The first cross-country races of the 2010 Olympics – the 10/15km individual start freestyle – may represent the best chance for medals – for both the US and Canada.
Kris Freeman (USA) has twice finished 4th at the World Championships in this distance, and while he has had more success in classic, he has raised his skating to a similar level in recent years, and should be better positioned in the individual start format.
While he has shown excellent sprinting skills domestically, and nearly qualified for a World Cup sprint earlier this year, he has not traditionally had his best results in the longer mass start formats – the 30km pursuit and 50km – where a fast finish is necessary. Given the courses at Whistler, it is very possible that both those races will end in a mass sprint – with a large pack battling over the last 200 meters. He should not be written off in those races, but the 15km remains his best chance.
The same goes for Ivan Babikov (CAN). Babikov, a ferocious competitor, and excellent skater, has much less speed than Freeman, and will be hard pressed to come out on top of a 20-man charge to the finish. So again, the 15km is going to be his best event. Babikov excels on hills, last year winning the Tour de Ski Final Climb. And while the Whistler course seems plenty hilly to the less-than-elite ski racer, by World Cup standards, it skis relatively flat. There are no monster climbs – either in steepness or length, though apparently there have been a few changes to the loop since the World Cup races here a year ago.
Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey will also be medal contenders for Canada. On the right day, both can ski with the best in the world, and at the least, they should be in the top-20.
It is hard to pick an overall race favorite. Petter Northug (NOR) is clearly the best all-around skier in the world right now, but there is plenty of competition. The individual start format negates the advantage of Northug’s tendency to bury opponents with a brutal kick, as well as his uncanny ability to end up at the front of mass start events.
Additionally, Lukas Bauer (CZE), while not as well-rounded as Northug, showed excellent form in the Tour de Ski, and the ability to ski his own race will play to his strengths.
Marcus Hellner (SWE), like Freeman, excels at this distance, and is a stronger skater. He is a favorite for the podium, if not the gold. But one must not forget Norwegian biathlete Ronny Hafsas – Hafsas won the cross-country World Cup opener this year, also a 15km freestyle. He has not raced a World Cup yet ,and despite a strong performance at Norwegian National Championships, is a bit of an unknown quantity.
In addition to Freeman, the US will start Garrott Kuzzy, James Southam, and Simi Hamilton, all Olympic rookies. None are medal contenders, but Southam could crack the top-20 if he has a great day. Kuzzy, coming of a solid race in this event in Canmore, can compete for the top-30, while Hamilton will have to wait for the sprint to see his best performance.
The women’s race will be led by Swede Charlotte Kalla and Norwegian Marit Bjoergen. Both women skipped the Tour de Ski this season to focus on the Olympics, and so far that seems to have paid off. Both are healthy, and Kalla demonstrated a high level of readiness by winning the Canmore 10km by a significant margin.
Bjoergen has not raced on the World Cup since before Christmas, but has skied well in domestic competitions. Like most of the top women on the World Cup, Bjoergen can compete in any distance and any technique.
Overall World Cup leader Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) almost never misses a race, and the the Olympics will not be an exception. It is hard to pick against her, but like Babikov, she prefers courses with big climbs – the bigger the better. She will be in the hunt for a medal, but a podium is far from guaranteed.
Other potential medalists include Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, the Finnish skier who often seems to be overshadowed by both teammates and competition. Very consistent, Saarinen is strong in both skate and classic.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.