If you took a hard look at the start list for Tuesday’s 15 k classic at the 2011 World Championships, you might have noticed a few names conspicuously absent from the start list.
Foremost among them was Norway’s Petter Northug—the winner of Sunday’s 30 k pursuit in Oslo, and silver medalist in last week’s individual sprint.
Norway’s coaches sat Northug to keep him fresh for Wednesday’s classic team sprint, in which he and Ola Vigen Hattestad will be the favorites. But to win, they’ll have to beat Canada’s Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey, who also gave up the 15 k to be better on Wednesday.
“Alex probably needed a rest, just with everything else going on,” said Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian team’s head coach. “Devon, I think—it was a really tough decision not to race him today. There’s a chance he could have been on the podium. But I think there’s a better chance the guys are going to be on the podium tomorrow, so we really decided to be fully ready for it. You saw Norway do the same thing with Northug—and that’s probably who we’re going to be coming down the stretch with tomorrow, I hope.”
Along with the Norwegians, the Russian pair of Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy—the gold and silver medalists in the individual classic sprint at the 2010 Olympics—and the Swedish team of Emil Joensson and Jesper Modin, the Canadians have a very good shot at the podium in the men’s team sprint, to put it mildly, especially on a hard course that favors athletes with strong fitness like Kershaw and Harvey.
“I think they have a legitimate shot at a medal—absolutely,” said Chris Grover, the U.S. team’s head coach.
The Americans, meanwhile, will send Torin Koos and Andy Newell to the line, which Grover said represented a “very experienced team.”
In picking Koos to start, the U.S. arguably passed over Simi Hamilton, who was 25th in last week’s skate sprint to Koos’s 36th. But in that race, Grover said, Koos was still suffering the after-effects of a shoulder injury suffered in the lead-up to World Championships—and currently, he’s a bit better in classic.
“That was a hard choice,” Grover said. “The difference between Simi qualifying in [29th] last week and Torin being in [36th] was not so great. So, I know that they’re both in good shape, and I know that Torin’s in very good shape—he hasn’t, perhaps, been able to demonstrate it because of his shoulder injury.”
While the Canadians have a relatively easy semifinal, with their competition dropping off sharply after Sweden and Italy, the Americans have a tougher fight to get through to the finals, Grover said.
Koos and Newell will have to contend with powerhouses Norway and Russia, along with Estonia, Japan, and France, who could also be strong.
In the women’s race, the U.S. will send Sadie Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall to the line, while the Canadians are starting Perianne Jones and Dasha Gaiazova.
Neither team has the chances of the Canadian men, but both have a decent shot at making it through to the finals.
Favorites in the women’s race include Norway—without Marit Bjoergen, but with two strong sprinters in Maiken Caspersen Falla and Astrid Jacobsen—Slovenia, Sweden, Finland, and Italy.
Most notable is Canada’s call to sit Chandra Crawford, which Wadsworth called “not an easy decision.”
“Peri had a pretty solid sprint the other day, and then yesterday, in the 10 k, she skied pretty decently,” Wadsworth said, noting that the team sprint tends to favor fitness more than speed.
As for the American squad, Grover acknowledged that the pair of Bjornsen and Randall is “inexperienced,” but if the two get into the finals, he said, “anything can happen.”
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.