GÄLLIVARE, Sweden – Watching skiers zoom around Hellner Stadion in preparation for tomorrow’s first World Cup race of the season, one can’t help but think, the gang’s all here.
There’s Justyna Kowalczyk, giving an interview for TV. There goes Marcus Hellner, leading his Swedish teammates on some pickups. Kristin Størmer Steira is sprinting towards the finish line, even as race volunteers dig it out and lay cable for the timing system.
And fleets of coaches and wax technicians are here too, consulting with their athletes for last-minute preparations, checking in on how they feel on their skis, and dialing in the wax.
If one thing is certain, it’s that the freezing-cold conditions experienced by racers when the World Cup last visited here two years ago are nowhere in sight. This morning, temperatures hovered around freezing and a wet snow intermittently fell onto the trails.
“We’ve been going through some freeze-thaw cycles, so the conditions have been a little all over the place,” U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said as he watched skiers from the side of the trail. “The classic conditions have been everywhere – it was hairies this morning, soft hardwax this afternoon. So it has given us all a nice week of practice to get our feet back under us.”
Both the 5 k loop to be used for Saturday’s 10/15 k skate race and the 2.5 k loop to be used for Sunday’s relays are ruthless, requiring constant attention – although there are big climbs, what’s more notable is the rolling terrain and twisty downhills. With only a few exceptions, all of the course’s recovery come on highly technical descents, which have been rutted out in the official training today.
Even the uphills feature turns and constantly-shifting grades. The trails here are fun for technically proficient skiers; they could be a nightmare to race for anyone else. Skiers who are strong on downhills and transitions will be rewarded with seconds of gained time over their competitors.
“It hits you hard, rests you really quickly, sends you through a really technical curve, and then hits you really hard again and just sort of repeats,” Whitcomb said.
Who to Watch
Some of the first competitors in both racers will be faces familiar to the North American ski fan: University of Utah alum Maria Gräfnings will be the first out of the gate at 10:30:30 sharp, local time, and U.S. racer Holly Brooks will follow shortly after in bib seven. For the men, Coloradoans Simi Hamilton, Sylvan Ellefson, and Tad Elliott will wear bibs three, eight, and twelve, and Canada’s Kevin Sandau seventeen. Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain, too, is in this group, starting sixth.
What this means is that these racers are in the middle of the rankings: the seeded skiers, a group of about the top 30 for both men and women, alternate start positions with the lowest-ranked skiers in the second 2/3 of the field. The early starters are made up of an intermediate group, and it’s an accomplishment that Continental Cup winners like Ellefson and Sandau made that cut.
Otherwise, the heavy hitters come at the end: Dario Cologna and Marit Bjørgen hold the honors of being last season’s World Cup winners, and so will kick off this season wearing their yellow bibs and starting last (that puts the Norwegian as bib 78 and the Swiss star as bib 97).
The last time the World Cup opened in Gällivare, back in 2010, Bjørgen crushed the field to win the 10 k by 40 seconds over Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, with Arianna Follis of Italy placing third. Follis has since retired, but Kalla was looking strong in a huge victory in Bruksvallarna last weekend over the same race distance. Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland rarely does well in the World Cup openers, but dominated a classic race in Muonio last weekend.
And since 2010, Norway’s Therese Johaug has proved to be an even more formidable force in distance racing. One major question is whether Norway can repeat their feat from last season’s opener in Sjusjøen, where they put six women in the top seven.
Still, though, all eyes are on Bjørgen. The technical nature of the course gives the smooth-skiing Norwegian an advantage over Kowalczyk, her usual adversary.
“The course in Gälivare fits me well,” she said in pre-race comments. “There are fast downhill and sharp curves.”
In the men’s field, Cologna can have some confidence; he won a FIS race here last weekend. But he will surely be challenged by Marcus Hellner, who won the 2010 edition of the race. Although Hellner turned in an abysmal performance in Bruksvallarna in this same race format, he is based out of Gällivare and after all, this stadium is named after him – there’s little doubt that he’ll have rebounded and be back in top form, perhaps joined by Swedish teammate Johan Olsson, who both won the Sjusjøen race last year and the Bruksvallarna skate race a week ago.
Other threats include, of course, Norway’s Petter Northug, who appeared to be in good shape in last weekend’s races in Beitostolen. But in the opening races of the season perhaps more than any other time, the races are wide open. Any one of the seeded men could surprise with a podium finish on Saturday. Canada’s Alex Harvey and Kris Freeman of the U.S. have both had top-ten performances in previous World Cup kickoffs.
And finally, unseeded skiers always have a shot, starting as they are right in the middle of the red group. If they can manage to hang on and catch a ride, it’s a great way to ski towards a personal best. Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova, for instance, is sandwiched between Krista Lahteenmaki of Finland and Vibeke Skofterud of Norway; teammate Chandra Crawford gets to start between Norwegians Astrid Jacobsen and Heidi Weng.
North Americans Ready
After announcing their teams yesterday, it is clear that both the U.S. and Canada have the opportunity to hit the ground running here in Gällivare. Canada will start Crawford and Ivan Babikov, both of whom had podium finishes in FIS racing in Bruksvallarna last weekend, and Harvey, who placed fourth there; 2012 World Cup runner-up Devon Kershaw didn’t do as well in Bruksvallarna, but was unconcerned at the time, predicting that he needed a bit more time to recover from a high training load.
Veterans Gaiazova and Perianne Jones, along with NorAm leaders Alysson Marshall and Sandau, both of whom who have finished in or near the top 30 in World Cup races before, will round out the Canadian squads.
For the Americans, Freeman will likely lead the men, being fresh off a fourth-place result in Muonio, Finland last weekend. Noah Hoffman also had strong results in distance racing; Ellefson had a top-30, and Hamilton a top-ten in the sprint. Andy Newell, who sprinted into the final, will not start the 15 k, replaced instead by Elliott.
But based on results from the prep races, all eyes are on the American women. Four of the five starters had top-ten results in Muonio – and the fifth is Kikkan Randall, who won the Sprint Cup last year but hasn’t competed so far this season.
“I’m just expecting everybody to go out and have the best race possible for their first World Cup weekend,” Whitcomb told FasterSkier. “But I’m feeling really good about where the team is going into the season. Often – this is our first time we’ve entered the World Cup with eleven veteran World Cup skiers. Even our Contintental Cup leaders, Sylvan and Jessie, they’ve been on the World Cup now. So everybody’s here and ready to do business. So we’re expecting good results.”
Liz Stephen created the most excitement in Muonio, placing second in a 10 k skate race, the same distance and format as Saturday’s World Cup. But Ida Sargent placed sixth in the sprint, and Brooks and Jessie Diggins seventh and ninth in the skate race. It’s a depth that has rarely been seen on an American women’s squad. And according to Whitcomb, the course and conditions play in his team’s favor.
“It’s getting icy on the corners, but I think we can use that towards our advantage,” he said. “We’ve got some people who are really looking forward to a technical course. It’s sort of an unrelenting course… I like this course a lot for our team.”