It isn’t even Thanksgiving, and the international racing season is officially just over a week old, yet there has already been plenty of high-octane racing action to satisfy even the most demanding ski fan.
With elite skiers tuning up for the season opener, and up-and-comers out to make a name for themselves, FIS races in Finland, Sweden, and Norway featured a level of competition usually limited to the World Cup.
It is always a challenge to evaluate early-season races, and dangerous to be draw too many conclusions. Kris Freeman (USA), with a victory and a 2nd place over the weekend, makes exactly that point in a recent blog post, writing “…this is just a warm-up and I won’t place to much stock in the results. If history is any lesson, there will be huge shifts in performance by many athletes next week in Sweden.”
But he goes on to say that his results are positive indicators that his preparation and execution are going well.
And so with the cautionary tales of Devon Kershaw (who won a 15km freestyle FIS race at this time last year, only to finish 37th, 60th and 55th in his first three World Cup starts), and Petter Northug (who in 2009 was an unimpressive 14th at the FIS 10km classic in Beitostolen before finishing 3rd in the World Cup opener a week later) very much in mind, we take a look back at key performances from the weekend.
The US Ski Team (USST) joined the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), and a contingent from the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) in Finland, making for the largest group of Americans in Europe for FIS races in recent memory.
The fields did not feature World Cup depth, but the high end was certainly there, with top skiers from Germany, Italy, Russia, Finland, Poland and Slovenia doing battle above the arctic circle.
The competitions included a freestyle sprint, a 5/10km classic and a 5/10km freestyle.
Kikkan Randall and Kris Freeman dominated the headlines, combing for two victories and a 2nd between them. But their performance was not the only story.
Kikkan Randall: Winning a sprint over the likes of Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), Petra Majdic (SLO), Arianna Follis (ITA), and Magda Genuin (ITA) is impressive no matter what the stakes or time of year. When picking favorites for a World Cup skate sprint, every one of those women would be on the short list.
No, Marit Bjoergen (NOR), Charlotte Kalla (SWE), and Hannah Falk (SWE), among others, were not present, but this result demonstrates that Randall’s speed is as good as ever.
Her 14th in the 5km classic, over a minute back on winner Kowalczyk is solid, yet unspectacular. The hope is that this is an indication that Randall, as she should be, is still rounding into form. Based on the sprint result, there is little to be concerned about with America’s top woman. She is skiing fast, but does not appear to be riding an untimely peak.
Ida Sargent: While Randall’s sprint victory was impressive, it was hardly surprising to see the World Championship silver medalist on top of the podium. Sargent, on the other hand, turned heads, qualifying 5th in the sprint and ultimately finishing 11th.
She also skied to a 25th place finish in the 5km classic and was the second American ahead of USST athletes Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola.
Sargent’s sprint result, especially her qualification, was legit. She has world-class speed and is learning to use it on the international stage. The heats gave her good experience (next time she won’t be so quick to jump when Kowalczyk yells at her), and she has solidified her position as the best US sprinter short of Randall.
In sprinting, if you can’t qualify for the heats, nothing else matters. Speed over 1km generally do not seem to fluctuate as much due to training load, so the performance should be seen as very positive.
Her distance result, 18 seconds down on Randall, is also a good indication of strong overall fitness, and Sargent’s potential to stay away from the “sprint-specialist” designation.
Kris Freeman: Despite his own caution of putting too much weight on his weekend results, it is hard not to be excited about Freeman’s skiing. The “it’s early” warning still holds, but because Freeman has struggled in the past to consistently manage his race blood sugar (due to diabetes), the fact
that he could put together back-to-back strong races is a very good sign.
Freeman himself notes this in his blog post. Everyone knows that when a healthy Freeman successfully manages sugar in a race, he is as fast as anyone in the world.
Freeman beat some impressive names, including Tobias Angerer (GER) and Pietro PIller Cottrer (ITA).
Liz Stephen: Stephen did not ski well in the 5km classic, struggling to 53rd place, well off the pace. At this point in her career, top-30 World Cup results should be a benchmark and even her 22nd in the freestyle would not be anywhere near the points in a full field.
Because Stephen had a rough season last year, these early results are mildly concerning, but with guaranteed starts on the World Cup for the first period, there is no reason she should be in top form right now. The hope is that she will take a step up over the next week, and lay any doubts to rest.
Morgan Arritola: Arritola’s performances matched Stephen’s fairly closely, and the analysis is the same. It would have been nice to see some indication that she is ready to be a consistent points threat on the World Cup, but a 59th and a 29th in Muonio do not do much on that front.
As with Stephen, no one will care about these races if she races fast over the next month. As a point of reference, Arritola finished 24th in the 10km freestyle last year in the Beitostolen FIS race. A week later she was 71st in the World Cup opener before improving to 34th in her last World Cup start prior to Christmas.
Tim Reynolds: Reynolds, racing with CGRP put together an excellent weekend of racing in his first early-season European tour. With places of 82nd, 85th and 78th Reynolds had his second and third best FIS points races of his career in the two distance races.
Since the main focus is race experience and points, Reynolds weekend can be termed an unqualified success.
Noah Hoffman: Hoffman’s weekend was a mixed bag. A member of the USST Continental Team, how he fared in these races determine whether or not he heads to the World Cup or continues on the European Continental circuit.
