in the men's sprint. Moreover, my pick for bronze in the men's sprint didn't even qualify for the heats!

Undaunted, here are my picks for Friday's women's pursuit and, below, the before-and-afters for the skate and sprint races.

women's 7.5k + 7.5k pursuit
1. Kowalczyk
2. Kalla
3. Steira

women's 10km freestyle
1. Kalla
2. Kowalczyk
3. Bjørgen

1. Kalla
2. Smigun-Vaehi
3. Bjørgen

5. Kowalcyzk

men's 15km freestyle
1. Bauer
2. Northug
3. Hellner

1. Cologna
2. Piller Cottrer
3. Bauer

4. Hellner
41. Northug

women's classic sprint
3. Bjørgen

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk
3. Majdic

men's classic sprint
1. Jönsson
2. Hattestad
3. Newell

1. Kriukov
2. Panzhinskiy
3. Northug

4. Hattestad
7. Jönsson
45. Newell

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Petra Fan Club Roll Call

It's no secret that we are doing our best to spread the gospel of Petra far and wide over here. And it shouldn't be very hard -- let's face it, if you can't get behind a late-blooming, camera-mugging, amazonian classic-sprinting freak from non-traditional ski nation, you might not have a soul. Don't forget that this woman ascribes her recent ascent to the status of all-around elite skier to "having fun" and "being relaxed" in the last two seasons, an ethos that many a weekend warrior should be able to identify with. Compare that to, say, Marit Bjoergen, who would undoubtedly credit her two medals (and terrible last 3 seasons, I might add) to mercilessly (over)training herself into the ground.

Well, in the last 24 hours, Petra went from nordic-famous to world-famous with her tree smashing antics. In case you've been living under a rock, or received a head injury this afternoon, here's how it went down:
Petra decides to test the structural integrity of the blue barriers, anticipating the need to crush a small Norwegian against one during heats.
The barrier gives way quite easily, so Petra calmly heads into the ditch in search of a harder object for her Scandinavian-squashing needs.
About 3m below the trail she finally locates an object firm enough to crush a doping Finn upon. To make sure it's up to the task, she breaks 4 ribs and punctures a lung on the tree. It's ok, she's got like, 20 more ribs.

Then she went to the hospital, because even Petra Majdic would rather race with two lungs.

Then she came back and won a bronze medal.

Then she got back into her wheelchair, because she broke 4 ribs and punctured a lung.

Respect, Petra. Respect.

Completely irrelevant side note, now that I have your attention and enthusiasm: In the process of writing the Final Climb Wattage post, I looked up Petra's weight, and she is alleged to be 5'10" and 143 lbs. Having seen her in person and on TV, I have real trouble believing that she is only an inch taller than me and actually weighs less than I do. I'm pretty sure she's 6-foot-13 and 170lbs of pure double-poling power. Can anyone else confirm this?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Some of These Sprinters Are Not Like the Others

The classic sprints at Whistler Olympic Park were pretty damn good, with plenty of matters to ponder, if not admire: Bjoergen charging from wire to wire, Majdic battling through what looks to have been an agonizing injury, Joensson racing well but unexpectedly falling well short of the final, Newell crashing in qualification, and of course the Russians Kriukov and Panzhinskiy turning the men's final into their own private drag race after dispatching the three favored Norwegians.

As soon as Kriukov's boot crossed the line, though, a furor erupted on Twitter and elsewhere about the suspiciousness of the Russians, and especially Panzhinskiy. He seemed to come from the mythical "nowhere" to qualify in first, to dominate his heats, and finally to come within a toe of making good on his #1 bib by winning the gold medal. How could this unknown racer unseat the Norwegians and take the silver? And how could Kriukov, a very good but not stellar sprinter, take the gold?

I'm not going to say that the Russians (or anyone else skiing around the Callaghan Valley) are clean - and doping is clearly the insinuated reason for their success today - but on the other hand, data from the 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 seasons suggest that when it comes to Olympic sprinting, we should expect the unexpected.

