On Saturday morning, I will be just one of the nearly 15,000 people expected to fill the stadium and line the trails for this weekend’s World Cup races in the ski-crazed nation of Estonia.
The country of 1.3 million—the same population as the state of Maine—has produced six Olympic medals in cross-country skiing over the last decade, courtesy of three legends: Kristina Smigun-Vaehi, Jaak Mae, and Andrus Veerpalu.
Just how serious about cross-country skiing is Estonia? Since arriving in the country on Friday afternoon, I’ve already gotten inside looks at wax cabins and official race timers, interviews with top athletes, and even live coverage of the annual night race between each nation’s service staffs—all from the comfort of the couch in the apartment where I’m staying. Not just one, but two
of Estonia’s television stations are in on the action, showing three separate reports on the World Cup over the course of the last half hour.
For good reason: the races this weekend will showcase a good chunk of the sport’s best athletes, many of whom are returning from a weekend of rest after the conclusion of the 2011 Tour de Ski.
Both Veerpalu and Mae will be racing in Saturday’s 15/10 k classic race, along with Petter Northug (NOR), Marcus Hellner (SWE), and Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS). (Overall World Cup leader Dario Cologna (SUI) has a cold and is sitting out, along with the Czech Republic’s Lukas Bauer and Russia’s Alexander Legkov.)
On the women’s side, Marit Bjoergen (NOR), Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), and Therese Johaug (NOR) will stage a battle for the women’s podium.
The Canadians are the only North Americans to contest the races on Saturday—in addition to the national team’s Dasha Gaiazova, a number of athletes in Estonia for the U-23 and World Junior Championships are also competing, including Jesse Cockney, Michael Somppi, Kevin Sandau, Graeme Killick, and Emily Nishikawa.
Veerpalu and Mae are unknown quantities—last year, they took second and third in the distance races here, but neither has shown good form this season.
Veerpalu, the 2009 world champion in the 15 k classic, won the Estonian national championship in the same event on Tuesday, which he called one of his best races this season—but his biggest competition there was Mae, who took the silver medal by finishing 16 seconds behind.
Nonetheless, Northug told Estonian media on Friday that he was “afraid” of Veerpalu.
“I think this is the first time this year when we’ll see Veerpalu fit,” Northug said.
I haven’t been to Otepaa to see the trails yet, but there’s no question they’re difficult: None other than Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), for whom anything short of a vertical face is a “tourist track,” told Estonian television that the courses were the hardest in the world.
Racing kicks off at 11:15 EET (Eastern European Time)—that’s 4:15 a.m. for those of you scoring at home (i.e., with Eastern Standard Time).
We’ll have live coverage and photos from the races on Saturday and Sunday, as well as the upcoming World Junior and U-23 Championships beginning Wednesday. Check back early and often!
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.