After a wildly entertaining weekend of sprinting in Dusseldorf, complete with North American podiums and crashes galore, the World Cup returns to normalcy in the cross-country paradise of Davos, Switzerland.
The action starts on Saturday with an individual start 10/15km classic, before shifting back to sprinting with a freestyle event on Sunday.
A number of top skiers, including Marit Bjoergen (NOR), Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), Marcus Hellner (SWE), and North Americans Kris Freeman (USA) and Devon Kershaw (CAN) skipped Dusseldorf in order to get a block of training in.
They will be back in action in Switzerland, along with Petter Northug (NOR), who has yet to race a World Cup this season.
There are plenty of interesting story lines to follow in the distance races, starting with the debut of Mr. Northug.
After an impressive season last year that included the overall World Cup victory and four Olympic medals, great things were expected of the 24-year-old.
But an illness contracted at early season FIS races took Northug out of commission, and rumors of over-training followed the best all around skier in the world back to his home for recovery.
No one really knows what to expect, and despite a slow (or perhaps more accurately, a non-existent) start to the season, beware any who underestimate him.
Wrote Canada’s Kershaw in an email, “Northug is still the best skier in the world. He’s proven that for a number of years…I think he may actually surprise some people on Saturday, but regardless of how this weekend goes for him, he’ll be extremely dangerous the following weekend in La Clusaz and the rest of the season.”
The individual start 15k classic has never been Northug’s best event – in fact he has only two podium finishes in the event spanning over 50 World Cup starts, two World Championships and the 2010 Olympics.
And the 15km in Davos has been particular unkind. In three career starts I the 15km individual in Davos, Northug has finished 34th, 55th and 21st.
But Kershaw notes that many were quick count Northug out in the 15k classic in Kuusamo last November, a race the Norwegian won.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Northug,” said Kershaw. “A fan of him or not – you do have to respect his ability and track record.”
He skied well, if not brilliantly, at FIS races in Meraaker, Norway last weekend, and regardless, won’t be the only point of interest in Davos.
American Kris Freeman is off to a fine start, most notably with his consistency.
Freeman has had strong early season results in the past, including a career-best 4th in Kuusamo last year, a race he followed with a 7th in Davos.
But he has struggled to string together more than two or three strong weekends in a row. Thus far this season, Freeman has skied very well in every distance start.
As Colin Reuter pointed out in this week’s FasterSkier podcast,, this weekend will be a good indicator as to whether or not the veteran can compete week in and week out with the best in the world.
The 15km classic is arguably his best event, with that 4th in Kuusamo as well as two World Championship races with that same result, so a run for the podium is not at all out of the question.
Kershaw quickly turned things around after a rough opening weekend, and is a top-10 threat in any event.
Livigno, where Kershaw was based, is higher than Davos, and according to Kershaw the gradual terrain is perfect for adjusting to altitude. And perhaps more importantly, the food is “absolutely mind-blowing.”
Kershaw is looking at the next two weekend’s as “Tour de Ski prep.” The schedule includes four different formats between Davos and La Clusaz, the site of the next World Cup, making for a “great mix of races.”
But with the focus on the post-Christmas Tour, and nine hard days of training, Kershaw is not expecting too much from himself.
He would like to improve his pacing in the 15km, noting that he has blown up every time on the Davos course.
“More often than not I am a complete mess at the end of the 15km here – having trouble seeing I am so shattered.”
On the women’s side, the undefeated Bjoergen will be back in action, challenged by nemesis Kowalczyk. Nobody has been able to touch the Norwegian this season, and there is no reason to think that will change. Kowalczyk should make a good run after skipping Dusseldorf, but until someone actually unseats the current Queen of World Cup skiing, it would be foolish to bet against her.
Also worth watching is American Kikkan Randall. While she is an obvious pick in the freestyle sprint, Randall has worked to become a legitimate World Cup distance skier, and the 10km classic has been her best non-sprint event.
She is clearly in fine form, and will be looking to crack the top-10 for the first time in a World Cup race over two kilometers.
The sprint features many of the same cast of characters. Randall has stated that she is looking forward to challenging Bjoergen, in a rematch of the skate sprint in Oslo last spring.
In that race, Bjoergen overtook Randall entering the homestretch to take the victory. But Randall has cemented her position as one of the best freestyle sprinters in the World, and while there were nearly nine months in between starts, she has consecutive World Cup podiums in the event.
The more challenging course should play to her strengths more than the flat, twisty loop in Dusseldorf.
Chandra Crawford (CAN) is coming off a strong performance in the team event with partner Dasha Gaiazova in Dusseldorf, and both women will look to do better than just qualifying for the heats.
Andy Newell (USA) will not start the 15km classic, despite rumors he was lobbying to do so. Instead he will focus on the sprint, and come back from an early exit in the quarterfinals in Dusseldorf.
Kris Freeman – gunning for the podium
Noah Hoffman – classic is not his strong suit, so a top-40 would be an excellent result
Chris Cook – trying to turn his season around
Devon Kershaw – always a threat. See above.
Ivan Babikov – Has been traveling all over – over just before the first races, back to Canada after Kussamo, and now to Europe again.
George Grey – Trained with Kershaw in Italy. Has not skied fast yet.
Kikkan Randall – A top-10 is not out of the question
Liz Stephen – Skied well at opener in Gallivare, but is a stronger skater
Morgan Arritola – Looking for first breakout race of the season. Best results have also come skating.
Dasha Gaiazova – Has shown the World Cup sprinting chops, distance has lagged behind.
Andy Newell – Won’t be happy with anything but a finals appearance
Simi Hamilton – Getting his first taste of the fall World Cup tour. Experience should matter less in Davos than Dusseldorf.
Kris Freeman – Gets sprint starts when he can. Bet with Newell still unresolved (who scores WC points first – Freeman in a sprint, Newell in distance), but don’t look for that to change in a skate sprint.
Chris Cook – No expectations.
Devon Kershaw – Can be strong in anything.
Steffan Kuhn – Nearly made the heats in Dusseldorf – a good race considering he has been better in classic
Len Valjas – World Cup rookie is skiing well.
Phil Widmer – Has the potential to improve on Dusseldorf 53rd.
Brent McMurtry – NorAm winner form last season is getting lots of chances.
Kikkan Randall – First World Cup victory is not a stretch
Liz Stephen – Not a sprinter, but good practice
Chandra Crawford – Fitness seems solid, Davos will be a good test.
Dasha Gaiazova – Looking to make the jump from qualifier to contender.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.