Warm temperatures have plagued the World Cup all season long, but the city sprint in Düsseldorf, Germany, has always been a lock on the calendar.
On Friday, 13° C temperatures and rain pelted down on the German city, which overlooks the Rhine River. This weekend’s races mark the 10th year in which Düsseldorf has hosted the city sprints on man-made snow, but the production of the course seemed to have met its match in the adverse weather conditions.
FasterSkier staff observed that the only uphill on the course — nicknamed ‘Mount Düsseldorf’ — was bare on Friday. The course looked better suited to a rollerski race than the World Cup sprint planned for Saturday. In fact, conditions in Düsseldorf were so warm that many World Cup skiers were actually out rollerskiing as pre-race preparation, including Norway’s Oeystein Pettersen.
Due to the unseasonably warm weather in Europe, one would think that a big concern of the weekend would be the quality of the course. However, organizers were extremely confident in their preparation on Friday, as were several coaches. During the weekend-opening press conference on Friday, August Pollen, head of the Düsseldorf organizing committee, was so confident in the venue’s snow that he said there was no contingency plan.
To create the one-of-a-kind sprint course along the Rhine River, 3000 cubic meters of snow are trucked from the nearby ski hall Jever Skihalle Neuss. Three piston bully snow machines then spread out and create the 830-meter loop. The course is expected to be ready bright and early Saturday morning.
For the individual sprint on Saturday, the women will complete just one 830-meter loop, while the men will do two loops of the course to make a rock-solid and fast 1700-meter sprint.
No athletes have yet had a chance to ski on the loop – it will be rolled out Friday night, and be ready to ski Saturday morning. In an extremely tight schedule, the wax techs have roughly half an hour to test skis before the course is open for the women to pre-ski.
While this practice is unusual for most race sites, Düsseldorf always has the same pre-race trail preparation. Despite the late course set-up, U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover was enthusiastic about the course in an interview with FasterSkier on Friday.
“They lay it out during the night,” he said.
“It’s just amazing – you arrive in the morning and there is a full course.”
He also expressed confidence in the organizers being able to pull it off.
“It’s usually just like this – they’re used to it being quite warm,” Grover said, calling the organization of the event “totally pro.”
In the pre-race press conference on Friday, German head-lining sprinters Josef Wenzl, winner of the Düesseldorf sprint in 2007, and Hanna Kolb were on hand to address questions.
Wenzl, one of ten German male sprinters tapped to start Saturday, explained that he was aiming for a top 15 result on the day, has been training hard in Norway in preparation for the weekend.
Jochen Behle, Head Coach of the German National Ski Team, was also cautiously optimistic about Wenzl, saying that the German sprint-specialist was in great shape.
The two most recognizable German names missing from the squad were heavyweights Tobias Angerer and Axel Teichmann. Neither are strong sprinters, and Behle explained that they are training in Italy along with other distance skiers.
On the mens’ side, early reports had reigning Sprint Cup champion Emil Joensson back in action after opting out of the first two World Cup weekends in order to rest an injured thigh. However, Joensson, who was victorious in Düsseldorf in 2010, has opted to wait another weekend before returning to the circuit.
While Joensson is out, the Swedes have still sent a talented group, including regular 6th place finisher Jesper Modin, and Teodor Petersen, winner of the classic sprint last weekend.
As is expected, the Norwegian Sprintgutta is out in force. While Petter Northug Jr. (NOR) is passing on the weekend, eight athletes including Oeystein Pettersen, Ola Vigen Hattestad and Northug’s younger brother Tomas have been selected.
The North Americans may not have the same kind of numbers as some of the Scandinavian and European countries, but both teams are fielding talented sprinters.
For the U.S., Andy Newell, Simi Hamilton, and Skyler Davis will all be starting.
In particular, Grover is looking to Newell to have a good day, as the skate sprint specialist has qualified and finished well in Düsseldorf before — in his last three trips to the German venue, he has never finished lower than 15th, and is a regular top-five qualifier.
Grover acknowledged that the early season had been tough going for the American men.
“It’s kind of been hit or miss,” he said.
“They haven’t quite hit their stride, but I’m expecting them to hit it in the next few weeks.”
As for the Canadians, they are sending three men to the start line – Len Valjas, Devon Kershaw and Drew Goldsack will have a shot on Saturday.
The Canadians are riding a hot skier into the city sprint, as Len Valjas is fresh off his career-best 5th-place finish in the first stage of the Kuusamo mini-tour last weekend, a classic sprint.
While Valjas has yet to contest a skate sprint this season at any level, Canadian National Ski Team (CNST) Coach Eric de Nys said that the lanky sprinter had looked “awesome” in a recent skate sprint workout in Davos, Switzerland.
As for Devon Kershaw, who has started out his season slowly, the World Champion picked up a few solid results in Kuusamo, which de Nys characterized as “confidence races.”
“I wouldn’t want to go into the corners with him right now,” said de Nys.
The surprise non-starter was Alex Harvey — according to de Nys, Harvey came down with illness and will not be racing.
“It’s just a minor sore throat,” said de Nys. “Nothing major.”
While several top women have opted out of the sprint-only weekend, including Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), the field still contains some very talented sprinters.
At the top of that list is American Kikkan Randall. The former sprint-specialist turned all-around threat currently sits 6th in the World Cup Overall rankings, and she hasn’t even had a shot at her best event —the skate sprint.
Randall has a track record of skiing well in Düsseldorf – last year she finished second to now-retired Italian Arianna Follis.
“Her chances are good,” said Grover. “She’s proven she can do it on this course.”
Grover called Saturday a “huge opportunity” for Randall, but also pointed out that the randomness of Düsseldorf cannot be overlooked. Two years ago, Randall hooked a ski tip and went down, ending her day early.
Randall is without a doubt the headliner, but her teammates Holly Brooks, Sadie Bjornsen and Ida Sargent should not be ignored.
All three are talented skate sprinters, and Grover said he was excited to see where the younger women of the team could end up this weekend, after starting off so well.
“It’s an extremely fast sprint qualifier,” said Grover, “if you go out really hard from the gun, anything can happen.”
For the Canadians, all four women overseas have been given starts spots. Chandra Crawford, Dasha Gaiazova, Perianne Jones, and Alysson Marshall will all be on the start line Saturday morning.
De Nys was also positive about the Canadian women, citing Crawford and Gaiazova’s previous success in Düsseldorf in particular as a good sign.
The course is slightly shorter than usual, and at just 750 meters de Nys said it played to the teams strengths.
“Roller-derby style racing suits Chandra,” he said.
As for Jones, who struggled to find her form in the Kuusamo opener (she finished 44th in the classic sprint), de Nys was clear that he felt she could race just as well as Crawford or Gaiazova.
“Last weekend she just over-thought things,” he said.
“She was thinking about it, instead of just doing it – she’s in great shape, and she’s shown all year she can be as fast as Gaiazova and Crawford.”
As for the youngest Canadian starting, convergence team member Alysson Marshall, de Nys said she was in good shape, and that “all the women have a chance at making it in.”