Monday, December 31, 2012

Swiss Sprints

The one-and-only sprint in the Tour de Ski is in a unique venue, Val Müstair, Switzerland - the hometown of Dario Cologna. As near as the FIS database can say, no major race has ever been staged there, so it's really not home snow for anyone.

Though Kikkan Randall had a - relatively and uncharacteristically - "poor" race in Sunday's classic pursuit, I will join everyone else at Who Wins by picking her to win the women's race. I see Dario pulling off the hometown win on an interesting course that appeals to all-rounders and offers bonus seconds to the top 30 finishers for the long stage from Toblach to Cortina on Thursday.


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Chasing Kikkan

I keep thinking about how strange it is to be a fan of North American cross-country skiing right now. I started following the World Cup seriously in 2005, just before the Oberstdorf world championships, at a time when Kris Freeman was the only serious North American contender for a top-20 result.

The situation now is an epic contrast. On the men's side, we have Harvey and Kershaw, two men who can vie for a win in any given event. Behind them are a handful of skiers - a few at or maybe past the peaks of their careers, a few more on the ascent - who can and do pull off good races - Babikov, Valjas, Freeman, Newell, even now Hamilton and Hoffman.

The women's side is even better. Jones and Crawford ski well for Canada, but are overshadowed by a ridiculously strong American team: Diggins, Stephen, Sargent, Brooks - and of course Randall. By now I shouldn't be surprised by anything that Kikkan Randall does on skis, and yet I am. Today she won the Tour de Ski prologue in Oberhof with a very strong race, making it all the more difficult to resist picking her to finish in the top five in any race of the Tour.

A casual observer can tell that Randall has the physical skills to do very well in the Tour, but I'm impressed by her mental preparedness. As she told Fasterskier: “While it’s nice to have a good result today it’s really about having that consistency over seven events. I’m confident in my ability to do that but you can’t take too much away from today. You’ve just got to focus on tomorrow right away."

I think she's going to do well on Sunday and throughout the rest of the Tour:


Friday, December 28, 2012

Tour de Ski-kkanimal, and Assorted Nonsense


While my co-blogger loves the Tour de Ski, I’ll be honest, and utterly contradictory, and say that I hate it (but just a little bit).

I know, there is much to get pumped about! It’s such a big production, it’s such a show, it’s racing day after day, a test of athlete’s ability to travel, to grind out race after race, and to push the boundaries of what it means to really hammer your body. I get it, and I like that part.

But I find the competition itself never lives up to the hype. Last year the men’s race just about pulled it off – it was a close battle almost all the way through, except you knew by the point-to-point stage that Dario Cologna had a lockdown on it. For the women, it’s never even been close. I might suggest next time the women might as well skip the Final Climb entirely.

Which, I will say outright, is the most awful ski race ever invented. “Oh wow, you know what would be fun? If we watched the world’s best skiers offset/herringbone/coach skate/V-something-dumb up a downhill run for 5 kilometers, zig-zagging back and forth,” said literally no cross-country skier, ever, anywhere, even in Italy where this kind of weird shit takes hold after a few bottles of wine.

Watching the Final Climb is a bit like reading about global warming – after a certain point it stops being entertaining, starts being depressing, but you really feel like you’re obligated to sticking it out to the end. But I digress.

However, certainly the Tour does contain some highlights.

The sprints, for one, are always fantastic. I’m not sure why having more non-sprinters making the heats is more exciting, but it just is. Devon Kershaw body-slamming Marcus Hellner to the ground in a corner a few years ago was great, as was the finish-line exchange of words. Simen Oestensen actually being fast – that’s pretty cool. Dario utterly decimating everyone, even when he looks down and out – that’s what I want. Kershaw trying to win last year in Toblach’s skate sprint, resulting in me yelling at my computer, calling him a gigantic moron, only to celebrate like mad after he held on. Emil Joensson being Emil Joensson.  All great stuff!

The mass-start racing is also occasionally pretty good, and full of drama. Petter Northug was a big goon last year in trying some new and completely illegal tactics. Johaug and Kowalczyk engaged in an insane duel of interesting double-pole techniques, both of which are much faster than mine. 

The point-to-point race only happens once a year (and that’s all I have good to say about it, because it can still be a snooze-fest, and a poorly covered snooze-fest – see point-to-point racing, and lots of gratuitous mountain, snow, and tree shots. I get it, people who watch the Tour de France love this ‘cultural helo-cam’ approach that brings them views of rural France. I guess I’m someone who likes to tune in to a race to see, you know, a race. If I want the Discovery Channel, it’s over on 42 and is playing Gold Rush: Alaska.)

