Sorry about the delayed review everyone, Sunday was an extremely busy day for me and didn’t have time to watch the men’s relay, I have now and I got some strong opinions in the analysis section. I’d love to know if you agree if disagree with my on my points. Anyway, here’s the race recap.
The opening leg was very uneventful with Hellner leading the race for a very pedestrian for first 2.5km; however, Japarov of Russia II increased the pace on second lap and remained at the front for the majority of the leg. Something happened to Kershaw at 7.5km and was 15 seconds off the pace as was
The pace was continually pushed by Japarov and on the final 2.5km the field began to splinter as Russia I, Norway I, France, and Russia II opened a five second gap on the rest.
Coming into the first exchange it was Belov of Russia I, Rønning of Norway and Gaillard of France with a small lead, but like most relays the pace slowed down considerably which allowed the lead three to be caught and the lead pack swell to eight athletes just a few minutes after they started the second leg.
Behind the lead eight, Freeman for USA was leading a foursome of USA, Czech Republic, Norway II and Germany II in an attempt to hunt down the leaders. The combination of the slower pace by the leaders and at 4.3km, Freeman and Jaks of the Czech Republic had regained contact up front and made.
Cologna was going insanely fast and was only 19 seconds down at the half way point, which meant he gained 27 seconds in the first 5km. Only 1.8km, Cologna had closed the gap by a further seven seconds. Ahead of Cologna, Vylegzhanin of Russia I was beginning to turn the screw and the lead 10 immediately began to thin out.
At 7.5km of the final leg, Rickardsson and Vylegzhanin’s good work had Sweden, Russia and France up front and the top 10 now spread out by 12 seconds. Vylegzhanin was relentless and he was able to drop Rickardsson to the drop to the chasers that included Jauhojaervi, Krogh and di Centa.
At the exchange, Manificat and Vylegzhanin’s hard work had paid off and there was a five second gap between them and the other four teams (Finland, Norway I, Sweden and Italy). There was a big 18 second gap to the other four teams (Switzerland, Cazech Republic, Norway III and USA).
Like the second leg, it didn’t take long for the top six to clump together as Fischer for Switzerland was going extremely hard and closed the gap to the leaders by 12 seconds within the first 1.8km.
Olsson continued to lead the top six while the other athletes comfortably sat behind. Further behind, Fischer came back to Earth and was caught by Norway III’s Eilifsen and USA’s Tad Elliot and the threesome began to work together but weren’t closing the gap to the leaders as they were about 30 seconds down.
At 7km, Lars Berger decided it was time to increase the pace and took the lead from Olsson but the Norwegian wasn’t able to do anything meaningful up front as the six remained together. With 700m left, Clara injected some speed and took the lead which was enough to drop Russia I’s Turyschev immediately.
At the final exchange, it was Norway I, Italy, Sweden, France and Finland together with Russia I in Legkov just five seconds behind but was able to close that gap right away. Just a kilometer in, the pace slowed to a crawl as no one wanted to take the lead. How slow was the pace? Well Norway III in Røthe and Switzerland in Perl were 44 seconds down at the exchange and at 1.8km they had closed the gap to 13 seconds. The cat and mouse race was fully on. Interestingly, as soon as Røthe and Perl caught the leaders, Røthe burst to the front and inject speed that the lead was severely lacked which forced the lead pack to follow suit. Unfortunately, the pace slowed down soon after and the lead eight were closely grouped together.
Coming into the 5km mark, Perl lead the group, but saying the pace was comfortable was an understatement. At 7.5km, Svendsen of Norway II had pulled back an amazing 1:30 and almost bridged the gap, but at the same time Perl put in a brief injection of pace, but slowed right down again. This allowed Svendsen to make contact with the lead group just in time for the last sprint.
At 700m, it was Legkov’s time to put in the final sprint and Northug slotted in right behind him as did Røthe, Halfvarsson and Perrillat. Coming into the stadium, Northug took the lead as Røthe tucked in behind for the sprint finish. Northug put on his after burners and Halfvarsson was unable to overtake Røthe for silver.
