Friday, November 22, 2013

Kris Freeman: A Call for Civility

The ski season is coming on fast. In just over a week the World Cup show will be in full swing in Kuusamo, Finland, for the Nordic Opening, and you can bet the hype that goes with the 2013-2014 season will be rocking.

In an Olympic year, the speculation starts early and often. Olympic team previews are being written, water coolers are being assaulted with predictions, and in cross country skiing the small community means we talk about an even smaller cast of characters.

And in the good ol’ US of A (and to a lesser extent, Canada), it’s all going to be about one man – Kris Freeman.

Why? Freeman was dropped from the USST at the end of the 2012-2013, for reasons cited as having a lack of medal potential on a team with a very limited budget.

Regardless of whether your metric is FIS points, World Cup points, or performance at US Nationals, Kris Freeman is at minimum the second-best American male distance skier at this very second.  Kris Freeman finished 4th in the 15 km classic individual start race at World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic in 2009. He finished 18 seconds behind a certain Andrus Veerpalu, and was less than 2 seconds from a World Championship bronze medal. He has sixteen National Championship titles, including 5 in the 50 km. Finally, Kris Freeman has Type I diabetes, and is one of very few elite level athletes to compete at the Olympic level while juggling the difficult disease.

The above pedigree places Freeman in the elite category in North American male cross country skiers. Full stop.

Is he still at that elite level? His World Cup point totals in the last two season have barely managed to top 50. Data suggests that he’s now more likely to finish outside the points in the races he starts than inside. So no, he’s no longer at that same elite level.

Through the fall and early World Cup season, there are two things I think Kris Freeman, and the USST system are owed by us, the fans.

Number One – Respect. For both Freeman and the USST. Freeman has battled diabetes and racing on the World Cup and at the Olympics for 12 seasons. That deserves our respect. The USST has supported a ski team that has brought us highlights such as Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the World Championship Team Sprint. If this race gives you the spine-tingly’s, then you have to give the USST some credit. If you don't, then you aren't allowed to be proud of Kikkan and Jessie. Sorry!

Number Two – A focus on the real issue. Kris Freeman’s performance is not the issue. Kris Freeman being dropped from the USST is not the issue. Bill Marolt’s salary is not the issue. Those are all symptoms of a larger problem – that cross country skiing in the United States and Canada is underfunded, under-appreciated (in our view, anyway), and a niche sport. Let’s talk about that. Let's change that. Let's make it so A-Rod's annual salary doesn't dwarf the annual amount of money that USSA and CCC spend on cross country, Nordic Combined, and biathlon a year. (Quick tip: it won't happen overnight.)

Let me be clear, this does not give the USST and Kris Freeman a clear pass not to be criticized. If Freeman struggles out of the gate, and finishes far out of the points, expect me to be the first one to unload both barrels - on his skiing, not his personal life. If the USST ends the season without an Olympic medal, I won’t be pulling any punches - about their policies and choices, not their individual characters.

But in the world of cringe-inducing anonymous internet commenting, let’s treat our heroes with the respect they deserve. Or else we just might not get too many more of them… 

Friday, March 15, 2013


The Holmenkollen races are pretty wonderful. This year should be a Norwegian sweep, but I would love to see some North Americans - Harvey, Stephens, Diggins, maybe even Randall and Kershaw - in the top 10. And though the Oslo races always portend the end of the ski racing season, I'm very excited about next season. Good NorAm results, an exciting World Championships, and no doping (so far) means that the year of the Putinolympics should be great.

My picks for Holmenkollen (made, unfortunately, in advance of a final women's start list):

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Big Distances

The relays were amazingly fun to watch, more so than in many years thanks to the strong performances by the American women (so close: how many days till the Sochi relay?) and the insane hijinks on the anchor leg of the men's race. And while the relays are great spectacles, I love the long-distance finales. Back in 2005, I started paying attention to ski racing again after seeing the great 30k and 50k at Oberstdorf: Marit Bjørgen skied the rest of the field off her tails to win the women's race, and Frode Estil blew up a big pack in the last 5,000 meters to drag Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset and Anders Aukland to the podium. Great races, through and through.