My misgivings about the Tour aside, it certainly won’t stop me from making predictions. And my offer still stands – anyone who can beat me in the period from the start of the Tour de Ski to the end of it (total points, including each day, and the final results) in WhoWins predictions will earn themselves a six-pack of beer. It won’t be good beer, and I won’t deliver it person, but I will make good on it. The only condition is you do have to register as your real name, (sorry, Kieran Sucks, not that you’re going to beat me anyway).


Half-Arsed Predictions
Saturday’s Freestyle Prologue














Overall

 













Yeah, I know. I just predicted the biggest favourite in women’s cross-country skiing, the most obvious choice, the easiest pick ever, Justyna Kowalczyk, NOT to win the Tour.

It’s a gutsy move. Or a stupid move. Probably the latter.
But hear me out, as I present 7 reasons (one for each race on the Tour!) why Kikkan Randall will win the Tour de Ski, and Justyna Kowalczyk will not:

1.         1. It's shorter. Randall is better than Kowalczyk at shorter distances. Fact.
2.       
      2. There is only one sprint. Some people think this favours Kowalczyk. Wrong. There is only one sprint, and it’s a skate sprint, which Randall is money at. Kowalczyk, on the other hand, is not as good at skate sprinting. She finished 21st in the most recent skate sprint in Canmore. Weak sauce for the World Cup overall leader.

3      3. Randall has emerged as a viciously good all-around skier. Verbatim from my esteemed former co-worker Audrey Mangan at the hub of all Nordic News, FasterSkier.com, Randall has “finished in the top 10 eight times this season — more than any other woman on the World Cup”. And yes, they are including Justyna Kowalczyk in the women category there.

1.       4. Subway. Eat Fresh. Especially the meatball sub, a foot-long one of those did me well on every ski trip I hit as a Junior athlete, and look where I am now.

2.       5. The short and mass-start nature of the classic races. I won’t deny that Kowalczyk has an overwhelming advantage in classic distance racing over Randall. That’s a fact. In Canmore, Kowalczyk put 30 seconds into Randall in the 10 km classic. However, I will point out that it’s far less than the Pole could amass in an individual start, and actually pretty impressive given Randall’s track record with classic skiing over the last few years. And while Kowalczyk has a 9km classic pursuit on Day 2 with which to create a big gap, it’s a pursuit after a short skate prologue, which Randall will undoubtably win by a minute (so long as there is a slightly technical downhill, on which Kowalczyk will most definitely fall and be killed).

3.       6. She’s married to a Canadian who’s working for FIS (nice video work, Jeff Ellis, one of these days I'll stop hating you for scoring such a sweet job).

4.       7. Momentum. The US women have become some sort of tidal wave on the World Cup this season. It doesn’t matter what the weekend, format, or race is, it seems like someone is able to keep the ball rolling. Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen are sick? No problem, let me carry the mail in the distance racing, says Ida Sargent (yes, I did just write that). Holly Brooks can’t start the sprint? No worries, Sophie Caldwell and Sadie Bjornsen will just qualify instead. Can you honestly say you don’t want to back the Americans, and therefore Kikkan Randall? Someone get the Department of Homeland Security on the phone…

     Nine days of ski racing, North Americans – let’s get at it!

     Tomorrow's post - some skiers I would have loved to pick for the Overall, but couldn't for some basic reasons. Also revealed will be why Tim "Chonky" Tscharnke is such a killer dude.


Tour de Ski Time!

God, I love the Tour de Ski. It's my favorite period of the regular FIS season, sometimes even better than Worlds. This year's edition is going to be great even if Bjoergen isn't skiing. She's never won the Tour, remember, and the relatively tight competition behind her is going to be even better than usual. Though I'd have to say that Kowalczyk is the (slightly boring) favorite, I think that Randall is going to do very well. As World of XC pointed out, she's the only woman with a top-10 finish in every race this year! Kylloenen and Skofterud could do well, but I think both will tail off, creating room behind Justyna and Kikkan for Kalla, Johaug, or even Weng.

The men's Tour should also see some tight competition, with Northug (another never-winner) and Cologna being the obvious favorites. I'm anxious to see if Sundby, Roethe, Belov and Angerer can continue to perform, or if Legkov, Chernousov, or Vylegzhanin will show up.