1. Norway I (Rønning, Krogh, Berger, Northug)
2. Norway III (Dahl, Ansnes, Eilifsen, Svendsen)
3. Sweden (Hellner, Rickardsson, Olsson, Halfvarsson)
These types of races are becoming really frustrating for me as they’re no longer indicative of which nation is truly the best because of all the cat and mousing in the final leg. For me as an avid ski fan, the frustration doesn’t come from Northug winning (I respect him as an athlete and am continually in amazement of his abilities), but from the predictability these races have garnered.
The relay has become a spectacle in which a top nation can show off just how good their sprinter is compared to the rest of the nations (read: Northug). Today was a great example as Perl and Røthe should not have even been in the conversation for a top five place going into the final leg. If the athletes in the top six skied to their full potential like the do in an individual race, Perl and Røthe would not have been able to claw back the 45 second deficit they had at the start of the leg.
The amount of tentativeness is truly amazing and you need to look no further than the biathlete Emil Hegle Svendsen who had the fastest final leg and was 1:45 fastest than Northug, Legkov and the rest of the lead pack. Think back to Legkov’s blow-up during the relay last year at World Champs, he was 1:53 slower than the fastest leg time and that was huge news.
In the same breath, an skier like Legkov is the perfect athlete to break the other athletes in the final leg. We saw an example of this in Kuusamo last year. He’s hard as nails and has a decent sprint. There’s two scenarios for races like this… 1). You successfully break the pack and in doing so drop Northug before the final kilometer or 2). You wait until its too late the concede the victory to Northug. It’s pretty black and white at this point which makes me scratch my head as I watch someone like David Hofer of Italy slow down the pace to which Northug can diagonal skate up some of the hills.
It almost seems like the racers are deflated even before the leg starts if Norway I is within 15-20 seconds of the lead. A mentality of “Well, he’s gonna beat us so we might as well stick together and fight it out for 2nd place…”
Obviously, it’s much easier for me to sit at my computer and write this, but that’s why I’m a blogger and not a World Cup skier and I’m sure many others share the same sentiments in terms of the “Northug Era” of relay tactics. Simply put, it’s making the relay a fairly boring affair since there is very little predictability. A hint to new ski fans, for the next relay forget watching the first three legs and turn on your TV/computer for the final leg. If Northug is in the lead pack at the final exchange, you can turn off the race as you know who is going to win, if he isn’t in the lead pack, then watch the final leg because you really don’t know who will win the race which makes it exciting again.
Anyway, about the actual race, some unexpected poor performances including Kershaw and Fischer in the first leg that were well off the pace. This has been Kershaw’s third sub-par performance of the early season and it is a little worrying for Canadian ski fans. Hopefully he turns it around sooner than later as the Tour de Ski is just over a month away and many are hoping to see him replicate last year’s stellar performance.
To say Germany had a horrible weekend would be an understatement. Yesterday only had Angerer (14th) in the top 30. Today, both their relay teams finished last and second last (Canada dropped out). It wasn’t as though a couple athletes had bad races; every single athlete had a bad race. If it was bad skis or just poor fitness is something we’ll find out next weekend in Kuusam.
What a great weekend France had! A 5th place in the women’s relay and then 4th place today in the men’s relay. So far it looks like they aren’t missing Vittoz at all. They put their two big guns in the first half of the race, but Duvillard and Perrillat did a great job of keeping them in the race right til the end.
As for Sweden’s plan for Halfvarsson beating Northug, the young Swede’s inexperience of racing the final leg was apparent in the final kilometer. First, he got stuck behind Røthe coming up the hill into the stadium and had him stumble slightly, then coming into the final stretch he had to try to move up from 5th place. He sprint abilities were impressive and was able to pass Legkov and Perrillat in the final stretch and I’m sure if he had a 50 more meters he would’ve had Røthe. This should be a good learning lesson for Halfvarsson and if given the chance in the next relay, will remember to line-up closer to the front in the final kilometer of the race.
That’s it for me. Talk to you in a few days with a Kuusamo preview.
Nations Cup: 6199 (3rd)
Men: 4422 (2nd)
Women: 1777 (7th)
Extremely worrying fact: Out of the 27 women who scored World Cup points last season, non of them managed to earn a World Cup medal. The good news is the men’s distance team hasn’t looked stronger.