I hope the Val di Fiemme equivalents will be half as good. I think Johaug is just too strong right now for anyone to beat. Bjørgen might do it, of course, but I expect a replay of the Olso Worlds: Johaug relentlessly working the hills and getting away fairly late. Not even Kowalczyk will keep up.

On the men's side, the race will almost certainly come down to a sprint finish which you-know-who will win. Before that, though, I think some hard men like Olsson and Harvey will try to get away - only to be reeled in by Northug.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Relay Day 1: The Women

I am really, really looking forward to seeing what happens in the women's relay at Val di Fiemme. While Norway is obviously the top team, anything can happen in the relay, and the cluster of teams one tier lower than NOR includes the American squad, which will start two Val di Fiemme gold medalists, along with Liz Stephen. Finland, Sweden, and maybe Germany and Russia are right there in the hunt.

My picks:

  1. Norway (Weng, Johaug, Steira, Bjorgen)
  2. USA (Bjornsen, Randall, Stevens, Diggins)
  3. Sweden (Ingemarsdotter, Wiken, Haag, Kalla)

Monday, February 25, 2013

An Interval of Individual Start Racing

The last of the (semi) old-school races, the individual start distance races will be dominated by the usual suspects - almost. Petter and Justyna will have to wait for a chance at medals.

picks from

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Team (USA) Sprint: The Randall & Diggins Show

I just rewatched today's women's team sprint at the Val di Fiemme World Championships. I don't think skiing has raised the hair on the back of my neck more since the American nordic combined boys medaled in Vancouver. Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall were not just the gold medalists today; they were far and away the smartest, most aggressive, most tenacious, and fastest skiers on the snow.

Photo stolen from Audrey Magnan

The peak moment was Randall winning by a country mile, but the previous lap was the clincher. First, Diggins decisively took the lead just out of the stadium. A minute or two later, as she crested the big climb, lost her pole to the Finnish racer in second place. In the slo-mo replay, you can see Diggins shout for a replacement, but she hardly slowed down: she charged hard for 150 meters on one pole, keeping contact with the Finn and separating from the Swede in third.

It was an astounding moment of ski racing, and Diggins followed it up a minute later when - re-armed with a pole that looked longer than she is - she charged the last hill and took the inside line on a tricky uphill left-hand hairpin. The aggression put her back into a lead which she didn't relinquish and which Randall then extended in her amazing effortless style all the way to the line. Gold, set, and match.
Photo stolen from Audrey Magnan at

It's inarguable at this point that the naissance of the American women's team is due to Kikkan Randall. Over the last decade, she has showed everyone that there's no reason that the U.S. can't produce world-class - and now, world champion - skiers. I think the clearest evidence of this is Jessie Diggins: she doesn't know that she shouldn't be the best, so in fact now she is, racing with breathtaking heart and skill. I can't wait to see what the full relay quartet does on Thursday. The American women know they're among the world's best. Now they can show it again.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Team Sprint! USA! USA!

The team sprint is always an odd event, since it is relatively rarely contested on the regular World Cup and since it has an especially manic character, what with the super-high sprinting speeds and the constant exchanges. I'm looking forward to this one.

1. USA (Diggins, Randall)
2. Sweden (Kalla, Ingemarsdotter)
3. Finland (Sarasoja-Lilja, Lahteenmaki)


1. Sweden (Hellner, Joensson)
2. Norway (Golberg, Northug)
3. Canada (Kershaw, Harvey)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Worlds Skiathlon

I hope the Val di Fiemme skiathlons live up to the great spectacle of the races in Oslo. That was great stuff. I am bummed that Kikkan Randall isn't racing on Saturday; I'd have expected her to finish very well, but she's clearly saving her legs to win the gold on Sunday in the team sprint. This is acceptable.

My picks for the skiathlon's top-five places, which I hope are actually wrong in interesting, unpredictable ways:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

World Champs Sprints

The Val di Fiemme World Championships are finally here, opening with classic sprints. My XC Predictions picks, including some North American "outsiders" that I think are gonna show up on the Italian snow:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Davos Tune-Up

I clearly have not been paying enough attention to the World Cup this year: I was surprised to see today that the World Championships start in just five days! This weekend's events in Davos are thus the final tune-ups for Worlds. My picks for Saturday's classic sprints:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Sochi Re-Shuffle

The World Cup had the weekend off for some obscure reason*, which resulted in some serious depression for ski racing fans. Especially after the last few weeks, where we have been bombarded with World Juniors, U23's, World Cup medals galore (although not in La Clusaz - I've seen more exciting paint dry), and are getting pumped for World Championships!

