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


Luke S said...

Two comments/questions.
1) Has Alsgaard shown the form necessary to be at the top of the results in a race like this recently? I'm aware he's been racing loppets, but I thought he's been sort of off the back of the lead pack.

2) Why did none of these racers race the Olympic 50km? In the past, when racers like Teichmann and Angerer have entered Worldloppet events, they haven't won them. I asked this in a FS comment but got no replies, I feel like this is a nerdier forum to pose that question.

Anonymous said...

Tim Tscharnke on the podium eh? Bold prediction that a 21-year old German sprinter will get himself ahead of Northug and Hellner, among others.

Christopher Tassava said...

Anonymous, neither of those speedsters are racing at Lahti. Hence my pick of the German. I'll be wrong, but he's apparently the pick to ski anchor legs for Germany now, so a good skate leg in the pursuit should be possible. And frankly, there aren't that many A-grade racers at Lahti.

Christopher Tassava said...

Luke, I'll get back to you on those questions. I have to do some research!

Christopher Tassava said...

1. Alsgaard hasn't had a stellar career on the Marathon Cup since he resumed racing in 2007, but he's usually in the top 20. His best result, though, was 2nd in the Jizerská Padesátka, a 50k classic race in the Czech Republic in January: he lost a sprint finish to Svärd. Last month, he finished 9th in the Marcialonga, +1:32 to Svärd. So he has decent form this year, and will probably be up front, though not on the podium, in the Vasaloppet.

2. A lot of the Marathon Cup racers just aren't good enough at the short distances to make their World Cup teams or the Olympic teams that overlap with the WC squads. They're not very versatile: most are classic or freestyle specialists, for one thing. Svärd, Ahrlin, and Jørgen Aukland are probably in this camp. Maybe they could have raced in the 50k, but to do that they would have had to make the Olympic teams, which would have interfered with the Marathon Cup racing. Then there are older World Cup racers like Mathias Fredriksson or Anders Aukland, who missed out on their country's Olympic teams and are choosing to do the marathons instead.

When WC racers do try the Marathon Cup events, they have mixed success. Angerer finished second to Birkie-winner Fabio Santus in the Dolomitenlauf (42k skate) in Austria in late January. (Teichmann was 15th - tuning up for the Olympics?) Veerpalu finished sixth in the Jizerská Padesátka this year, and ninth in the Tartu Maraton (63k classic) in mid-February. I'm kind of surprised that Veerpalu isn't skiing the Vasaloppet this year, since he's clearly on good form. But the last time the Vasaloppet was run as a World Cup race, in 2006, just after the Torino Olympics, no big-name World Cup racers tried it.

OEB2ODB said...

Luke: Skierpost had a Marcialonga clip (may have been pulled) where you can watch Alsgaard in the lead pack. It looked like he hung with them until about 5km to go, then just didn't have that extra gear.

I think these Vasa racers are just double pole specialists. The big names like Angerer and Teichmann train to freestyle and classic, but can't compete with someone who trains specifically to double pole for 4 hrs. Just a guess.

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