Kriukov, today's gold medallist, currently occupies the #4 position in the sprint World Cup rankings with 248 points - only 2 points behind Hattestad in third, 32 points behind Dahl in second, and 79 points behind Joensson in first. (Kriukov is ahead of Northug by 22 points, Oystein Pettersen by 119 points). This season, Kriukov has reached the final four times, amassing three 3rds (Kuusamo - classic, Otepaa - classic, Rybinsk - freestyle) and a 4th (Rogla - freestyle) as well as a 14th (Dusseldorf - freestyle). Though averages aren't the most meaningful means to compare finishes, we can nonetheless venture to say that Kriukov has an "average finish" of 5.4 ((3+3+3+4+14)/5) - a spot in the finals with Joensson, Hattestad, Dahl, and the like.

Silver medallist Panzhinskiy is currently ranked 16th in the sprint World Cup, having taken 5th in his only finals appearance (Otepaa) as well as an 8th (Rogla), a 10th (Kuusamo), and an 18th (Rybinsk). His "average finish," then, is 10.25 - what would have been B-final territory last year.

So Kriukov's excellent performance is just barely better than his usual high standard, while Panzhinskiy's could be considered somewhat more unusual.

How unusual? Actually, not that unusual. In the freestyle sprints at Torino four years ago, two medallists came out of that mythical "nowhere" to take medals: Chandra Crawford, who won gold in the women's freestyle race, and Roddy Darragon, who won silver in the men's.

Going into the Torino games, Crawford was ranked 12th in the World Cup sprint standings, well behind sprint leader Anna Dahlberg. Crawford's 3rd at Davos (freestyle) was her best result and only finals appearance before the Olys, far exceeding her 8th (Oberstdorf - classic), 10th (Vernon - freestyle), and 28th (Dusseldorf - freestyle). Against that backdrop - and an "average finish" of 12.25 (the equivalent of being knocked out in the semifinals) - Chandra's dramatic gold was a fantastic overachievement.

If anything, Darragon - sandwiched between Lind in gold and Fredriksson in bronze - was even more surprising. He entered the games ranked 20th in the sprint standings, having reached the finals only once, taking 6th at Dusseldorf at the beginning of the season. He'd also finished 9th at Davos just before the games, but in between had finished 23rd at Vernon and 26th at Nove Mesto (freestyle) for an "average finish" of 16th. In other words, Panzhinskiy has done substantially better this year than Darragon did in the 2005-2006 season.

Again, none of this should be read as suggesting that Kriukov and Panzhinskiy are or are not legit, any more than it should be read as suggesting that Crawford or Darragon weren't. Rather, a look at the respective racers' accomplishments in the seasons preceding their medals suggests that the Russians' medals are by no means out of the ordinary in the extraordinary setting of the Olympic Games.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Medal Check

Through today's biathlon races, a total of 24 medals have been awarded in eight nordic events - one each in ski jumping and nordic combined, two in cross-country skiing, and four in biathlon - at the Whistler Olympic Park. So far, the main stories have been the unpredictable weather and track conditions and, of course, Norway's poor performance (a topic well covered over at Nordic Xplained).

But there's more to the nordic competition than that, of course. We can identify some of those stories by comparing the first eight nordic events at the 2010 Olympic Games to the first eight events of the 2009 World Championships at Liberec and Pyeong Chang. The comparative medal tables are here.

Though of course the parallels cannot be exact (the venues were obviously different, and the championships also took place at different points in the respective sports' seasons), they are pretty close: ski jumping on the normal hill and men's and women's sprint and pursuit races in biathlon were the first events at both the '09 Worlds and the '10 Olys, while the first nordic combined event at Liberec was the mass start, not the Gundersen at Whistler and the individual start 10k/15k cross-country races were classic at Liberec but freestyle at Whistler.

And but so, patterns emerge. First, exactly 13 nations have won medals so far in the nordic events at these Olympics, and 13 had won medals to the equivalent point at the 2009 Worlds.

Second, France has used its power in biathlon to jump to the top of the leaderboard at Vancouver, with five medals: golds by Jay (biathlon sprint) and Lamy-Chappuis (nordic combined normal hill) and three bronzes (Jay, biathlon pursuit; Dorin, biathlon sprint; Brunet, biathlon pursuit). At the equivalent point in 2009, France had just one medal (a nordic combined bronze), well behind the leader, Norway, which had five medals, all in biathlon - including double golds from Bjørndalen. This year, of course, Norway has "just" two medals - a silver from Svendsen in the biathlon sprint and a bronze from Bjørgen in the 10k freestyle. That could (and should?) change tomorrow in the classic-technique sprints.