Here are some mid-season story lines worth paying attention to:

 - We should be concerned about Russia. The courses go straight up and straight down. The athlete accommodation is a prison. They have stolen ALL the worlds cranes. It’s like the plot of a James Bond movie.

- I think everyone should walk to Russia, based on the air travel.

- The American World Champs team was named. All the American men were promptly shredded to bits by commentators.

The Canadian World Champs team was named. Eric Bjornsen had his boots filled with concrete by commentators.

 Finland named it’s World Champs team, and – what the hell, how come Torin Koos didn’t make it, he won, like, two of three races at US Nationals, and he beat Eric Bjornsen in an arm wrestle, and looks way better in a headband than Tad Elliot, and did I mention that he once was second in a classic sprint qualifier? What’s that? The USST doesn’t take anonymous internet commenter’s  into consideration in selection criteria? Oh. My bad.

- Sorry, was Torin Koos involved in some sort of controversy this year?(Ed. Note - Last USST selection/Torin Koos joke of this post, I swear.) 

-  The USST made a cover music video to some Taylor Swift song. Three good reasons to watch it: 1. You actually like the song despite trying really hard to deny it. 2. Jessie Diggins is one cute blond girl. 3. You can spot Noah Hoffman a mile away with that red hat. Does he sleep with that thing on? 

Every single Canadian made the Red Group for Period III. No, that’s not a joke

- Therese Johaug is really enthusiastic about her new Fischer skis. I’m actually on my way to the shop to get a pair now. Aside from that, the Norwegian women are really fast, as 5 are in the top 10 in the World Cup Overall. And Vibeke Skofterud has packed it in for the season.

Alex Harvey dislocated his shoulder, but didn’t really give a shit. No really, it didn’t even make the FIS Cross Country news page. 

 Justyna Kowalczyk sucked in Sochi, but didn't blame the down hills, her wax techs, or Marit Bjoergen. On second thought, maybe she just hasn't been interviewed about it yet. And yes, she is still 400 points ahead in the World Cup Overall (snooze).

- 33% of the Canadian women's World Cup Team ended their season early. The other 66% combined for a medal. Perianne Jones is now the worlds best team-sprint specialist ** Statistics are all about the presentation.

Next week, the World Cup reconvenes in Davos, Switzerland for some killer racing, killer scenery, and a gigantic inflatable... sheep? Goat? Should be good.

*The airline lost 93 pieces of baggage on the World Cup charter planes return to Europe from the Sochi World Cup. Coincidentally, it was the entire Red Groups baggage, and every single ski and pole came out broken.
** Statistics may or may not be clouded by authors bias. But probably not.

Friday, January 18, 2013

La Clusaz

The mass-start events in La Clusaz always look to me like laps around a windy, hilly field. But they also almost always turn into good races. With the Tour now in the background, we should see all of the heavy hitters back in action. I would love to tab a couple of the Finnish women to do well, but who? Instead, I'm going with likely suspects:

La Clusaz - Crunch Time For Canada

Okay, things have taken a hit in my analysis of the World Cup since the Tour de Ski. It has something to do with my dismal predication performance in WhoWins (going from a solid top-20 at the midway point of the Tour to dropping all the way to 76th spot).

The real zinger isn’t that I dropped to 76th, but that my unnamed arch-rival “Kieran Sucks” finished in 25th, and arch-blog-writing-nemesis Nordic Xplained nicked me in 71st. Although, for the record, the final 5 days of the Tour de Ski I spent frantically waxing skis for 27 athletes in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for the combo World Junior Trials/Ontario Cup racing happening there. And two of my athletes are now representing Canada in Liberec, CZE at World Junior Championships, and Nakkertok came away with 18 medals on the race weekend. So really, it wasn't that bad at all.

But enough about me, this blog is about World Cup action!

This weekend racing moves to La Clusaz, France, for a 10/15 km mass start classic, and the second 4-by team relay. Two races that I just happen to love no matter what, and based on the two versions that have already happened this year, are going to be pretty firework-packed.

