The cross-country men will have a difficult time matching the women in today’s 30km pursuit. An exciting fast paced race featuring a photo finish for third highlighted another beautiful day at Whistler Olympic Park.
The men’s race will most likely remain tightly packed, with a lead group of 20+ for much of the race. While the Whistler course features several large climbs, there is significant rest after each. This coupled with flat rolling terrain will make it difficult for anyone to break away early. And given that the skate course is relatively mellow, we should see a group sprint for the medals.
This makes Petter Northug (NOR) the clear favorite. His finishing speed at the end of a long race is unmatched, and his ability to position himself for the final run is impressive.
After Northug, any number of a dozen or more men could win a medal. Bauer and Piller-Cottrer would normally be at the top of the list, but both prefer climbs, and Bauer is not much of a sprinter. If the unexpected happens, and a small group breaks away, expect both these men to be involved.
Marcus Hellner (SWE), gunning for the gold in the 15km and finishing 4th, will be looking for redemption, but he has never placed in the top-30 in a 30km World Cup pursuit. His strength his skating, so if he can make it through the classic without giving up too much, he could have an outside shot, but most likely he will need to get his medal in the relay.
Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) is a dangerous all around skier. He tends to be inconsistent, but can handle both classic and skate with aplomb, and the distance shouldn’t bother him.
Others to watch include the Frenchman Vincent Vittoz – a master of the 30k, and an excellent big race skier, Matti Heikkinen (FIN), who has battled illness this year but is rounding into form, and his teammate Sami Jauhojaervi, another good all-rounder with a strong kick.
The US is lead by Kris Freeman, hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 15km. Freeman’s best event has always been the 15km, and the distance and sprint finishes of the pursuit are ideal. But when on, Freeman can ski with anyone in the world. Because of the finish, it is hard to imagine Freeman on the podium, but if his fitness is in the right place, a top-10 is within reach.
James Southam is the only other American starter. He was 33rd in this race at World Championships last year, and is capable of cracking the top-30. He did not have his best race in the 15km, but prefers the longer distances.
The Canadian team fields a strong contingent of Ivan Babikov, Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, and George Grey. All four can place in the top-20, and Harvey and Kershaw could both crack the top-10. Babikov appears to be in the best form right now, but he does not have good finishing speed, putting him at a big disadvantage.
The Canadians have something prove, and their biggest obstacle good be themselves. Babikov will race smart, and likely Harvey to. Grey and Kershaw can’t let themselves get carried away early – especially Kershaw who has a penchant for leading these races in the first 15km. He has the fitness and skill to ski with the best, but not to set the pace.
Ben Koons (NZL), a member of the Maine Winter Sports Center will also start. Koons was prohibited from starting in the 15km due to high hemoglobin levels. This is his Olympic debut.
Whatever happens, it is likely to be exciting – though if that pack does not break up and remains at 20+ for the whole race, it will not feature the drama of the women’s event. The temperature is already 45 degrees at the venue, and the sun is beating down. This will make for a soft course – the men race four laps in each the classic and skate – though the the two courses are separate. This will not favor heavy skiers. Additionally, hydration will be key, and feeds will be frequent.
Gold – Petter Northug (NOR)
Silver – Pietro Piller Cottrer (ITA)
Bronze – Vincent Vittoz (FRA)
Top Canadian – Ivan Babikov – 6th
Top American – Kris Freeman 25th
Gold – Petter Northug (NOR)
Silver – Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS)
Bronze – Piller Cottrer (ITA)
Top Canadian – Ivan Babikov 11th
Top American – Kris Freeman – 19th
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.