Looking at the countries that aren't winning many or any medals so far offers a third perspective on the medal tables. The traditional nordic-skiing powers (the actual Nordic nations plus Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria) had won a combined 18 medals to this point in '09, but have garned only 10 so far this year. Worst off is Finland, which won two medals to this point in 2009 (Saarinen's gold and Heikkinen's bronze in the classic individual start races), but has so far been shut out, and can't expect any medal over the rest of the Games. (Suomi won a total of eight medals at Liberec.)

Though there's more to say - and I welcome comments on the foregoing or other aspects of the medal tables - I'll conclude with a fourth angle on the medal count to date: the success of the "minor countries"* which have collectively accounted for quite a few of the medals won at Vancouver. France, Slovakia, Poland, the USA, and Croatia have taken 10 of the 24 medals to date; at the 2009 Worlds, "minor countries" had only three medals: the USA had a gold, France and Poland each had a bronze.

* I know, I know - a fuzzy term. Should the Czech Republic or Estonia belong to this category, or not? Italy? I dunno. Possible determinants of major vs. minor status might be whether a country gets all of its medals from just one or two racers (Bauer; Majdic; Veerpalu and Smigun-Vaehi) or in one discipline (Italy's pretty much only good in cross-country) or whether it can field a decent XC or biathlon relay team (which rules out Estonia and Poland, but also Austria and probably the Czech Republic this year. Suggestions welcome.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cross-Country at Callaghan - Finally!


A to the WESOME. You know a finish is good when it causes my two daughters - ages five and three - to jump around as if it's the best goddamn Strawberry Shortcake song ever. I cannot wait for the nordic combined team event next week.

In other news...
The two biathlon races contested so far at Callaghan Valley have both had weather-related drama, namely too-warm temperatures for Saturday's women's sprint and then a crazy mix of sun and sticky new snow in Sunday's men's sprint. As Nat Herz at reported, the men's podium was pretty much determined by the weather: "The medalists in the race—France’s Vincent Jay, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, and Croatia’s Jakov Fak—all were among the first ten starters, the winners of what U.S. Head Coach Per Nilsson called a 'lottery.'

The same could happen tomorrow as the cross-country racing starts with the women's and men's interval-start skate races. If weather hits - and between the giant fields and the length of the races, this seems like a good bet - the races will have podiums as bizarre as the infamous men's 15k skate at Sapporo three years ago. Pretending that the weather won't matter or that the best racers will handle it, here are my picks, based on the just-posted start lists, which put most of the Red Group racers at the end of the first third of the fields.

Women's 10km Freestyle
1 Kalla
2 Kowalczyk
3 Bjorgen
best North American: Compton

Men's 15km Freestyle
1 Bauer
2 Northug
3 Hellner
best North American: Freeman

Seven Olympic Nordic Skiing Questions

(Cross-posted to Blowing & Drifting)

So excited am I about the nordic skiing Olympics that I'd happily watch coverage of the teams' wax techs prepping skis for the racers. Just the same, here are seven competition-related questions that I'm especially eager to see answered.

How many golds will be won by Norway's Petter Northug and Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk?
Northug and Kowalczyk are the dominant racers on the cross-country World Cup this year. Each has substantial leads over the rest of the fields in the overall WC standings, and each can win over any distance or technique. Moreover, each racer is practically foreordained to win several medals at Vancouver, with the main issue being whether either or both can do the superhuman and win golds in all the events they event - all four individual races for Kowalczyk, possibly (but not probably) the four individual races and the two team races for Northug.

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. I don't think he'll medal in the individual classic sprint - but then again, Petter's a wily and ultracompetitive racer. Then again, everyone is trying to peak for these races, and both Northug and Kowalczyk could be shut out - especially if they are victimized by the notoriously variable and difficult conditions at the cross-country skiing venue.

Has any other racer or team figured out a way to beat Northug?
Speaking of notoriety, Northug is infamous for his tactics and his antics: conserving energy by closely trailing other racers for as long as possible, then unleashing his unparalleled finishing sprint to surge past and take the win - at which point he loves to gesticulate, trash-talk, wave, point, and of course, collapse in a heap. The Norwegians love it - and him; pretty much everyone else hates it - and him. But like a sage once said, it ain't bragging if you can do it.