Here are my picks for the Oberhof prologues:



And for the overall Tour titles:

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Canmore Finale

I would have bet several Loonies that Kikkan had the sprint win in hand when she attacked on the climb this afternoon, dropping everyone but that pesky Norwegian Falla. Alas, Falla played the endgame right and took the win. But then again, Randall was all smiles in the finishing pen, so she must have been satisfied. Second is a good result when you are tied for first with Bjorgen in the overall World Cup and holding a healthy lead over Falla in second in the sprint standings.

My predictions for the Canmore freestyle sprints weren't too bad, actually - good for an even 50th place among the 158 entrants at XC Predictions. My Canadian friend fared less well, which salves my American ego a bit. I hope that these rock-solid predictions for the skiathlon - the first of two before Worlds season - are just as good. I'm eager to see if Kikkan can put together another good distance race - and if the Canadian men can show up.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Can-the Canadians Qualify-More? Please!?

I'll be blunt - last weekend in Quebec sucked. As a Canadian, it hurt to see the big show on home soil, and have come away with a 5th place in the Team Sprint. And have just one athlete qualify for the individual sprint the next day. That stings. And not the little sting that comes with a mosquito bite, but the big, raging sting similar to one that I imagine comes from one of those deadly-looking movie scorpions.

I stuck my neck out a week ago and said that the Canadian World Cups weren't going to be competitive. Well, I didn't just get my head taken off, but just about everything above my ankles, based on how things have gone for the Canucks so far. Ouch for me in the prediction world. The dismal showing in Quebec had about three highlights at max, from my perspective.


What I can only imagine was the saving grace of the Quebec City World Cup for Canadian skiers. Fries and gravy.

First, Alex Harvey showed he is in pretty good shape. The come back in the team sprint after being down and out was quite impressive. Which is good, seeing as he is the defending team sprint World Champion. (On hindsight, this may be a medium point at best...)

Second, Jesse Cockney finished in 32nd place in the qualifier, just .3 of a second from some World Cup points. As it was his first World Cup race ever, that's certainly better than a kick in the teeth.

Third. The huge turnout was great to see, in terms of the sports popularity in North America. Cross country skiing used to be the granola-munching, leg-hair growing, wool-sock wearing, bearded-hippy sport that the cool kids wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole. Now people know it exists! Baby steps people, baby steps.

However, from my close inside sources, I heard they weren't selling beer to the crowd in a manner that allowed you to have a trail-side pint. Yes, in Quebec, of all places. That just about off-sets the above good points.

While Quebec might have been a fiasco as far as performances go, Canmore is the real heart (vomit-inducing term) of Canadian skiing, and is a different beast. My guess is that the altitude, the rock hard snow, the icy tracks, the high speed corners, the wide open finishing straight, and the fact the course is mere meters from the Canadian big guns' beds is going to pay off. Give us something to cheer about!


Half-Arsed Predictions

I realize that I just attempted to write some rousing prose supporting my Canadian country-men and -women. However, I think they're going to find some places 6-30, and not the top 5.


Canadian Men
Valjas, Harvey, Cockney, Russell Kennedy - Top 30
Cockney, Turgeon, McMurtry, Shields - Top 40

Canadian Women
Crawford, Gaiazova - Top 20
Marshall, Nishikawa, Widmer, Kate Brennan - Top 40

American Men
Hamilton - Top 30

American Women
Brooks - Top 20
Bjornsen, Sargent - Top 30
Caldwell - Top 40
Diggins - DNS

Kikkanmore Sprints

A freestyle sprint on North American snow? There's no way - except a fall - that Randall doesn't deliver the goods. And since I'm already tanking at the XC Predictions game, why not go all in for North Americans? USA! USA! Canada! Canada! (Kieran? What say you?)


Can-What? Canmore!


Now THAT’s what I’m talking about! Thursday’s mass start 10/15 km racing had to be some of the most exciting skiing I’ve seen this season at minimum, and in the last year or so.
When fans tell FIS that they want more mass-start racing, for my money we’re talking about action specifically like the men’s 15 km and women’s 10 km classic.

Why am I so stoked? There’s a pile of reasons!

