The tour format adopted over the past few years by the International Ski Federation (FIS) has been credited with injecting some excitement and suspense into cross-country skiing—the idea being that lumping different lengths and styles of races into one big event can lead to prolonged, back-and-forth battles and compelling storylines.
But this season’s World Cup Final, a four-day mini-tour in Sweden? A total snoozefest. In the last stage, a handicap start that sent skiers out one-by-one, based on their cumulative time from the previous three races, the leaders could have skied the race with one pole and still won comfortably: Marit Bjoergen began the day with a full 1:14 over her nearest challenger, while Petter Northug got a minute and 28 seconds.
“They were in too good shape,” joked Jürg Capol, the cross-country race director for FIS.
With the Falun races failing to raise the pulses of even the most ardent ski fans, Capol is mulling a change to the mini-tour format that he said could create some more excitement: switching the order of the last two competitions. Instead of concluding the mini-tour with a handicap start, it could end with a mass-start race, which would force those lagging in the standings to try to break up the pack.
“When you are a little bit behind, you have to attack, of course,” he said. “You know how much you have to catch up…you cannot wait until the very end.”
The handicap start would be moved to the second-to-last day. And since that race does not include the bonus seconds that are currently awarded at intermediate sprints (and at the finish) in the pursuit, Capol’s thinking is that the time gaps in the overall race would be smaller heading into the final stage.
Then, on that last day, the mass-start pursuit, the bonus seconds would be eliminated, to keep the race from becoming too “artificial.” Since the skiers would be closer in the standings, Capol said, the bonuses wouldn’t be necessary.
“You have guys [that] are not too far away—they will ski offensively,” he said.
Capol said he still needs some time to ponder the idea, and to discuss it with others. Thus far, he said, he’s spoken to only a few people about it, including Vegard Ulvang, the Norwegian chair of the FIS cross-country committee. Capol added that he still wasn’t entirely sure whether to chalk up the large gaps in this year’s World Cup Final to the specific abilities of Bjoergen and Northug, or to the format.
“I wanted to think about [whether] it’s more related to one athlete,” he said.
Last year, with the World Cup Finals in the same format, Northug and Bjoergen both led coming into the final day, but the gaps to their chasers were a little smaller—Northug’s was 40 seconds, and Bjoergen’s 50 seconds. They both held on to win easily.
Other stage races have been more exciting, though—namely, this year’s World Cup opener in Finland. While Bjoergen cruised to another win on the women’s side, the outcome of the men’s event was uncertain until the closing kilometers of the final stage, when Alexander Legkov made a sensational attack to beat out Dario Cologna.
The opener, however, is a shorter race, with three stages to the World Cup Final’s four. (Capol said that he was not considering any big changes to the opener, aside from mixing up the techniques.)
If a change were to be made for Falun, it would have to be approved by the cross-country committee, which meets in June in Portoroz, Slovenia. If the group signs off on it, the schedule could be modified as early as next year.
Given Bjoergen’s strength and versatility relative to the rest of the women’s field, it’s tough to envision any configuration of formats that could stop her from waltzing to a decisive win.
On the men’s side, though, it’s a little different—Northug was in fine form at the end of the season, but he’s not unstoppable in every discipline, as Bjoergen can be.
Still, though, based on the results of past men’s mass start races, which so often end in pack or group sprint finishes, it seems implausible that a field could be shattered enough, in a pursuit, for athletes to close down significant time gaps.
If there’s one place that it could happen, though, it’s in Falun, where the distance trails ascend the precipitous Mordarbacken, Swedish for “murder hill.” In this year’s pursuit, Northug got away from the rest of the men’s field with Giorgio di Centa; the two finished some 10 seconds up on Daniel Rickardsson, with a larger group another 10 seconds behind.
“The course is hard enough in the [pursuit], and the snow is generally slow enough, that it will break up,” said Kris Freeman, an American cross-country skier.
However, Freeman added that he thinks FIS is “splitting hairs.”
“I think that any time you do a mini-tour, there’s a possibility that someone is just going to get way, way out front and be uncatchable,” he said. “I don’t see it being any more or less exciting, changing it up.”
In the past, FIS has taken pains to make its race formats more straightforward and digestible; the appeal of the handicap start on the last day of a stage race is that the first athlete across the line is also the winner of the whole tour—which Freeman said he thinks makes the most sense.
With a mass-start as the final stage, the victor in that day’s race could just as easily be a skier who’s ends up in the middle of the pack in the overall rankings.
Confusing? Perhaps. But it does happen nearly every year on the Champs Elysees, in Paris. The final stage of the Tour de France is almost always captured by a sprinter, with the yellow jersey comfortably tucked in behind.
Sprint Changes—Or Not
In the heats of the classic sprint in Stockholm, the first stage of the World Cup Final, nearly all of the men’s field double-poled the course on skate skis.
While Emil Jönsson (SWE) stuck with klister (literally), and ultimately won the race, the Stockholm sprint marked the second time this season that skate gear has been a factor on courses that were ostensibly designed for classic skis. The first time was in Estonia in January, where Eirik Brandsdal (NOR) took first place without kick wax.
The course in Estonia, Capol said, could see some changes—perhaps by adding more height to its big climb, or by running it in reverse. But in Stockholm, he said, substantially modifying the course would be impossible, since it loops around the Royal Palace on a specific route.
This season, he added, athletes’ choices at that event were primarily dictated by conditions, rather than the terrain; in last year’s edition, only a few athletes tried skate skis.
“It’s not the course of itself—it’s probably more how the snow is,” he said. “The course is how it is, because we can’t do anything more.”
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.