The first and only individual-start men's race at the 2007 Sapporo World Championships, a 15km freestyle, gets underway at 10:30 PM U.S. Mountain Time and 12:30 AM Eastern Time tonight. Here is the start list: http://www.fis-ski.com/pdf/2007/CC/2501/2007CC2501SL.pdf
While there are at least 20 (if not more) skiers who have a decent shot at winning gold, some of the least-surprising potential winners would be Germans Tobias Angerer (overall World Cup leader) and Axel Teichmann (winner of Saturday's pursuit), Russians Eugeni Dementiev and Alexander Legkov (winner of a World Cup pursuit race just prior to these Championships), defending 15km skate World Champion Pietro Piller Cottrer of Italy, and multiple-time World Cup winner and former World Champion in the pursuit, Vincent Vittoz of France. Other figures with a high probability of fighting for the win include skate specialist Christian Hoffman of Austria, who along with teammate Mikhail Botwinov is a bit of an unknown quantity this year having not raced in very many World Cups. Both skiers however have a history of coming out of nowhere to show up at major championship events and win medals.
Meanwhile, Norway has some interesting contenders including biathlete and superb skate technician Ole Einar Bjorndalen, who won the first distance World Cup race of the season this year, and the firey, controversial, cocky, almost-out-of-control young prodigy Petter Northug. Northug was in medal contention in Saturday's pursuit when he tripped himself up with 300 meters to go. It has been said that the young Northug does not have the experience necessary to win an individual-start distance race, but perhaps he has enough guts and sheer cockiness to make up for it. And don't forget the veteran Frode Estil, who may have as much experience as anyone else on the circuit and certainly knows how to go fast in an individual start 15km.
North America's best hope for a medal in this race is Kris Freeman of the U.S. Ski Team. Freeman has been training all year with an eye on this race in particular, and has shown in recent competitions that he may be within striking distance of the podium on a good to very good day. Freeman himself has said during these championships that he feels he is in the best shape of his life – which is considerable in light of past results such as his fourth place at the 2003 World Championships where he finished only two seconds behind Frode Estil in the 15km classic.
Other North Americans starting in the Red Group (top seed) are George Grey of Canada, who posted the best Canadian finish in Saturday's pursuit, and Devon Kershaw, who has had several impressive sprint results this year on the World Cup including a silver in the FIS Tour-de-Ski opening stage, and has shown that he can mix it up with the best in distance races like this year's early-season World Cup in Gallivare, Sweden where he finished 15th. (see article: http://www.fasterskier.com/racing3731.html )
All in all, one thing is sure: out of all the men's races at these World Championships, the 15km skate race promises to be the most straightforward test of ability and guts, with no sitting in a pack and drafting, and a lot less crashes and broken poles than in the sprints and mass-start events. You can follow the race live at: http://www.sportresult.com/sports/cc/cc.asp