Saturday, November 27, 2010


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

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.