With a thin international field here contesting the classic sprint in Canmore, for the world’s best, Saturday morning’s qualifier was just a formality.
From here, the stage is set for a knock-down, drag out series of heats on what the U.S.’s Torin Koos called a “strong-man’s course.” 1.7k long and striding-heavy, the difficulty and length of the new sprint loop in Canmore will make for a tough, tactical afternoon.
“Nobody’s going to want to put the hammer down, I think, from the get-go,” said Chris Grover, the head U.S. sprinters, after the qualifying round. “Maybe a little bit in the quarterfinal when the best guys are just trying to separate themselves from the guys who qualified quite far behind them, but everyone’s going to be trying to conserve energy out there.”
According to Canadian veteran Sara Renner, the length of the loop—the qualifier took roughly three and a half minutes for both men and women—should allow for some distance-oriented skiers to rise to the top.
In the past, Renner said, World Cup sprint courses have been shorter, but the one here in Canmore is part of an effort by the International Ski Federation (FIS) in the last year to give distance skiers more of an edge in these events.
“That’s what the FIS’s plan is—to make sprinting for distance skiers,” Renner said. “They’re making everything longer.”
Of the skiers that qualified for the heats, there are a few that have stronger distance backgrounds. On the men’s side, Norway’s John Kristian Dahl is an all-rounder, as is Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin. Axel Teichmann (GER), who qualified 21st, should also be better over a longer distance. And Sweden’s Emil Joensson, the clear favorite in a sprint here regardless of length, also had some good results in the distance races in the Tour de Ski.
“The fitness that he’s in—[and] he won the skate sprint here two years ago—he’s the favorite for this course for sure,” Grover said of the Swede.
As for the women, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), who crushed the qualifier by over four seconds, can contend for the podium over any distance, and her distance background should help her today. Marianna Longa and Arianna Follis, a couple of Italians, also have good engines, as does Russia’s Olga Rotcheva. And Renner herself could also be set up for a strong day, after qualifying in 15th.
Check in with FasterSkier later this afternoon for coverage of the heats.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.