-         -  It had lead changes like no other. What other race can you see Ivan Babikov, Noah Hoffman, Mattia Pellegrin (that’s not a typo – the kid was in his first World Cup race ever, and picked up some bonus points), Tobias Angerer, Giorgio di Centa, and Daniel Huen in the lead – and actually making a difference?
-          Bonus preems actually being bonus. Without the big guns controlling the race, it spread it wide open, and 15 different men picked up bonus points, including some unlikely heros. Fabio Pasini? Not usually a front-runner in distance races. Noah Hoffman? He normally couldn’t get a World Cup sprint point with rocket boosters.

-          - Spills. I hate to be the guy promoting accidents, as I hate it when a crash determines a race outcome (see: Quebec team sprint), but it does make it exciting. Whether it’s Alexander Bessmertnyk needing a harness and a top rope to climb back onto the course, or Martin Johnsrud Sundby tangling with Andy Newell  and taking out a sizeable chunk of the pack, it definitely keeps you on edge. Nothing hurts more than seeing your favourite guy take a nose-dive, or pumps you up watching a rival go ass-over-teakettle. Un-classy? Absolutely. But entire sports are made on a lack of class. Just ask anyone who likes UFC or NASCAR.

-         - Come-backs. I know I just said that falls are epic, and make the race happen. But even better was watching Masako Ishida drive through the field after popping a squat on the first lap, dropping herself out of the top 30. I was looking out for the Japanese classic specialist every time check, and not just because I predicted her to win…

-          - Gaps and explosions. Anyone see aging Ukrainian veteran Valentina Shevchenko go charging after Kowalczyk, only to spectacularly pop in the middle of the steep uphill, almost coming to a dead stop? Or Evgeniy Belov blow a silver medal in the final stretch by skiing outside the tracks? How about the three-wide Italian assault on preem number one? There was always a race within the race worth watching, for once without the constant nattering of the brilliant 'never-count-out-Northug' Eurosport announcers. Although I could have used an Andrew Musgrave reference or two.

-         - The absolute randomness of the podium. On WhoWins, 172 podium predictions were made for Thursday’s race. One person picked Tim Tscharnke, and they only thought he could come 5th. A mere two people thought Tobi Angerer could get a medal. Fifth place finisher Giorgio di Centa? Two people thought he would crack the top 5. As for the Norwegians, 87% of people picked Eldar Roenning and Johnsrud Sundby to at least place 5th, and they ended up 12th and DNF respectively.  On the women’s side, Anne Kylloeenen won her first-ever medal. Meanwhile Maiken Caspersen-Falla out-dueled sprint superstar Kikkan Randall (sorry Americans) as well as proved herself the best in the strong Norwegian quartet of Vibeke Skofterud, Ingvild Oestberg, and Kristin Stoermer Steira (who shattered everyone’s predictions by coming 7th rather than her usual 4th)

To paraphrase one of my favourite writers, if the mass-start 50 km is a game of chess, then the mass-start 15 km is strip poker.  No one wants to watch 40 guys ski in a tight pack for 2 hrs (or 49 km) and then see it determined by a 30 second sprint. I might as well go watch an over-distance workout over my Junior ski team.

No, what I want is the unexpected. The surprising. The epic, dare I say it. The kind of action that makes you hate the commercial breaks, lean forward in your chair, and wear an adult diaper lest you miss a move on a pee break. And for me, nothing does it better than the 10/15 km classic mass start.

Coming up shortly – my predictions for tomorrow’s sprint, and a review of the weekend of World Cuppage Quebec. (Hint – I don’t get nearly as orgasmic as my American co-bloggers.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Quebec-WHA?

In a word: WOW. I thought Kikkan would do well in the team sprint, but I wasn't sure that her teammate - Diggins, as it turned out - would be hot enough to bring the U.S. team in first.

I was wrong. Kikkan is that good, and Diggins is not just good enough, but awfully good.

Unfortunately, the Canadian men couldn't quite put together a complete race, and finished off the home-snow podium. Which is a bummer, except that there's more racing! I expect Kershaw to show up in a big way.

My NorAm-centric picks at XC Predictions:


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Quebec Gold - And World Cup Storylines!


Just like my co-bloggers, the NCP-Canadian connection has been quiet over the last few months. Personally, I spent the summer getting promoted (whoo-hoo!), dusting Fasterskier staffer Nat Herz in rollerski intervals, and hanging out in Canmore secretly videoing Devon Kershaw doing everything so I can sell his secrets to the Russians.
 