His 64th in the classic was uninspiring, but he turned it around with a 25th in the freestyle, turning in the second best FIS points race of his career. Like Stephen and Arritola, Hoffman is looking to take the next step, and move from potential to results. The freestyle result is a good indicator that he could do just that.
Leif Zimmermann: It seems like Zimmerman has been around forever. A member of the 2006 Olympic team, Zimmerman is still just 27 years old. He is currently trying to avoid becoming one of those skiers who is best known for never realizing his potential.
A veteran of an impressive number of FIS races in his long career, Zimmermann’s 27th in the freestyle was good for his second best points all-time.
At this point in his career, it will take more than a single strong FIS race to inspire lasting confidence, but in a best-case scenario, Zimmermann has figured something out and could be a dark horse for World Championships.
Glenn Randall: Like most of his fellow American’s Randall skied much better in the freestyle distance race than in the classic. His 36th place finish was good for his second best FIS points race. He finished just 15 seconds behind Hoffman.
This is Randall’s first European tour since World Junior Championships in 2006.
This one race does not catapult the 24-year-old into the realm of the World Cup. But if it is not an aberration, it is a positive sign that he could be internationally competitive.
The Canadians opted for Sweden to get ready for the World Cup, doing battle with the Swedish National Team and top Japanese skiers in a freestyle sprint and a 10/15km freestyle. Like Finland, the field was not overly deep, but with Marcus Hellner, Johan Olsson and Anders Soedergren, there was no lack of fast competition at the top.
Devon Kershaw: Kershaw has traditionally skied fast in the pre-World Cup FIS races, and this year was no exception. He was 4th in the 15km, 15 seconds behind Olsson in 2nd. Hellner was on a different planet, skiing to a 30 second victory.
In the sprint, Kershaw earned a rough-and-tumble podium place, taking 3rd behind Swedish sprinters Emil Joensson and Jesper Modin.
At this point, Kershaw is an established World Cup skier who can do it all, and is generally very consistent. He has trained through these early races, so he appears to be setup well for the World Cup season. Whether or not he has strong result in the opener, there is little concern about Kershaw.
Alex Harvey: Harvey was just one place behind Kershaw in the 15k and 16th in the sprint, qualifying 7th.
The sprint result is misleading as a crash forced Harvey out in the quarterfinals. He falls into the same category as Kershaw – not a lot of questions about his ability to perform.
Given that Harvey is younger, the big question is how much room for improvement does he still have.
Ultimately the strong early results by the likes of Harvey and Kershaw represent a generally strong Canadian team that is in good form under new head coach Justin Wadsworth.
Len Valjas: Valjas is Canada’s version of Ida Sargent. The 22-year-old just missed out on the podium in the sprint qualifying 11th and skiing up to 4th.
Despite the fact that the course leant itself to upsets, for a skier of Valjas’ experience, this is a great result and hopefully a good sign. His FIS points for the race were the third-best of his career.
Phil Widmer: The veteran Canadian sprinter placed 18th in the sprint. Given his history, Widmer’s performance is not unexpected.
Widmer is looking to move from a top domestic racer to the World Cup. The weekend’s result is not indicative of much in either direction.
Stefan Kuhn: Kuhn qualified 10th in the Olympic sprint, so his 26th in Sweden is nothing special. But because of the nature of sprinting, there is no reason to assume Kuhn is any slower than last year. The proof will come as the season progresses.
Dasha Gaiazova: The story on the women’s side is Gaiazova who had a blistering qualification round in the sprint, placing second, less than one second behind Charlotte Kalla (SWE).
Gaiazova was unable to make it out of the quarterfinals, but the display of speed against high-caliber competition is an excellent indicator. Gaiazova has had inconsistent World Cup results, at times qualifying and others being well off the pace.
In a best case scenario, she has taken her speed up a notch, and can be a regular participant in the heats on the World Cup this year.
Gaiazova was also 9th in the 10km freestyle. While the field was not as competitive as the sprint race, the Canadians need someone to step up and replace the retired Sarah Renner. At this point, Gaiazova is the best hope, and the result matched her best distance points race of her career.
Chandra Crawford: Crawford was unable to match Gaiazova’s qualifying result in the sprint, but she still made the heats and ended up besting her teammate with a 13th place finish. In the past it has taken some time for Crawford to round in to top race form.
Two years ago, Crawford missed almost the entire season due to injury. She was back last year, but only contested two freestyle sprints on the World Cup. She has improved her classic sprinting to the point where qualifying is not a stretch, but her bread and butter is still the skate.
It would have been nice to see Crawford further up the results list in Sweden, but with World Championships featuring a freestyle sprint, her focus will be there.
The field in Norway was almost exclusively Norwegian. Marit Bjoergen demonstrated she is ready to go, and Petter Northug raised some questions with lackluster skiing. On the North American front, Torin Koos (USA), who has been training with Team Sjusjoen, was the lone competitor.
Torin Koos: Koos is looking to reestablish himself after being left of the US Ski Team this year. He did not help his cause, and hurt his chances at getting early season World Cup starts with nondescript results in Beitostolen.
Koos qualified in 17th, over six seconds behind leader Anders Gloersen. He was just three seconds behind Ola Vigen Hattestad, but was unable to move up in the heats.
Koos’ sprint performance was hardly bad, but is unlikely to turn the heads of those assigning World Cup start spots for the US.
He also raced Sunday’s 15km classic, placing 58th. At this point in his career, it is unlikely that Koos will turn into a World Cup distance skier.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.