The World Cup season kicked off last weekend in Sjusjoen, Norway with a 10/15km freestyle and a 4×5/10km relay, but in terms of a true “opener,” the now-annual Ruka Triple in Kuusamo, Finland provides for more drama, and a robust test for the athletes.
Action starts on Friday with the first sprint of the season—a 1.4 kilometer classic affair, that give sprinters a chance to see how they measure up after a summer of training.
Kikkan Randall (USA) is seeded number one after finishing third in the last season’s Sprint Cup. With Petra Majdic (SLO)and Arianna Follis (ITA) both retiring, Randall inherits the top spot.
She will be challenged by the usual suspects, including a bevy of Norwegians, led by the incomparable Marit Bjoergen. Randall will also have to deal with Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), the defending World Cup Champion, who struggled in last week’s opener.
But Kowalczyk is a stronger classic skier, and does not take defeat lightly. Also look for Finnish veteran Aino Kaisa Saarinen, Charlotte Kalla (SWE), Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN), Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR) and Astrid Jacobson (NOR) to be battling for a sport in the final.
Because of the mini-tour format, distance skiers who might normally sit out a sprint, will try their hands at ski racings shortest distance. Therese Johaug (NOR) and Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) are among those who will not threaten in the sprint, but will be in the mix for the overall.
On the men’s side, the 126 skier field holds any number of athletes who could stand on the podium. With defending Sprint Cup winner Emil Joensson (SWE) sitting out as he recovers from an injury, the favorite is Norwegian Ola Vigen Hattestad.
But given the depth on the men’s circuit, he could just as easily face elimination in the first round as stand on top of the podium.
As usual, all eyes will be on Petter Northug (NOR) who, despite taking a solid beating from Johan Olsson (SWE) in the 15km in Sjusoen is off to a much better start this season.
Given his unmatched finishing kick and ability to will himself to victory, Northug can be counted on to be on the podium.
The race is a big one for American Andy Newell. Coming off a disappointing 2011 campaign, Newell would like to prove his mettle right off the bat. Qualifying is not the issue—the two-time Olympian is hoping a good summer of training will give him the fitness to advance through the rounds.
He is joined by teammate Simi Hamilton, making his 2012 World Cup debut. Hamilton showed World Cup speed last year in the Davos sprint, where he qualified 11th.
On the Canadian side, big Lenny Valjas, hopes to build on his 9th place finishi n the Drammen World Cup sprint. And of course teammates Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw can be counted on to be in the mix.
Harvey had an excellent start to his season last week, and is clearly in top form. Kershaw on the other hand looks to bounce back from a disappointing 37th in the 15k.
Both men have stood on the World Cup sprint podium, and both are contenders for the overall Ruka Triple title.
Racing continues on Saturday with a 5/10km freestyle, before the weekend wraps up on Sunday with a 10/15km classic pursuit.
In terms of the overall, Bjojergen and Northug are certainly the favorites, with Kowalczyk, Kalla and Saarinen good bets to be the closest challenger on the women’s side.
For the men, any of a dozen skiers could stand on the podium on Sunday afternoon. Dario Cologna (SUI) one of the most consistent and well-rounded athletes is always a threat, and could have the power to upset Northug.
Last year’s men’s champion, Alexander Legkov (RUS), didn’t have to deal with Northug, but was impressive while blowing Cologna off the snow on the final day. He was a solid, yet unspectacular 11th on the opening weekend – perhaps a good sign given he was unable to hold his early form through the 2011 campaign.
Notably, Finn Matti Heikkinen has pulled out with an injury. According to Langrenn.com the 2011 World Champion injured his eye tripping over a billboard. While he did not get stitches, the resulting laceration was “glued” by a doctor, and racing poses a risk of infection. Heikkinen will rest 3-4 days.
For the North Americans, Harvey and Kershaw are both podium contenders. Kris Freeman (USA) is a step behind, but with a good weekend, the top-15 is definitely a possibility.
For the women, Randall could be looking for a top-10 or better, especially after her career-best 8th place finish in the 10km in Sjusjoen. Classic sprinting is not her forte, but she has improved steadily. If she can advance to the semis, she will be in position to put her ever-improving distance skiing to work.
Liz Stephen (USA) also had a strong opener. Decidedly not a sprinter, Stephen will have some ground to make up, but she is certainly capable of a top-30 overall.
A dark horse for the Americans is Holly Brooks. An excellent all-arounder, Brooks could also be in the running for the top-30 if she has her best races.
On the Canadian side, sprinters Chandra Crawford and Perianne Jones get their first taste of World Cup action in 2012. Crawford has improved her classic sprinting, and will look to qualify and advance out of the semis, and Jones will be aiming for the same.
Both women are stronger sprinters, so the weekend will be an opportunity to build fitness through distance racing.
Alysson Marshall, on her first major World Cup tour, will be picking up valuable experience.
Ida Sargent (USA) is a strong classic sprinter, and could surprise on the opening day. She had a rough weekend in Sjusjoen, and will need better form to advance to the heats.
Noah Hoffman and Tad Elliott, both distance specialists for the US will not excel on Friday, but both should move up over the course of the weekend. Veteran Lars Flora will also take to the line for the US. Accomplished in all disciplines and distances, Flora is well suited for the mini-tour format. He will probably not be in the mix for the top-30, but with good races, can be a solid US presence.
Canada also brings Ivan Babikov, Kevin Sandau, Drew Goldsack and Graham Nishikawa to Finland.
Sandau is looking for experience, while veteran Babikov will likely provide entertaining commentary on his sprint prowess via twitter before charging up the standings, and into the top-30 in the distance races.
With a weekend of World Cup racing out of the way, Justin Wadsworth, Canadian Head Coach, sees the Ruka Triple as a key element of the season.
“This weekend is big as it will set the tone for how each athlete can handle sprints, as well as both skating and classic distance races,” Wadsworth wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “By Sunday it should show overall fitness as well.”
Wadsworth said he expects all of his athletes to complete the entire weekend.
- 10. Newell
- 27. Hamilton
- 38. Freeman
- 7. Randall
- 32. Brooks
- 5. Kershaw
- 8. Harvey
- 19. Valjas
- 29. Crawford
- 36. Jones
- 24. Freeman
- 11. Randall
- 26. Stephen
- 36. Brooks
- 3. Harvey
- 14. Kershaw
- 24. Babikov
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.