But back to the show. This week, the World Cup comes to Canada – and due to the fact that I’m Canadian and into skiing, it's going to be pretty exciting. And that's the understatement of the season.

Although let's clarify something, the World Cup is in fact in Quebec, not just in Canada. That means mountains of support for Alex 'Quebec Gold' Harvey, including screaming young girls. He's like the Beatles, One Direction, and The Backstreet Boys of cross country skiing. It means old buildings, the National Assembly (not to be confused with the Parliament Buildings, which are in Ottawa, the capital of the country), cannons, and enthusiastic Frenchmen. It means poutine, beer, and maple syrup. If nothing else, the Quebecers will put on a show!

Also I would like it noted that I called the Quebec World Cup years ago. A buddy of mine and I were on a trip to the East Coast, and we stopped for a tour of 'Le Veuille Quebec'. After poking around some old buildings, stirring up classic English-French rivalries, and exposing ourselves as terrible uni-lingual Canadians, we settled down for a pint along 'La Grande Allee' just down from the Assembly. Being mostly obsessed with cross country skiing, it took us about 10 seconds to decide that covering the streets with snow and watching Alex Harvey shred Emil Joeenson and Alexei Petukhov needed to happen. Four years later - BAM! - no thanks to us, we get our wish!

Now, despite the fact the World Cup season is already two race weekends in, just like my co-blogger, I have some serious storylines that I am interested in seeing develop.

11. Will the Germans be half decent? Last year they skied like a pile of sick, with the exception of one prologue during the Tour de Ski. As a nation, they seem to be taking a beating in the cross country arena, but will they reverse the decline? (In a word, no. Not even close.)
22. Kikkan Randall. Last years’ Sprint Cup winner, and distance skiing improving dramatically all the way. Late-fall injury dampened expectations, only to have her explode out for two distance podiums in the first two weekends. The one big question - can she put it together for a major event or championships? (Yes. I’m looking at the Tour de Ski.)
33. The Swiss sprint team, featuring Eligius Tambornino and Laurien Van Der Graaf, among others, took a huge step forward last year, especially in the first half of the season. Anything that rocks the Sweden-Norway-Russia stranglehold on sprints is great, but can they continue to rise? (Yes. Especially Van Der Graaf.)
44. Canadian World Cups – will the turnout from Euros be any good? (No. Except for Emil Joensson.)
55. Will the women’s World Cup become something other than a two-horse (Bjoergen and Kowalczyk) showdown? (Yes. But no. Bjoergen will still be unstoppable, but the competition for 2nd-6th will be that much more difficult. Johaug vs. Randall vs. Kalla vs. Kowalczyk?)
66. North American teams are getting deeper, and much more talented, but can they translate that to relay success? (Yes, big-time. I know I’m calling it late, since one relay has already happened.)
77. Will the young North Americans please step up? Every time the World Cup comes to Canada, continental skiers get a chance in the limelight – think Garrot Kuzzy, Phil Widmer, Chandra Crawford, and Torin Koos. Allright, maybe I should have said ‘sprinter’, but you know what I mean. (Yes!)
88. What is the over-under at now many times the British Eurosport announcers mention Andrew Musgrave? (I think it’s set at about 9 million, and they may have exceeded that already.)
99. Will any of the men try something new to break up the monotony of distance races? (No. Petter Northug will wait around in the pack, and then sprint to the finish. He may not win, but it’ll only make the last 1 km of the race exciting.)
110. Has Alexey Petukhov figured out how to pace his sprint races so he can win instead of fading like a champ? (No. He’ll still get beat at the line.)
112. Will Dario Cologna ever show emotion? (Definitely not.)
113. I’ve made various bold statements regarding my ability at WhoWins. Can I back up my non-stop trash talk? (No. Especially if I keep picking skiers that don’t start…)

Half-Arsed Predictions

While I refuse to make predictions for Saturday, as the start list hasn't been revealed, I don't mind making a leap for the team sprint. I realize that I just basically predicted all the favorites. However, as a caveat, I think the tight fast course matched with several inexperienced teams will result in a gong show. Over/under on number of crashes is set at around 20. It's going to make NASCAR look like a walk in the park.

Men
1. Norway I (Gloeersen/Brandsdal)
2. Canada I (Kershaw/Harvey)
3. Sweden I (Joensson/Peterson)

Women
1. Norway I (Caspersen Falla/Brun-Lie)
2. USA I (Randall/Diggins)
3. Canada I (Gaiazova/Crawford)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Back to the Snow!

