The North American men may not have a gold-medal favorite among their ranks for Thursday’s men’s World Championship freestyle sprint in Oslo. But if they lack a reliable podium candidate, they make up for it in their numbers: no fewer than seven U.S. and Canadian skiers have a shot at cracking the heats.
In Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey, the Canadians have two men with freestyle sprints podiums already this season—Harvey’s a second place last weekend in Drammen, Norway, and Kershaw’s a win in January.
They’re also got veteran Stefan Kuhn and rookie Len Valjas, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season and skied to a career-best ninth place in Drammen. The hillier course in Oslo is less suited to his strengths—at 6’6”, Valjas isn’t known as a climber—but after the result in Drammen, it’s clear the man is fit.
As for Kershaw and Harvey, their coach, Justin Wadsworth, said that both are healthy. Harvey is clearly ready, based on his podium last weekend; Kershaw is more of a question mark.
While Kershaw won a sprint stage at the Tour de Ski in January, he was 48th in the qualifier in Drammen, and in a tweet on Wednesday, he made it clear that he was still struggling to find sharpness.
“Easy ski on the old Holmenkollen track. Thought I may find some light, strong legs…to use tomorrow. Sadly, didn’t find any,” he wrote.
If Kershaw does come around, though, he and Harvey will find a course that favors them, according to Wadsworth.
Since the Oslo course, with its big hill and minimal rest, is good for distance skiers, Wadsworth said that it could suit his two top men.
“They’re the best in the world at distance races. So, the fitness is there,” he said.
How about the U.S.?
Andy Newell is the one man with a real shot at the podium. With his third place in the qualifier in Drammen, it’s clear he has the speed. But on a course like Holmenkollen’s does he have the fitness?
Thus far this season, the answer has been “no.” In seven sprints, he’s made it through to the finals just once, and that was way back in November, in Finland. After Newell was eliminated in the quarterfinals in Drammen last weekend, the U.S. head coach, Chris Grover, told FasterSkier that the American had had some trouble absorbing training this year, but that things would likely be better in Oslo once Newell got a little more time to adjust to travel and jetlag.
Don’t count on Koos and Hamilton making the heats, but it could definitely happen. Koos is a former U.S. Ski Team member who was on the World Cup podium in 2007; he’s been up and down this year after making a jump to a club program in Washington. At the very least, he said Wednesday that he’s ready to go after a shoulder dislocation he suffered in a domestic Norwegian sprint race last week.
Hamilton, meanwhile, missed the heats in Drammen, but he has been in the top 30 earlier this year, at a World Cup in Switzerland, and he said on Wednesday that he’s feeling better.
“Workout went well today,” he said. As far as his goals? “Top 20 could be pretty sweet, maybe top 15—we’ll just take it one step at a time.”
At last year’s sprint in Oslo, Hamilton just missed out on the heats, finishing 34th.
But that race included a Norwegian “nation’s group,” and there were nine of the country’s sprinters in front of him. On Thursday, only five Norwegians will start, thanks to strict quotas set by the International Ski Federation. (Normally, each country gets to start four athletes, but as the defending champion, Ola Vigen Hattestad gets a free spot.)
The final North American starter? The U.S.’s Kris Freeman, who is much better-known for his distance skiing.
Freeman did crack the sprint heats for the first time in his career in January, at the Tour de Ski (not once, but twice!), but rest assured, he won’t be gunning for the podium on Wednesday. Instead, according to his coach Zach Caldwell, Freeman is looking for another hard effort before the distance races in Oslo get rolling—and it’s much easier to make one in a bib than in the woods by yourself, Caldwell said.
The rest of the men’s sprint field is deep and highly competitive. So competitive, in fact, that only Emil Joensson (SWE) has won more than one such event. Out of nine World Cup sprints this season, Joensson has four victories, making him the clear favorite in Thursday’s World Championship freestyle race.
The overall Sprint Cup champion last year, Joensson dominated the circuit – but in his biggest race of the season, the classic sprint at the Vancouver Olympics, he met with bitter disappointment. Eliminated in the semis, Joensson finished seventh, fell ill, and did not race again during the Games.
Joensson won the pre-Championship sprint in Drammen on Sunday, displaying his explosive finishing kick while besting Alex Harvey (CAN) and Petter Northug (NOR).
Even Northug does not appear to have the same acceleration as the Swede right now, so if Joensson can enter the homestretch within striking distance, he should get his gold medal.
Winning Olympic gold or silver should make you a favorite in the next year’s World Championships, but only if you get a start spot. Russians Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy skied away from Northug and Ola Vigen Hattestad in Vancouver, but will not start in Oslo. The pair are far stronger classic skiers.
The Russians are counting on the bearded Alexei Petukhov and Nikolay Morilov for medals. Petukhov is currently third in the Sprint Cup and has a World Cup victory and four finals appearances this season and Morilov has been in the points six times, advancing to the finals twice.
The strategy of choice for the Russian sprinters has been to go out hard and try to break apart the heat on the challenging terrain. The Oslo course is not the hardest on the circuit, but with two solid climbs, and little rest after the first descent, such tactics could prove successful.
Norway holds an extra start spot as Hattestad is the defending World Champion. The slender sprint specialist, who dominated the discipline in unprecedented fashion in 2009, is currently second in the Sprint Cup. But that position comes largely on the strength of a win and two seconds in the lightly attended post-Tour de Ski swing through Eastern Europe.
He did not race in Drammen, so his form is a bit of an unknown. Despite being the defending champion, he is not the clear favorite behind Joensson. But he will not go quietly, and has an uncanny knack for working his way through traffic. A finals appearance, and potential medal are a likelehood, as much as anything can be in sprinting.
The rest of the Norwegian team – Eirik Bransdal, Anders Gloeersen, and Oystein Pettersen should advance to the heats. Bransdal won the Otepaa World Cup sprint, a classic affair, and Pettersen is one of the more experienced racers on the circuit. Odds are that Hattestad and Northug will lead the Norwegian team, but any of the men could contend for the podium.
Northug is perhaps the biggest question mark. He seemed to will himself to a third place finish in Drammen, where he was unable to keep up with Joensson and Harvey in the long finish stretch. His trademark double pole will be no advantage in a skate race, but the odds seem irrelevant to Northug. He finds a way to win races. If he can avoid mishap in the early rounds, look for him on the podium.
The field is wide open after Joensson, but if anyone stands apart, it is Dario Cologna. The swarthy Swiss all-rounder should do well on this course. He doesn’t win many sprints, but is a regular in the finals. In four sprint starts this season, he has been on the podium three times.
The list of potential medal contenders goes on and on. The Italians have a strong and deep team. All four starters are a good bet to qualify. Fulvio Scola and Renato Passini are fifth and sixth respectively in the sprint cup standings and have four finals appearance between them. Medals will be a reach, but not out the question.
Teammate David Hoffer always qualifies, but never advances out of the quarterfinals, at least not this year.
The most interesting Italian to watch is the young Federico Pellegrino. Just 20 years old, Pellegrino placed second in the freestyle sprint Liberec. He is very quick, but also lacks experience. In Drammen, he broke a pole out of the gate in the quarterfinals, caught back up, but faded at the end.
Speaking of fading at the end, you can pencil in Swede Jesper Modin for the finals, and a last place in that heat. Four times he has advanced to the last round, and four times he has placed sixth.
His teammate Marcus Hellner is better known for his distance racing, but is cagy on the sprint course, and while he does not overwhelm in qualifying, he usually skis well in the heats. Hellner does lack the pure speed of a Joensson and Northug so gold is not likely.
Another potential Swedish contender, Mats Larsson, is ill, and will not start.
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.