Whether or not the World Cup opener happens in Beitostolen or elsewhere, the season will start eventually, and in doing so, will feature new rules and schedule changes.
Top Teams Required to Compete
One of the changes which could have a large impact on the World Cup scene is a new rule requiring the top teams to compete in all but one World Cup weekend.
According to the recent FIS Cross Country press release; “The best nations according to the team World Cup rankings 2010/11 (Top 4 ladies’ teams: Norway, Sweden, Italy, Finland; top 5 men’s teams: Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy) have to start in all World Cup competitions during the season 2011/12 with the exception of one World Cup weekend.”
According to Jurg Capol, Cross Country Race Director for the International Ski Federation (FIS), the goal is to have as many nations present at a World Cup as possible.
“We would like to avoid the Rybinsk situation,” wrote Capol in an e-mail to FasterSkier, referencing the annual stop in Russia where fields are often so small, that every started is guaranteed World Cup points just by crossing the finish line.
“It’s even a pity, as the OC [organizing committee] does a good job at having between 20 to 25’000 spectators a day.”
However, just because FIS has implemented rules to encourage the top countries’ and therefore the top skiers to attend, doesn’t mean the top athletes on the World Cup actually have to show up and race.
“It’s only related to the team, and it depends on their quota,” Capol wrote.
As per FIS rules, if a team has a quota of five or more athletes, at least three athletes have to start. If they have a quote between three and four, two athletes must start. In addition, all starting athletes must meet the World Cup requirements for FIS points.
“Some of the top athletes will also do a decision to skip one or another WC weekend, but what we should guarantee to a WC event that the requested amount of nations are present.”
Of course, using Rybinsk as an example, countries could still opt out of the Russian stop, so long as they hit every other location on the circuit, but that would ensure that at almost every World Cup event the full complement of nations would take part.
If a team breaks the rule, according to Capol, that country is unable to compete in the following World Cup weekend. However, Capol assured FasterSkier that the World Cup countries were unanimous in their support of the measure.
“The commitment of the committee was 100%, and as committee members are also representatives of their national ski associations, I have no doubts,” he wrote.
Red Group Seeding
While it may not be as obvious in North America, where watching World Cup races on television – live or otherwise – is rare, one of the other changes is that the athletes with the highest FIS points will start between the top seeded (Red Group) athletes.
In practical terms, according to Capol, this means that, for example, it could be a FIS regional series leader, such as the United States’ Brian Gregg starting between Petter Northug and Marcus Hellner.
The impetus comes from FIS’s TV experts and producers, and the goal is to get the best athletes more TV time, and at the same time start the Red Group earlier.
“The TV director didn’t always have the time to show the top 10, because the main focus is related to positions 1-3,” Capol wrote.
“By having more time between the best athletes, the top 20 athletes will get more time and it will help to develop the TV production for an interval race.”
Bonus Points to the Top-10
In a move that could significantly alter race strategy, sprint bonus points will now be awarded to the top-10 past an intermediate mark, compared to the top-3 in seasons past.
These seconds are only awarded in mass start competitions, and have played a major role in determining the Tour de Ski winner.
First will get 15 points, second 12, down to one for 10th.
Estonia No Longer a Fixture on the World Cup
Otepaa, Estonia will no longer automatically receive a World Cup event. The Baltic nation, which is rabid about cross country skiing has had their World Cup weekend reduced to occasional status.
However, FIS has decided to move the location around, ostensibly due to Estonia’s tumbling status as a World Cup power.
“During the season, Estonia was ranked as 15th in the Nations Cup standing, and several better-placed Nations asked for World Cup competitions,” wrote Capol.
Further complicating the situation is Estonia’s current battle with doping, as legend Anders Veerpalu is in the midst of a complex legal battle over his innocence.
“It didn’t affect the decision of the CC committee,” Capol wrote, “but of course a positive doping case never has a positive impact.”
Rise of the City Sprint
Over the past five years, FIS has fully embraced the city sprint concept. The event along the Rhine in Dusselfdorf, Germany, is entering a fifth consecutive year, and Stockholm, Sweden, has become a fixture as well.
This season, the cross-country committee has expanded the city sprint to include Moscow and Milan.
According to Capol, part of the reason for adding two city sprints to the calendar was due to the lack of a major championship event. Additionally, Capol cites city sprints as being a factor in building the image of cross country skiing in the last ten years.
However, city sprints pose all sorts of complications, and can be quite contentious in terms of course lay-out and snow quality. In one particular sprint in the Tour de Ski in Prague, Czech Republic, athletes such as Canadian Devon Kershaw, who wrote about it on his blog, were irate with the conditions.
Capol assured FasterSkier that the events would be well organized.
“On both sites, the NSA [National Sport Assosciation] have sent their specialist and we have the guarantee the event is well prepared,” he wrote.
Capol also mentioned that the organizing committees have access to more snow making equipment than ever before, and that all city sprints have met the FIS homologation criteria.
“Some courses seem to be easy,” he said, “but it has never been easy to win!”
Tour de Ski May Expand to Include Switzerland
With home-country hero Dario Cologna being an annual contender (as well as two-time champion) in the Tour de Ski, the Swiss have been pressing FIS to include a stop in Switzerland
“The concept of the Tour de Ski is based on three countries, before we had only two nations which were able to run competitions during this time of the year,” Capol wrote.
Capol is extremely happy with the final races in Val di Fiemme, Italy, but is still looking for the ideal start to the stage race.
“Oberhof [Germany] have technically done their competitions very well, but we did not have a great atmosphere,” Capol wrote.
While Davos (less than 100 k from where Cologna was born) is currently a pre-Christmas World Cup venue, Capol said that Cologna’s back yard may earn a Tour de Ski race in the future, and that as more nations become prepared to host the Tour de Ski, the addition of other counties is possible.