Then again, Northug's main rivals would love to beat him, and I hope for some tricks and outright hard efforts to accomplish that goal. From a couple races last season and from the Tour de Ski earlier this season, it's clear that savvy racers can use repeated attacks on young Petter to tire him out and destroy his vaunted end-of-race kick. The trouble is, there are precious few racers who have the strength enough to do it, with Lukas Bauer - the Tour de Ski champ this year - being perhaps the only single skier who can. On the other hand, if the Russians, Finns, or Germans use some team tactics, they might be able to organize a series of attacks to wear Northug out and put one of their own in position to win. Or they might do all that, get counterattacked by the Norwegians - not a team of slackers - and see Northug sprint to the win anyhow. Still, it's better to do and die…

How many medals will be won by the American nordic combined skiers?
Over the last two World Cup seasons, Americans Bill Demong, Todd Lodwick, and Johnny Spillane have emerged as some of the strongest individual racers in nordic combined, the sport which mixes ski jumping and cross-country skiing, and certainly the best team in NC. At last year's world championships, for instance, Lodwick won two golds, Demong a gold and a bronze. The US has never won a nordic combined medal at the Olympics, but that will almost certainly change at Vancouver. 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.

Will American cross-country skiers win any medals?
Many in the US - myself included - are on the verge of expecting to see a medal around one of our XC racers' necks at Vancouver. On paper, and probably on snow, our best hopes are Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall in the sprints; both have reached the podiums at World Cup races and Randall even won the silver at last year's World Champs. Kris Freeman can be a force in the distance races, and if he finally puts things together juuuuuuust right, "Bird" can win a medal - his stated goal for the games. A few other members of the US team could contend, but apart from Torin Koos, who is rounding back into sprinting form, mostly lack the big-race experience that might translate into medals in 2014. I will be surprised but enormously pleased to see an American win a medal at Vancouver.

Will Canadian cross-country skiers win any medals?
Expectations are even higher for the Canadian team, which is racing on home snow and, more importantly, includes a number of racers who have reached World Cup podiums, including two who medaled at the Torino games: Sara Renner (silver in the team sprint) and Chandra Crawford (gold in the individual sprint). Crawford's off her best form right now, but Renner is conversely rounding into world-class shape and has an outside shot at a medal in virtually any of the races. On the men's side, Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey, and Ivan Babikov are all excellent racers who could vie for medals in any number of events - even, on a great day, the relay. I won't be surprised if a Canadian wins a medal at Vancouver.

Can Tim Burke medal in the biathlon?
American Tim Burke has this season moved into the uppermost echelon of biathlon, the skiing-shooting sport that is colossally important in Europe. Earlier this season, Burke even wore the yellow bib of the overall leader of the biathlon world cup. Though his form has declined a bit since that peak, he could well recapture it at Vancouver, and must be considered to have a decent shot (pun!) at a medal in 2010, which would be America's first-ever biathlon medal and which would go a long way toward breaking the Norwegian-German-Russian stranglehold on the sport.

Who will be caught for doping at the Olympics?
I hope to hell that no nordic athletes will be caught with EPO, CERA, S107, or any other banned substances in their bodily wastes, but the odds don't favor my hope. Not only were Austrian racers caught at Torino, and Russian skiers caught at Salt Lake City, but the past year has seen a number of high-level racers - including many Russians - fail their drug tests. It's almost certain that someone will get nailed at Vancouver. If I had to guess, 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.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


If the Olympics are coming up (in twenty-four flipping hours!), then some teams will be donning new uniforms. Sweden, for instance, is apparently going to race in a new ultraspeedy suit. God knows Jönsson needs all the help he can get. Did I say Jönsson? I meant Hellner, who will need any help he can get on the anchor leg of the relay.

And but so, we might momentarily occupy ourselves with a best-of/worst-of look at the Season in Suits so Far.

Third Worst
Russia: There's a lot to dislike here, from the bland blueness of the suit and the three-stripes motif to the big oil-company logo across the hat and the logos on the arms and legs. Yuck. (Is the Russian ski team sponsored by the Saturn soccer team?)

Second Worst
Italy: There's too much going on here - too many colors, too many patterns. Not even Piller Cottrer adopting the Norwegian sleeves-up style can save these suits. (Cf. the German suit next door, which is hardly great but pretty good comparatively.)

If he wasn't in such an ugly suit, Thomas Moriggl wouldn't have almost crashed on the home stretch at Toblach in the Tour de Ski.