The Nordic Commentary Project has been quiet for a looong time now, but with the World Cup opener at Gallivare now less than a day away, it's time to get back to the half-informed commentary, the half-sensible predictions, and the halved fandom (half for the U.S.A., half for Canada). I made these guesses for Saturday's distance skate races at the XC Predictions site:


But beyond those two races, I'm interested in at least these eleven storylines for the upcoming season:
  1. Will Northug and Bjorgen repeat their World Championships domination at Val di Fiemme in February? (My guess: no.)
  2. Can Kikkan Randall win the sprint championship again this season? (Yes!)
  3. Will Liz Stephen make the jump up to elite status this year? (Yes.)
  4. Will the men's overall World Cup be the usual two-horse race between Northug and Cologna? (Yes, unfortunately. Cologna will win again.)
  5. Can Northug win the Tour de Ski this year? (No, he'll be too focused on the Worlds.)
  6. Can Johaug win the Tour de Ski this year? (Yes. She's just some decent sprint results away from the title.)
  7. How much doping will we find out about this season? (Very little, but it'll be in the usual team.)
  8. How will Devon Kershaw do this year? (Just about as good as last year.)
  9. How will Alex Harvey do this year? (Really well - top five overall.)
  10. Will Kowalcyzk race her face off again this year? (Yes.)
  11. What can we expect from Lukas Bauer racing in the marathon Cup this year? (Dunno! He could be great, or it could be a waste of time.)





Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sizz-What and Boos for Bjoergen

While I have literally no idea how to actually pronounce this weekends' World Cup venue, there is no doubt in my mind that Poland will put on a show.

There are also loads of questions swirling about performances, at least in my mind.

Here are a few of the potential headlines:

- Can Kikkan Randall bounce back from illness and a weekend off of racing to win another skate sprint? Which is a must if she wants that Sprint Cup title...

- The American women batted .500 last weekend - Saturday was sub-par, but they responded well with a killer relay. While it says just how far American skiing has come this year to describe a World Cup point-free day as 'sub-par' - including Diggins finishing 33rd - will the hottest ladies on the circuit scoop up some much-needed points to ensure a berth at World Cup Finals in Sweden?

- The enigmatic Chandra Crawford. Before Christmas she lit the trails on fire. Aside from the city sprint in Milan, she's been asleep. Judging from her recent blog activity, she has had some difficult times in her personal life, and while the NCP wishes a speedy and full recovery for Crawford's mother, the questions regarding her racing form remain.Link
- What will the crowds be like? First-ever World Cup in Justyna-mad Poland - if the World Cups that I have been to and the few rabid Polish fans I've met are any indication, it's going to be a circus. Also - will we hear boos for Bjoergen? The ferocious debate between the fans of both camps makes NFL, MLB and NHL rivalries look tame (read the comments - the one about Kowalczyks parents feeling threatened is especially funny).

- And speaking of Justyna, will Kowalczyk respond to her home fans adoration by knocking the races out of the park? As the skate sprint and classic middle distance are arguably her two best events, the FIS has certainly tried to keep it fair...

- Devon Kershaw. We all know why, but thanks to Statistical Skier for summing it up so nicely.

- Can Emil Joensson regain his former unbeatable speed? This season sprinting has come up all Alexei Petukhov and Teodor Peterson because Joensson hasn't had the jam. Last seasons' Sprint Cup champion sits 18th in the Sprint Cup rankings - closer to missing the cut for World Cup Finals than a big honkin' paycheque.

- While we won't get to hear Andrew Musgrave's name 10,000 times as the quick Brit isn't starting, the Chinese are showing up with three men. Are they going to do well? Probably not, but who doesn't like rooting for an underdog?

Finally, while I do quite poorly in the prediction game most days, that doesn't stop me from making some...

Half Arsed Predictions

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Muscle-Headed Estonians and Holy MosCOW

After a weekend break for Marcialonga action, the World Cup resumes this week with yet another city sprint – but this time it’s in Moscow, Russia.

While I’m going to reserve my thoughts on the city sprint for another day, I will say that I’m damn glad the technique is skate.

Although these days it doesn’t seem to matter - the “classic” sprint in Estonia two weeks ago featured 90% of the men using skate equipment, and a ridiculous double-pole hammer-fest.

I have to be honest here; I hate double-pole only classic sprints.

