The 2010 World Cup season is set to start this weekend in Beitostolen, Norway, with a 10/15km freestyle on Saturday, and a 4×5/10km relay on Sunday. Exactly 120 days later, with the conclusion of the World Cup Final in Falun, Sweden, one of athletics ultimate endurance challenges comes to an end. A total of 40 races, including 13 individual sprints, 21 distance races, 3 relays, and 3 team sprints, are on the schedule. This includes the Tour de Ski’s 8 races in 10 days, and the Olympics, which don’t score World Cup points, but definitely have a stranglehold on glory.
So what to expect? The Olympics always make for an interesting season as the overall World Cup often takes a back seat to the opportunity to win gold. Skiers will pick and choose races in the month leading up to the Games, as they hone their fitness, balancing the desire to stay sharp with the ever-essential need for rest.
The World Cup season is officially broken down into four periods. Period I runs from the start until the Christmas break, Period II includes the Tour de Ski, starting on January 1, and the last European World Cups before the Olympics – in Estonia and Rybinsk, Russia.
Period III takes place exclusively in Canada with the pre-Olympic World Cup in Canmore and the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. The final period starts a week later and hits the classic ski venues of Lahti, Drammen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Falun. The final four races, all in Sweden, make up the “mini-Tour” World Cup Final.
This structure has important implications for FIS points. A new points list is released at the start of every period, drawn from all races from the previous year. So the Period II points list includes Period I 2010 and Periods II, III and IV from 2009. This impacts seeding, and Red Group status.
The period delineations also make for a convenient way to view the season, and so, without further ado, the 2010 FIS Cross-Country World Cup…
Period I tends to be the most consistent segment of the World Cup season in terms of participation. Athletes are fresh, healthy, and looking to test their fitness against the rest of the world. Major events like World Championships and the Olympics are a long way off. After a long summer and fall of training, it is go time.
Because of this, we can expect to see some of the largest and most competitive fields of the year. Add in the fact that we can expect a large and very tough Nation’s Group field in the first weekends in Norway and Finland. For those not up on World Cup lingo, the Nations Group is the additional allocation of start spots that host nations receive. The depth of the sport in Norway and Finland mean that this quota will go to highly accomplished skiers who are capable of top results.
As noted above, the season is long, and the fastest skiers at the beginning are not necessarily the fastest at the end. Last year, men’s Overall World Cup Champion, Dario Cologna (SUI) did not crack the top-10 until the 5th race of the season. And the winner of the first World Cup, Marcus Hellner? He only made it back on the podium once more.
On the women’s side, the top two in last year’s opener – Charlotte Kalla (SWE) and Marit Bjoergen (NOR) – finished 10th and 12th respectively in the overall World Cup standings.
But every point counts – whether it is earned on day 1 or day 120.
Speaking of Bjoergen and Kalla, both appear to be in fine form, winning FIS races by significant margins last weekend. Expect both to continue to ski well during Period I. The question, as usual, is whether or not they can maintain the pace over the next five months. Both have a history of illness in recent years.
Northug is looking quite good as well. He should come out of the gate quickly and is clearly the man to beat early on. Cologna is recovering from a leg injury, and while he will race in the first World Cup is unlikely that he will be in top form.
Period II will see the biggest impact of the Olympics, and is the best opportunity to score World Cup points. To have a shot at the overall World Cup title, a skier will need to be in top form during this stretch, and will have to place very well in the Tour de Ski. Each of the last three male World Cup Champions also won the Tour de Ski, and the female champions were 4th, 2nd and 1st in the Tour. Half points are awarded for each individual Tour race, but double points are given out for the overall Tour standings.
And with travel to North America looming, some skiers may choose to skip one or both of Otepää and Rybinsk World Cups. This will open the door for a skier to potentially open a gap in the overall standings.
Expect defending World Cup champion Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and World Cup sprint champion to have a strong presence in Period II. Both women have shown remarkable stamina in the past and rarely skip a race.
Changing the rules to ski this year will have an impact on the size of the field. Points can now be Even if a skier does not complete the entire tour. This means we will see more sprinters starting the tour, and scoring points early before dropping out. This raises the interesting question as to whether or not a sprint specialist could win the overall World Cup.
Overall, I would expect to see a strong and deep field in the tour to ski, but with more dropouts than in the past. The following two World Cups in Estonia and Russia, will likely see smaller fields.
Period III is all about the Olympics. The only World Cup race is a week prior to the Games in Canmore. Participation should be high as athletes prime for the more important Olympic Games. Usually a Canadian World Cup is an excellent opportunity for US and Canadian skiers to score World Cup points – fields are generally weaker as many European skiers choose not to travel to North America. However, this year, with the Olympics just a week away, the field will be as strong as any European World Cup, and points will be hard to come by.
We will be running a complete Olympic preview in January, so will not be providing specific predictions and analysis here.
Like Period I, Period IV should feature all the best skiers. With the Olympics over, the focus will be on World Cup points and prize money. The overall titles will still be up for grabs.
Last year FIS introduced several new competition formats to the late season calendar, and overall, they enhanced the drama of the World Cup.
World Cup point premiums were included in the 30/50km races in Trondheim, making for more exciting races. We have to hear if these preems will be available again, but the Holmenkollen 30/50km is a likely spot.
More significantly the World Cup final in Sweden, a mini tour, makes the final race is extremely important. Like the Tour de Ski, double World Cup points are available for the overall standings of the World Cup Final, in addition to half points for each individual race. This means that even a 100-point lead will not be safe during the last weekend.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.