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...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Tour Is Won on the Alpe

Oh, man. The Final Climb on the Alpe Cermis tomorrow is going to be pretty exciting - just the sort of stage that should conclude the Tour de Ski.

On the men's side, I can't see Cologna doing anything but finishing first (becoming the first triple champion of the Tour de Ski), but I'm very eager to see the fight behind him for third - or maybe second, if Northug fades. He's only 40-some seconds up on Hellner and Kershaw, who demonstrated their Northug-hunting skills in Thursday's point-to-point race. I'm picking that pair to finish 1-2 on the stage, ahead of Bauer.

The women's race will be quite a bit more interesting. Bjørgen and Kowalczyk are going to have a heavyweight bout for first. With any luck, it'll continue right up to the finish line, but I think Kowalcyzk's going to open it up low on the slopes and take a decent lead to the summit. Behind, Johaug has more than a minute on Kalla in fourth, but I will be interested to see if the Norwegian can shake off her recent bad form and win the stage again.

Here are my picks for the stage podium:

And by the way, here's how I predicted the final standings for the whole Tour:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Val di Fiemme: The Race before the Climb

The mass-start classic races in Val di Fiemme see a lot of action every year as racers jockey for the bonus seconds that could advantage themselves and disadvantage their rivals in the last race of the Tour de Ski, the Final Climb. Remember how Lukas Bauer took over this stage a few years ago and established the gap he needed to outpace Northug on the Alpe Cemis? I do; it was one of the best races I've ever seen the Tour de Ski, on the World Cup, or in any endurance sport. My picks for tomorrow's races, which are run over 10k for women and 20k for me.

Yes, I'm a hopeless homer for North America.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chasing Is Racing

Today's Toblach sprints were the last short-distance race in this year's Tour de Ski. The next four days include one rest day and three long races: Thursday's 15k/30k skate pursuit, Saturday's 10k/20k classic mass start, and Sunday's 9k skate Final Climb.

The Nordic Commentary Project brain trust long ago criticized the format of Thursday's stage, which has the towering problem of having the women race a ridiculous 50% of the men's distance on what - this year - will be a completely different course. (In previous years, they just raced the second, downhill half of the course.)

Beyond that critique, I won't make any other comments - just recommend Jan's excellent preview at World of XC and post my picks. If Kikkan were a little bit closer to Johaug, I'd pick her for a podium. Top five will have to do!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Toblach Sprint

I agree with Jan at XC Predictions that "the Toblach sprint stage can become a very decisive stage in this year's Tour de Ski in the men's race." Legkov won't earn any points in the sprint, and neither will many of the other top-ten racers except perhaps Kershaw (5). The sprint will be less important for the women, since Bjørgen and Kowalczyk have already pulled away from the rest of the field and now should be able to just manage their lead until Sunday. Unless one or both implodes, which would be very interesting...

Monday, January 2, 2012

To Italy!

In ginning up this post for the Tour de Ski rest day, I discovered why the next venue, the first in Italy, is always listed with two names: Toblach is the German name for the town while Dobbacio is the Italian name. Thanks, Wikipedia! (But no thanks for not telling us the Ladin name for the place.)

The first race in Toblach/Dobbacio is an unusual one: a 3k/5k classical technique run in interval start. The funny distances put this race somewhere between a prologue and very short distance event. The pacing is going to be a critical issue, especially since the courses are Davosian: up a huge climb, then down a giant descent to the finish. If the race were longer, I'd tab Johaug for the women's win, but I don't think she and her ponytail can outdescend the bigger racers like Bjørgen and Kowalczyk, who is so much better on the downs that I suspect she did some alpine skiing in the offseason.

Beyond those predictions, I wanted to look briefly at the general classifications as the race shifts to Italy. I had the impression that both the men's and women's GC were pretty tight, but they're actually not, at least relative to recent history. On the men's side, Northug and Cologna are separated by just 1.1 seconds, but Legkov is at +52.3, Vylegzhanin is at +59.8, and Kershaw is at +1:03.3. On the women's side, Kowalczyk has a small but respectable gap back to Bjørgen at +26.6s, a bigger gap of +1:06.6 to Johaug, and very solid gaps of just over three minutes to Randall and Saarinen.

Looking back to comparable moments in previous Tours de Ski, we find two different stories. The men's GC is currently tighter at the top but about the same for the rest of the top five. Only in the 2007-2008 race, when Bauer led but just seven seconds covered the top five places, was the men's GC more closely packed. (Arguably, the 2008-2009 resembles this year's, since the top five were within 48s. However, Bauer, the eventual winner, was way back in 18th place, two minutes out. What a comeback he made!)

Compared to last year's race, when Kowalcyzk was in control by the halfway point of the Tour, the current women's GC has a smaller gap between 1 and 2, but bigger intervals after that. In this sense, both last year and this year differ from every other running of the TdS, during which the top five women were all within about thirty seconds of the frontrunner. If nothing else, these comparisons speak to the fact that two pairs of skiers - Northug and Cologna, Kowalczyk and Bjørgen - are easily the best skiers in each race right now. Whether that means they win the Tour, we'll start to see on Wednesday morning.

Here's the historical record (asterisks make the eventual winners)...
2010-2011 - after fourth event (5+5k pursuit at Oberstdorf)
* Kowalczyk 1:01:52.3
Kalla +1:19.8
Longa +1.22.1
Majdic +1:35.1
Lahteenmaki +1:46.8

2010-2011 - after fourth event (10k+10k pursuit at Oberstdorf)
* Cologna 1:37:51
Kershaw +45.9
Hellner +1.06.1
Legkov +1.06.7
Harvey +1:23.8

2009-2010 - after fourth event (1.2k C sprint in Prague)
Saarinen 40:16.3
* Kowalczyk +24.9
Majdic +29.7
Follis +31.7
Korosteleva +45.2

2009-2010 - after fourth event (1.6k C sprint in Prague)
Jönsson 51:50
Hellner +43.8
Oestensen +44.3
Vylegzhanin +46.5
Northug +47.3
( * 18. Bauer +1:59.5)

2008-2009 - after fourth event (9k C in Nove Mesto)
* Kuitunen 57:49.3
Saarinen +5.6
Bjørgen +23.0
Kowalczyk +47.3
Majdic +54.0

2008-2009 - after fourth event (15k C in Nove Mesto)
* Cologna 1:24:36.9
Rotchev +16.3
Teichmann +16.5
Roenning +20.9
Johnsrud Sundby +47.9

2007-2008 - after fourth event (10k F pursuit in Nove Mesto)* Kalla 1:03:25.5
Follis +8.5
Kowalczyk +10.1
Kuitunen +17.6
Nystad +30.8

2007-2008 - after fourth event (15k F pursuit in Nove Mesto)
* Bauer 1:24:02.1
Koukal +3.2
Piller Cottrer +3.4
Checchi +4.6
Gjerdalen +6.9

2006-2007 - after third event (10k C in Oberstdorf)
Steira 1:00:05.9
Majdic +20.4
Saarinen +23.2
*Kuitunen +26.4
Shevchenko +27.9

2006-2007 - after third event (15k C in Oberstdorf)
* Angerer 1:32:30.3
Oestensen +17.0
Goering +30.7
Dementiev +35.4
Northug +42.8