Last year was disappointing for the Russia sprinters who included Petukhov (4th ranked), Morilov (14th), Kriukov (19th), Devjatiarov (37th) and Panzhinskiy (51st) are the main men for Russia. With the exception of Petukhov, the other skiers took steps backwards. Kruikov slipped 13 places and Morilov slipped down from 8th the year before. Add in Panzhinskiy who is the current Olympic sprint silver medallist finished in the top 20 only once last campaign! If you remove Petukov, the Russian men earned a single sprint medal all season (3rd place by Kriukov in Otepaa) and that is something that they will have to improve on this season if they want to keep their current Nations Cup position.
The one bright spot for the Russians was that Morilov and Panzhinskiy managed to find their Olympic gold medal form and earn a bronze in the sprint relay at the World Championship.
Like their male counterparts, the female sprinters had a fairly poor season. The leader of the Russian women, Natalia Korosteleva tumbled down the Sprint Cup rankings form 8th in 2009-2010 to a very poor 34th last season. In fact, it was relatively unknown athlete Anastasia Dotsenko who was the best Russian female who finished 32nd in the sprint rankings.
How poor was last season for the women? Well if you take all their athletes that scored at least one sprint point last season not including the Rybinsk sprints (there was 11 athletes qualifying outside Rybinsk for those counting at home), not a single skier qualified for the finals. That’s simply unacceptable for a ski nation as big as Russia.
This is where Russia really shines. Between Legkov (4th ranked), Vylegzhanin (6th), Chernousov (8th), and Sedov (13th); Russia arguably has the strongest distance core in the world. In addition, youngsters Belov (25th) and Volzhentsev (39th) have very promising futures ahead of them. It’s hard to highlight a single athlete since all of them had great years. Coming into the Drammen weekend, Legkov had failed to finish worse than 8th in nine races. However, this impressive feat will be masked by his shocking self-destruction during the 4x10km relay at the World Champs where he single-handedly took Russia out of medal contention and skied the 13th fastest time of his leg; 1:53 slower than the fastest time.
I expect a lot of Russian men to be in the medals for the distances races this year. With Sedov and Belov another year older, they should be making a serious impact on the scene and challenging for top 10 spots in the Distance Cup.
The return of Irina Khazova from pregnancy couldn’t have come at a better time because this team is in desperate need of a quality athlete. Last year Tchekaleva (15th ranked) was the one bright spot for Russia and was the best Russian. There was also Ivanova (32nd), Novikova (35th), Mikhailova (37th), Dotsenko (38th). The problem is that while they have the numbers, the quality just isn’t there right now.
Like the other powerhouse nations of the ski world, there is always promising talent coming through the junior ranks. Both the men’s and the women’s team came 2nd in the relays at World Juniors. Some names that had strong World Juniors include Elena Soboleva (5th, 6th, 7th), Konstantin Kuleev (5th and 2nd), Sergey Ustiugov (14th, 1st, 8th) and Gleb Retivykh (3rd in sprint).
The men look amazing for the next few years, especially their distance team and the sprint team will be looking to improve on a sub-par 2010-2011 season. The women will be welcoming back Khazova with open arms but the vast majority of the rest, they will struggle to make the top 10 for the next couple seasons.
After looking at all the great performances from Holmenkollen yesterday; today we are taking a closer look at those that performed just okay, and even some that bordered on the poor.
Petra Majdic – Yes, she earned a bronze in the sprint which was impressive. However, we still have yet to see the dominant Majdic that we became accustomed to in year’s past where she would be a sure lock in a sprint event, and even more so if it was in the classic technique. The only other individual event we saw her in was the 10km classic where she finished a mediocre 13th for her standards. Will she try to regain her form from year’s past or could she be hanging up the skis for good after Falun?
Andy Newell – He gets a lot of media attention for being one of the best qualifiers in the world, but fails to put it together in the heats. Well, Newell did a 180 and actually finished higher than he qualified, something he’s only done twice in the past 19 World Cup/World Championship races dating back to the end of the 2008-2009 season. He made it to the semi-finals and placed 10th, but for him to qualify 24th, as weird as it sounds, might be a tactic he might want to endorse for future races…
Emil Jönsson – It’s becoming more and more clear, that Jönsson has some sort of inability to put it together at the big shows. Sure he can qualify any given day and will usually be in the top 5, but it’s now been three World Championship or Olympics as he’s gone in as the favourite, but has failed to win the race that mattered. In Liberec he failed to make the final and finished 13th, in Vancouver he again missed the finals and finished seventh and this year he actually made the final and came third, only to be beaten by the biggest male rivalry in the sport in Hellner and Northug.
