Less than a week following the conclusion of the 2011 World Championships,in Oslo, the World Cup picks back up in Lahti, Finland. This is the last event prior to the World Cup Final, where only the top-50 ranked skiers and continental cup series leaders may enter.
There are a number of interesting story lines as the season winds down, mainly revolving around standings. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) has locked up the women’s overall World Cup but the men’s overall and both sprint titles are up for grabs.
Saturday features a non-traditional 10/20km pursuit, an aberration from the standard 15/30km event due to the short break from the long distance events at the end of World Championships.
Dario Cologna (SUI) headlines the men’s field, and looks to solidify his overall World Cup lead. He should be able to do that given his closest challenger, Petter Northug (NOR), will not compete. Northug is 353 points down on Cologna, a significant margin with just a few events remaining. But with the World Cup Finals offering double points, a comeback was not out of a question – at least until Northug woke up with a sore throat earlier this week, and scratched from Lahti.
Cologna may have had the most disappointing Championships – always a favorite, the Swiss star struggled with bad skis and slighlty off-form. The World Cup overall is a consolation prize, albeit a large one.
Marcus Hellner (SWE) will also skip this weekend, though Swedish coach Joakim Abrahamsson told FIS that his top skier is healthy – he just needs to “recharge his batteries.”
Cologna will be challenged by Alexander Legkov, and the outcome has significance beyond the single race. Legkov is just 60 points down on Cologna in the distance World Cup standings. The Russian also is hoping to rebound from an epic collapse in the relay last week, and hasn’t shown top form since falling ill with the flu at the Tour de Ski.
Most of the other big names are present – Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS), Daniel Rickardsson (SWE) and Lukas Bauer (CZE) among others take to the starting line, as will Canadians Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw.
It will be interesting to see how the race plays out. It is safe to assume that all the top skiers were focusing their training on the Championships – some may still be riding that peak, others may be a bit off form.
The race could be a good opportunity for American Kris Freeman, who was unable to ideally prep for the Championships due to illness. He was forced to push off the intensity that was meant to get him ready for the big races. He didn’t have the pop he was hoping for in Oslo, but the upshot is that he could close out the season strong.
Freeman opted to sit out the 50k to focus on the World Cup. While he has been stronger in the individual start events, a good result in the pursuit is certainly attainable.
Another man to watch is Finn Juha Lallukha. Lallukha surprised everyone outside of the Finnish team with a formidable leg in the relay, and a fine performance in the 50k, where he attacked the field in the lat 2.5k, before fading at the end.
He is known as a skater, so the classic leg will likely define his day.
In addition to Kershaw and Harvey, Ivan Babikov and Graham Nishikawa will start for the Canadians, while Lars Flora gets the nod for the US.
The women’s field is nearly full – only Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) is missing from the top distance skiers. Kowalcyk will take another stab at besting Marit Bjoergen, while Therese Johaug looks to repeat her Championship 30k performance.
Good money is obviously on Bjoergen. She has had Kowalczyk’s number all season, and Johaug is at a disadvantage in a 10k – her lack of finishing speed takes her of the running in a close race, and the short distance will make it hard to repeat her devastating move from Oslo.
Swede Charlotte Kalla ended her Championships on a down note – while she finished 4th, she was unable to stick with the leaders and was clearly disappointed. Though she may be hungry to get back on the podium, Kalla was the only top skier, male or female, to race all six events in Oslo. It will be interesting to see if she is recovered.
Aino Kaisa Saarinen also left Norway with a subpar performance. Overall she had an excellent Championships, with three medals, but struggled mightily in the 30k. She is always a threat and is joined by young teammate Krista Lahteenmaki.
Finally, you can’t count out the Italians. Marianna Longa was so close all week in Oslo – including relays, she had two fourths, a fifth, a seventh and an eighth. Her teammate Arianna Follis has not been on top of her game in distance racing of late, but she skipped the 30k, so should be well rested.
Kikkan Randall leads the North Americans. Randall did not have her best Championships, including a heartbreaking fall in the sprint quarterfinals. Her distance skiing has not been at her highest level, so she will look to get things going in Lahti.
She is joined by teammates Holly Brooks, Liz Stephen, and Morgan Arritola. Brooks, as the US SuperTour leader gets some more World Cup starts, while Arritola is running out of time to turn around her season.
Short of an unprecedented result from Stephen or Arritola, neither will be eligible for the World Cup finals. So this is likely their last World Cup appearances of the year.
Dasha Gaiazova, Perianne Jones, and Chandra Crawford hit the trails for Canada. Crawford is looking to build her endurance, and Jones to gain additional World Cup experience. Gaiazova has the best shot at a solid result, but has been focusing on sprinting for most of the year.
Racing kicks off at 12:45 in Finland. Women race first, followed by the men at 2:15.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.