Justyna Kowalczyk (POL)
Kowalczyk is last year’s overall World Cup Champion and should be considered the favorite to repeat. Her versatility and stamina are her strengths. She’s just as capable of winning a sprint as a 30 km., and last year she missed just one race, scoring World Cup points in every start.
She had a total of nine podium finishes, including five victories. Kowalczyk was not dominating last weekend at FIS races in Sweden, but her results were solid. She finished third in the classic sprint and fifth in the 10km freestyle.
Her coach reports that her speed is not up to par yet, and that he won’t be concerned if she is not at the top of the result sheet early.
Prediction: With focus on the Olympics, Kowalczyk will slip a little in the overall, losing out to rival Petra Majdic.
Petra Majdic (SLO)
Majdic was the women’s overall sprint champion last year, and runner up to Kowalczyk in the overall, just 100 points back. Sub-par races in the last two events of the World Cup Final cost her an opportunity to challenge for the overall title.
Majdic is not as consistent as Kowalczyk in distance races, but she dominated the sprint circuit, winning 8 of 11 World Cup sprint starts. This strength, combined with podium-level ability on the distance side, makes her a top contender for all of the 2010 overall titles.
Prediction: After a disappointing World Championships in 2008 Majdic takes gold in the Olympic sprint, and wrests the overall World Cup crown from Kowalczyk.
Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN)
Saarinen led the overall World Cup for much of last season, but was side tracked by illness, and was unable to hold off Kowalczyk and Majdic. Like Kowalczyk she is a generalist, capable of podium finishes in any format and any discipline. If she can stay healthy, she will again be in the hunt for both the overall title and the Tour de Ski crown.
Prediction: Saarinen wins the Tour de Ski, and once again finishes third in the overall.
Virpi Kuitunen (FIN)
A two-time World Cup and Tour de Ski Champion, Kuitunen may decide to focus on the Olympics. She has a single bronze from 2006 in the Team Sprint, and will surely be looking for more. After a strong start, including the Tour victory, Kuitunen struggled with her health down the stretch. And while she did take home gold in both the relay and the Team Sprint from the World Championships in Liberec, she failed to reach the podium in any of the individual events.
Like all of the top women, Kuitunen, when in good form, is strong across the board.
Prediction: She will not focus on the overall, and will not be able to defend her Tour de Ski title. But she will perform well in Olympics, and will still crack the top-10 overall.
Arianna Follis (ITA)
Follis skied to a quiet 4th in the overall standings last season. She was consistent, scoring points in 26 of 31 World Cup races, and winning two stages of the Tour de Ski, but just a step below the top-3. A similar performance can be expected this season from Follis.
Prediction: She will ski fast, stand on the podium, but will not challenge for either the overall World Cup title or the Tour de Ski win.
Marit Bjoergen (NOR)
Bjoergen is definitely an underdog on the World Cup this season. After a strong start in which she had six podium finishes in nine starts, Bjoergen faded hard. She missed most of the later third of the season due to illness, and did ski particularly well in the World Cup final..
Bjoergen has struggled to regain the form that led her to consecutive World Cup titles in 2005 and 2006, a stretch in which she won 16 races. But health has been a major issue since, and she is a big question mark. She dominated last weekend’s FIS races in Beitostolen, but she needs her body to hold up for an entire season.
Bjoergen is a good candidate for selectively choosing races as the Olympics approach. She won a silver in the 10km classic in Torino, and another silver in the relay in Salt lake. Her sites will be set on gold.
Prediction: A strong performance in the Tour de Ski, and better overall. The big question remains the Olympics.
Therese Johaug (NOR)
Johaug, just 21-years-old, showed flashes of brilliance last year, winning one race and finishing on the podium a total of four times. Her brightest moment came when she finished second in the four event World Cup Final. In order to improve upon her 8th place overall World Cup finish, she will need to take her sprinting up to a higher level. She scored points in only two sprints last year – finishing 30th in both.
Her youth is both an asset and a concern. On the one hand it is reasonable to assume that she is nowhere near her peak. On the other, Johaug has trained very high volume at a very young age – some have speculated that this will leave less room for improvement and that burnout/over-training is a concern.
Prediction: This season I expect she will challenge for the podium in distance races, and while she may see some more heats in the sprints, she will not score many points in the short format. She will help Norway challenge Finland in the Olympic relay, and will win at least one medal.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE)
Kalla is another dark-horse competitor on the circuit. Like Bjoergen, she started strong last year, winning the World Cup opener. But she did not crack the top-10 again before getting set to defend her Tour de Ski title, and then was felled by illness. She missed a full month, but finished out strong, taking third in the World Cup final.
Kalla is still just 22 years old, and has the potential to be a World Cup Champion. There have been concerns that her training regime has been too much in the past, but she appears to be in good form entering the season. Her best results have come in distance races, though she reached the A-final twice in sprints last season, so is a clear step ahead of Johaug in that department.
Prediction: A return to 2008 form where she was 4th in the overall World Cup, and won the Tour de Ski, is a reasonable prediction for the Swedish star.
Others to watch:
Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) – lack of sprinting holds her back in the overall and Tour, but will be a medal threat at the Olympics. And a top-10 overall.
Pirjo Muranen (FIN) – Solid all-arounder will not dazzle, but will consistently get the job done.
Marianna Longa (ITA) – Focus will be on the Olympics, but a medal will be hard to come by.
Steffie Boehler (GER) – Has shown flashes, but no reason to think her consistency will improve at this point.
Claudia Nystad (GER) – German veteran always seems to have one more left. She will pop a few big ones – for her sake one will be at the Olympics.
Riita Liisa-Roponen (FIN) – Another consistent Finn. Will medal in the relay, but at 31, a major improvement is unlikely.
Sara Renner (CAN) – Sprint speed seems to be gone – she’ll have sites set on the Olympic pursuit and 10km classic.
Kikkan Randall (USA) – Expect improvement across the board -she will stand on the podium again this season, and she will continue to move out from under the “sprint-specialist” tag.
Chandra Crawford (CAN) – Return from missed season will be tough. Has amazing speed when in form. Late season should be very good.
Overall World Cup Predictions
1. Petra Majdic (SLO)
2. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL)
3. Aino Kaisa-Saarinen (FIN)
4. Charlotte Kalla (SWE)
5. Marit Bjoergen (NOR)
6. Therese Johaug (NOR)
7. Virpi Kuitunen (FIN)
8. Arianna Follis (ITA)
9. Kristin Stoermer Steria (NOR)
10. Marianna Longa (ITA)
Tour de Ski Predictions
1. Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN)
2. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL)
3. Petra Majdic (SLO)
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.