Why?

Ever since the little-known Boerre Naess (the 2008 edition of Ronny Andre Hafsaas) hammered his way around the loop at the Canmore Nordic Center at the World Cup on pure double-pole power, I’ve felt somewhat tricked by classic sprints.

It’s pretty simple; I think classic skiing is awesome. The nice powerful striding is the absolute best part of the whole experience, so if you remove that element, in my mind you’re no longer classic skiing. If it’s a classic sprint, there should be some classic skiing. End of story.

Let’s be clear here – the athletes and teams are blameless in this mess. Obviously you’re going to use the fastest equipment you have, whether it’s skate or classic. The blame should mostly be placed at the feet of organizers and track designers – if you make a course with plenty of long gradual striding ups that don’t have a zippy downhill right before it, there won’t be any skate-ski users.

This might be excusable for a first time organizer – say, for example, if Poland had a classic sprint with just double-poling, and no technical down-hills, I wouldn’t be surprised (I wonder why they would do that…)

So it baffles me that Estonians messed it up not just once, but twice! Last year they ran exactly the same course, and everyone double-poled it – what did they honestly think had happened? Every World Cup athlete had skipped their gym sessions in the last 12 months??

Ola Vigen Hattestad: “Hey, Dario, been hitting the gym much this year?”

Dario Cologna: “No way, Hat City, I really want to be able to stride that classic sprint course in Estonia this year. How about you, Petukhov?”

Alexei Petukhov: “…"

Furthermore, I view Estonia is the unofficial king of producing good classic skiers. Andrus Veerpalu, and Jaak Mae, pre-doping scandal, as well as Kristina Smigun were all pretty damn good at classic skiing. The striding part especially, so you would think that Estonian course-makers would have it figured out that when people classic ski, they want to actually classic ski.

Fine, maybe you imagine Estonia is as flat as a pancake, and they don’t actually have any hills long enough that you can’t just hammer up them. Yet somehow for the distance races on Sunday they found such hellishly difficult hills that no one could double-pole.

As Devon Kershaw, apparently now known as a ‘Canadian Nordic Knight’ (utter and massive barf at that nickname, courtesy of Canadian amateur-sport talking head Scott Russell – thanks for the profile of our sport, Scott, but cheesy nicknames don’t sell it) put it in a press release on the CCC website Sunday:

“The climbs out here hare are relentless and punishing. They are so long which we don’t normally ski,” said Kershaw. “The Estonians know how to set up a course to ensure the strongest man wins.”

What the hell Estonia? No wonder you’re not getting the World Cup back

But on to Moscow. Judging from the Twitter-splosion coming from both Canadian and American teams, everyone is pretty excited about the chance to slug it out in the Russian capital.

Frankly, I’m a little disappointed they didn’t use Red Square, but I can understand that using the Pisten Bulley to push protestors out of the way would not exactly have been a Russian government public-relations coup (whoops – really have to be careful using that word in the same sentence as ‘Russian government’).

Instead, at least according to FIS, they’re using the Luzhniki Olympic Stadium, which is apparently the biggest sports stadium in Russia. Sounds good!

But on to my...

Half-Arsed Prediction

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Marathon Cup (part II) - the Marcialonga!


This weekend's gap in the World Cup schedule is just big enough to admit the Marcialonga, the 70km marathon in northern Italy. Second only to the Vasaloppet in prestige, the Marcialonga has - like that even longer race - this year attracted quite a crowd of racers, headed by none other than Petter Northug himself.

That Northug is taking the weekend "off" to ski 70,000 meters of track in Italy is a big, slightly weird deal. As I suggested in my first Marathon Cup post, a number of high-profile World Cup racers have recently shifted over to the ski marathons - Mathias Fredriksson a few years ago, Frode Estil briefly, even Thomas Alsgaard. Mostly past their prime, these racers never really vied with the marathon specialists - on the men's side, racers like Stanislav Rezac (CZE), Jerry Ahrlin (SWE), Oskar Svärd (SWE), and the Aukland brothers Jorgen and Anders.

The latter Aukland, after a decent World Cup career, has had quite a bit of success on the marathon circuit, winning the Marcialonga in 2008, the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet in 2006 and 2010, and the Vasaloppet in 2004. Two other World Cup racers who have made good in the marathons are Hilde Pedersen, who won the Marcialonga in 2007 and the Birkebeinerrennet in 2006 and 2008, and more recently Jörgen Brink, who has won back-to-back Vasaloppet titles in 2010 and 2011 - both times with Northug-like sprints to the line.

