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


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.


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 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."