Finland: Like Italy, there's just too much going on here - too many colors, too many patterns. The neon green and orange panels (on the hips and thighs here) are almost certainly to blame for Heikkinen's horrible race at Rogla (below).

Third Best
Norway: clean, classic, fast-looking. And the suits look awesome with Gjerdalen's aviators, which have grown on me in direct proportion to his lack of results.

Second Best
Sweden: cleaner, classicker, faster-looking - especially when you're Mr. Anna Dahlberg, lankily striding in your lanky stridey way, or the fastest man on skis, Emil Jönsson.

Slovenia: Not only because Petra Majdic is awesome, but because anybody can pick this uni out of a pack, and because it perfectly matches her skis and poles.

Bonus Flippant Uniform-Related Judgment
This season continues the rapid, unabated expansion in all directions of the surface area of many racers' eyewear. I predict that someone will race at Sochi in a full-face mask. The finest minds at Casco and Bliz and Rudy Project are figuring out how to solve the problem of respiring through polycarbonate. As they're worn now by Kowalczyk, Northug, and (at the biggest-and-best end of the spectrum) Saarinen, the big-lens shades just look crazy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Canmore Sprints

For individual starts, the 10 and 15k races were pretty effing good, with each race only decided late. And can anyone take a bad picture in Canmore? Picturesque isn't the half of it - the place is so gorgeous, even race faces look good. But not all of them. No, not all of them.

Between a nasty little course (three hairpins and a huge climb), the numerous missing Norwegians and Finns, and the push to hone form for this event at the Olympics in twelve days, the classic sprints - 1700 meters for men, 1470 meters for women - should be interesting. Picks:

1. Majdic
2. Falk
3. Kowalczyk

1. Jönsson
2. Kriukov
3. Newell

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Canmore and More

Being a North American, I'm partial to venue at Canmore, but c'mon: it's freaking gorgeous.

The distance skate races are going to be brutal affairs, since the Canmore courses are - as that picture suggests and the course profile shows - all up and down:

Canmore course

In other words, it's all about the power. It's gonna be fun to see the Americans and Canadians mixing it up, too. My picks:

women's 10k freestyle
1. Medvedeva
2. Kalla
3. Kowalczyk
Renner: top 30

men's 10k freestyle
1. Hellner
2. Babikov
3. Sommerfeldt
Freeman: top 15; B. McKeever, Harvey, and Kershaw: top 30

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Petter Haters

Some Northug-related gleanings from recent coverage of the Olympics:

After Northug easily won the opening race of the Norwegian championships this month—yet one more display of the kind of dominance that has made him cross country skiing’s biggest name going into the Vancouver Olympics—he held up the awards ceremony by 15 minutes to complete his winding-down regiment, even though the king was there to offer congratulations. When Northug finally arrived for the ceremony, a journalist pointed out that he was making the monarch wait for an unseemly long time. “No,” Northug replied, flashing his usual mischievous smile. “The king is walking right here.”
The German men's 4x10km relay team has finished second to Norway in three of the past four World Championships, with Teichmann skiing the anchor leg each time. In 2009, Teichmann held a 14.5-second lead over Northug when he took over the anchor leg. However, the Norwegian caught up and used his trademark finishing spurt to snatch gold from Teichmann and the Germans. Asked after the race why he didn't go out harder and leave his rival behind, Teichmann's response came in the form of a horticultural-philosophical question: "Warum?! Warum ist die Banane krumm?" (Why?! Why is a banana curved?) Solving the question of the banana may be easier than solving Norway in the relay in 2010.
In Vancouver, the long-standing rivalry between Norway and Italy in the relay may play second fiddle to a new duel: Norway vs. Germany. The skier known by rivals as "Storkjeften fra Mosvik" (the Big Mouth from Mosvik) has often ruffled the feathers - both during races and in the finish area - of Germany's top skier Axel Teichmann. During the final leg of a World Cup relay event in 2008, Northug cut off Teichmann on several occasions, once causing a heavy collision. The Norwegian lost the cup on his right pole in that collision, but the German lost his marbles afterwards, telling the Norway's Aftenposten, "He totally forgets that there are other skiers out there, and then he does idiotic things after he crosses the finish line." Psychological games with Teichmann continued during the final meters of the relay at the Worlds, where Northug reportedly uttered mid-race, "You'd better go now if you want to have a chance."
Hooo, boy.