I have to think that Brink's success in the biggest and most prestigious marathon has encouraged others to try the long races - as has a doubling of the prize money this year and the organization of marathon racers into fairly formal, professionally-sponsored teams. Think pro cycling, not World Cup skiing.  Last year, Martin Koukal joined one of the professional racing teams and has registered for the Marcialonga. Even Petra Majdic is supposed to be skiing the Marcialonga this year - though, she claims, not vying for the win.

But of course Northug's name is the biggest and most important. He is definitely going to try to win the race, skiing with the Swedish Exspirit team. The team support is important, given the distance and the somewhat different tactics of the marathons, which are contested more like bicycling races than mass-start World Cup ski races. I'd like to pick Northug for the win, but I don't think the course suits him: the last 5,000 meters of the race include the steep "Cascata" climb into the finish in the town of Cavalese:
The Marcialonga Course

The climb is important enough to the race that, this year, racers can win a special prize for the fastest time over that section. I can't see Northug winning that prize, or the race, though I guess I won't be surprised if he defies my prediction and takes the win. I'll be happy enough if there's a good, small group of racers together when they reach the Cascata. With 68,000 meters in their arms and legs by then, funny stuff could happen before the finish line.







Friday, January 20, 2012

Classic Racing in Estonia

I love the classic-race weekends in Estonia. As Nat Herz described so well in Fasterskier last year and Kieran Jones summarized early this season, the place is nuts for skiing, and "diagonal stride" seems particularly, aptly old school. With the Estonian war horses Mae and Veerpalu retired, the racing should be even more interesting than usual - though I think Saturday's sprints are going to turn out pretty much the way of the classic sprints at Oberstdorf in December and Kuusamo in November.


Does Chandra Crawford have her mojo back?

Chandra Crawford is a woman who needs no introduction. Few who have stood at the top step of an Olympic podium, especially North Americans in cross country skiing, do.

But following her heroic Olympic experience, Crawford had a 2007 season to forget before a strong 2008, but slowly slipped, never dominating as many would expect an Olympic Champion or even podium placer to do.

The sprinting world changed significantly after her gold medal. Courses were slowly lengthened, blunting Crawford’s vicious speed in favor of athletes with slightly more fitness. An extra two people were added to each quarter, semi, and final, creating more chances for incidents to happen.

She was also laid low by injury, as a pesky ankle tendon problem forced her to cut back on her training, and several different types of treatment proved ineffective.

It would have been fair at the end of the 2010-2011 season to ask if her career was on the down-turn - for good.

She failed to make a single A-Final. The medal she earned – a team-sprint bronze paired with Dasha Gaiazova – came courtesy of an epic Slovenian blunder, where Katja Visnar face-planted into the snow 20 meters from the line, and Crawford cruised by for the medal. Her World Cup point total of 59 was a far cry from the 319 she earned in 2008. And at 29 years old, she could no longer be considered a rising star in the Canadian system. As happens in any sport, there were people who felt that she had her moment in the limelight, and wondered whether Canadian resources would be better spent elsewhere.

Those doubts have been crushed. She seems to have put it all behind her, and utterly flattened any pundit predictions for the season.

Just how good has she been? Well, seeing as in North America it’s sometimes difficult for us to see around Kikkan’s biceps to anyone else, it’s worth noting that Crawford finished 4th in Dusseldorf, 9th in Davos, and most recently was 7th in Milan before tag-teaming with Perianne Jones to collect a team-sprint bronze medal.

Add to that her impressive performance just before Christmas, where she finished second in Rogla, picking up her first individual World Cup medal since Lahti, Finland, in 2008 – back before Natalia Matveeva took her FIS-enforced vacation, and you have a pretty sweet season. But don’t call it a comeback.

Crawford now sits 5th in the Sprint Cup rankings, and isn’t out of the hunt – she trails Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla by 72 points for the final spot on the podium.

She looks fit, fast, strong, and according to this very recent report by FasterSkier, is loving the vibe coming from the North American success. Which if you've ever talked to Crawford, makes sense.

Half-Arsed Predictions








Yes, I realize I just expounded the fact 'Chuck' (Crawford's nickname) was on a warpath with hot results. I don't think it will translate as well to classic sprinting, never her strong discipline. But I have no problem being wrong...