That being said, I’m going to bust out my grumpy-face and lay some smack-down – I don’t actually like La Clusaz as a race location, and I don’t like France as a World Cup team.

I’m not entirely sure who okay’ed La Clusaz as a race site, but quite frankly, it looks horrendous (on TV). A miserable wide-open wind-swept plain with a couple of massive uphill and downhill sections doesn't constitute a World Cup venue in my mind. It seems like it's always dropping knee-deep powder at race time, for whatever reason, making skate skiing pretty ugly. Check out this video if you think it looks like great spot for a nice European ski vacation.

And the French. Wow. Has a team ever fallen so far so fast down the Nations Cup rankings!?! (Don’t answer that – yes, the Estonian’s and the Finn’s come to mind). What was once a deep squad with perennial distance powerhouses Vincent Vittoz and Jean Marc Gaillaird, and a talented sprint pool including Torino Olympic silver medalist Roddy Darragon and Cyril Miranda is now a shell. Only Maurice Manificat is still standing, and right now he’s probably not doing much standing at all (too soon?). Also, they have ugly suits.

Now, my lack of respect for the French World Cup not-withstanding, I am excited to see some fast racing action. And therefore, here are my picks:

And a couple of notes about them:
- If you don't pick Masako Ishida to make the top 5, you're making a BIG mistake. She's significantly more rested after not doing the Tour de Ski, was one unlucky fall out of a medal in Canmore, and is already well on her way to a personal-best total in World Cup points this season.
- My faith in the Canadian men were restored following the Tour de Ski. Sure, they didn't blow everyone away like last year, but by the end of the week, there were finally some bright spots. Also, if they want to have anything close to the success they had on the World Cup last year, they need to turn things around this weekend. It's now or never for Harvey and Kershaw, in my mind.
- My faith in Kikkan Randall's classic distance skiing has been utterly decimated by the Tour de Ski. I bet the farm on her, and while her classic skiing has improved massively, it's still not at the level to compete with the best women in the world.
- Justyna Kowalczyk is so boring.

See you on the Twitter-box (@joneskieran) at 5:15 AM for the women's start! Two Canadian women are starting, so I'm obliged to crawl out of bed.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cermis Surmise

The Final Climb matters this year, once again! I like this. The women's race is actually looking to be less interesting than the men's for once, though if Johaug goes bonkers she might be able to close the gap to Kowalczyk and outclimb the Pole. I'm not putting my money on the overall win for Johaug, but I do see her taking the stage win.

On the men's side, things are much tighter: the top four are within 16.5 seconds of each other, which should make for some legitimately head-to-head action on the climb itself. I think it'll come down to Cologna and Legkov, and I think the Swiss will be first to the summit. Cologna will turn in a good time, but I think that Ivan "Bulldog" Babikov, who has been skiing superbly throughout the tour, will take the stage win.

Regardless of what happens, both races are going to be insanely fun to watch (no matter what some people think).

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Classic Setup (Val di Fiemme)

Except for the Final Climb - about which my Canadian co-blogger and I will have to disagree - I like the mass-start classic race the most. Do I say that about the stages of the Tour de Ski? Maybe I do. But the classic mass start in Val di Fiemme is a brutal, brutal race, with a ton of climbing, more tactical maneuvering than a war game, and all those bonus points - fewer this year than last, but still a lot of them. And then there's the timing of the race, the day before the Final Climb. Some racers are going great guns to catch up, others are fighting to maintain a lead, others are doing their bits for their teams, and still others are just conserving energy. If that's possible on such a tough course.

Anyhow, here are my picks. I had a hard time not putting Randall in the women's top five, but I just don't see it. Up the Alpe, though...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Queen Stage

I know the TdS stage to Cortina isn't perfect, what with the pursuits taking two different formats - the women's 3x5k lap race, the men's 35k point-to-point race - but don't bother me with details: I love this stage.

The men's long up-then-down race from Toblach is a great spectacle, at least as good - for my Euro - as the final climb. And while the women's race is less fun to watch, the pursuit start and the significance of the finishing order and gaps heightens the drama. Plus also freestyle technique, which just seems more exciting to me, even though I much prefer classical in general. And when the racers finish - undoubtedly in exactly the order below - on Thursday, they have just two more days before the final climb!