A World Cup race in Norway is always a big deal, but with the start of World Championships less than seven days away, this weekend’s two-race stop in Drammen serves as both a tune-up, and an indicator of who will be contending for medals in Oslo. FasterSkier arrived in Oslo on Friday morning, and will be reporting live from the event!
With many skiers skipping the Rybinsk World Cups two weeks ago, it has been nearly a month since a full field has assembled, raising a host of questions. Drammen is the last chance for answers before the main event.
Athletes will contest a 10/15km individual start classic race on Saturday at Konnerud, outside of Drammen, a suburb just 40 minutes east of Oslo by train.
The five-kilometer loop used by both the men and women features two extended hills. And according to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, it will favor climbers.
Just about all of the top names are on the start list, headlined by overall World Cup leader Dario Cologna (SUI). He will be challenged by the likes of Petter Northug (NOR), Alexander Legkov (RUS), Lukas Bauer (CZE), and a host of others.
Legkov fell ill with swine flu during the Tour de Ski, but appeared to be back on track after several strong performances in Rybinsk.
Northug was the odds-on favorite for Worlds at the start of the season, but he got off to a slow start. His second place in the Tour de Ski overall notwithstanding, he has yet to show the form that carried him to four medals at the Vancouver Olympics.
And Bauer? His complete lack of sprinting speed means he likely has only one shot at a medal in Oslo – the individual 15km – so the Drammen race could be an important preview.
The much- maligned Norwegian men’s distance team has a chance to raise their stock with a strong performance on home soil. Following Northug, Eldar Roenning, Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Sjur Roethe and Tor Asle Gjerdalen are all more than capable. But medal worthy? Not as of yet. And with biathlete Emil Hegle Svendsen named to the cross-country Worlds team, Gjerdalen and Roethe are still fighting for a spot on the 4x10km relay.
Notably absent is Swedish star Marcus Hellner. The double gold medalist in Vancouver has had an up-and-down season thus far, including a tough conclusion to his Tour de Ski.
Daniel Rickardsson, Anders Soedergren and Johan Olsson are left to represent the Swedes, and all are strong classic skiers.
On the women’s side, only Arianna Follis (ITA) is missing from the top group. Can Marit Bjoergen (NOR) continue to dominate the World Cup field—which hasn’t beaten her in a distance race this season?
Can Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) knock off Bjoergen, or will she have to settle for the overall World Cup title, as she did last year?
Charlotte Kalla (SWE), Petra Majdic (SLO), Marianna Longa (ITA), Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) and Therese Johaug (NOR) are all looking to prime their engines for Worlds, and serve notice that they cannot be ignored.
Majdic has been typically strong in sprints, but has not quite reached her previous level in distance races. And both Saarinen and Kalla have not had consistent seasons. Saturday’s race is hardly make-or-break, but could serve as a confidence-builder for the medal-contending trio.
North Americans Kick Off Second European Campaign
It’s been a month-and-a-half since anyone has seen the big North American men—Devon Kershaw, Kris Freeman, and Alex Harvey—in action on the World Cup circuit.
Of those three, Kershaw was the most impressive earlier this season, with four podiums in the Tour de Ski in January, but Harvey wasn’t far behind at that event. And Freeman has been consistent, collecting a handful of top-10’s between November and January.
Since returning home from the Tour, the trio went in different directions before heading back over to Scandinavia last week. Kershaw spent most of his time training from his base in Canmore, Alberta, while Freeman was at home in New Hampshire. Harvey returned to Europe earlier, to get some time in at altitude in Italy, and also to compete in the pursuit at the U-23 World Championships—where he won gold.
Any of those three men could be in the mix for a top 10 on Saturday, which would certainly serve as a good sign for the upcoming World Championships in Oslo. But if they stink it up, don’t panic—while it’s tempting to say results from this weekend will serve as a good barometer, that’s not always the case. Last year, for example, both Kershaw and Harvey had dismal results in the pre-Olympic World Cup in Canmore, then turned things around to collect top-10 results within a matter of days at the Games.
Oh yeah—there are some other guys around, too. Canada’s Ivan Babikov will be on the line, and while he wasn’t at his best earlier this season, the tough climbs in Konnerud should favor him. That goes for Tad Elliott and Noah Hoffman, as well—two young Americans, both are strong climbers. They’ll be joined by their teammate Lars Flora, and Canada’s George Grey, as well.
On the women’s side on Saturday, the most notable thing about the North American field is who’s absent, not present. Kikkan Randall (USA) will sit out the 10 k classic, in order to stay fresh for two skate sprints: the World Cup on Sunday, and the championships-opening event this coming Thursday.
“She’s trying not to overdo it,” Grover said.
With Randall on the sidelines, the U.S. will start Ida Sargent, Holly Brooks, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, and Morgan Arritola, while Canada is racing Chandra Crawford, Perianne Jones, Dasha Gaiazova, and Brooke Gosling.
Stephen and Arritola cracked the top 20 in their last World Cup start, in France in December, so they shouldn’t be ignored. But of those nine, the one to really keep an eye on is Brooks. The Alaskan absolutely destroyed a competitive domestic women’s field in her last race on American soil in January, and she has yet to pull on a bib in Europe this year.
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.