The German Women – They’ve had a rough ride all year with skiers out of form before, during and after the Tour de Ski and unfortunately they didn’t get it together for the World Championships. They did have some bright spots such as Fessel’s 7th in the 30km and 15km pursuit. Sachenbacher-Stehle hasn’t found her foot this year even though she had two 13th places, we all know that she’s capable of much more when she’s on form.
Ville Nousiainen – There’s no real category to put this guy in, perhaps I should’ve made a sympathy category and thrown him in there with Dolidovich and Eliassen and I feel it’d be harsh to put him in the bad section. Basically, Nousiainen is a good top-25 skier and always has been. His 8th in the 15km classic was a great result and tied his best individual result in over three years. But he was the main reason why the Finnish sprint and relay teams finished the positions they did. There’s weak links in every team, but he sticks out like a sore thumb. He ran the first leg in the relay and handed off to Jauhojaervi with a 55 second deficit. It’s a small miracle the team actually made it back into medal contention. Then the sprint relay Jauhojaervi led out and Nousiainen held the anchor leg. Jauhojaervi did everything humanly possible to tag off to his teammate and give him as big of a lead as possible, but Nousiainen had no legs left and ultimately ended up in fifth.
Dario Cologna – Arguably one of the most talented athletes on the world stage right now. We all know what he’s capable of with two Tour de Ski titles already in his trophy case and an Overall World Cup Crystal Globe, this guy has almost done it all at the age of 24-years old. Before every race, he was one pegged as a favourite, but instead of landing on the podium, he turned into the Swiss miss. He failed to crack the top 20 in any of the individual results with a 20th in the 50km, 25th in the 15km classic and 24th in the 30km pursuit. A shadow of what we saw around Christmas time.
Alexander Legkov – Like Cologna, we’ve seen his ability to take races by the scruff of the neck and destroy competition, the finale to the Kuusamo mini-tour this year springs to mind. His 19th in the 30km pursuit below par for his standards, but it only got worse as the week went on. The next race was the 15km classic where he was 20th and then the relay happened. Oh, how he wished that race never occurred. The first 3km of his leg he managed to real in the leaders, but then Legkov and Russia watched in horror as their medal hopes disappear with every passing second as Legkov lost 1:50 in the last 5km of the leg. Extremely uncharacteristic from the Russian. It’ll be interesting to see if he can rebound before the season is over.
The Swedish Wax Team for the men’s 15km classic – There’s missing the wax and there’s MISSING THE WAX. The Swedish wax techs did the latter for the men’s 15km classic. The Swede’s had the favourite in Rickardsson and with the likes of Hellner fresh of his sprint win and Olsson who prefers the technique, they had the recipe for a great day. You knew it was bad when the only time the TV audience saw Rickardsson was at the first time-check and that was it for the rest of the race. At the end of the day, they didn’t have anyone in the top 15 with Olsson (17th), Södergren (22nd), Hellner (34th) and Rickardsson (42nd). Thankfully, wax techs hit the wax for the rest of the races and the athletes were able to show that it wasn’t their shape that resulted in the poor results, just a bad day in the wax room.
Sprintgutta – The Norwegian sprint boys. What other country has a specific sprint team as publicized as these guys? They even have a website dedicated to their on-goings throughout the year. For the record, Northug isn’t part of that team and trains mostly with the distance team. The sprintgutta are led by Hattestad and fair play to him during the championship as he finished fourth in the individual sprint and second in the team sprint, but other than him, the other guys really sucked it up on home snow. I know, it sounds a little harsh, but it’s true. That program probably has more money poured into it than many national teams. They really had one chance and here’s how it turned out. Hattestad (4th), Gløersen (13th), Brandsdal (17th), Pettersen (41st). Pettersen… 41st… really?! But I guess it’s no surprise as he had the same placing three weeks earlier at the FIS race in Beitostølen.
That’s it for me. I’ll be back this weekend for a look at the races from Lahti.