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



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. 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,, 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


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.

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

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