The 2012 World Cup season is already a month old, and there has yet to be a mass start.
That changes on Saturday in Rogla, Slovenia when women ski a 10km classic and men 14k. The races feature intermediary sprints for World Cup points—once for women at 5.2k and twice for men at 5.2k and 11.2k.
In a new twist, points will be awarded to the top-10 at the intermediary marks, instead of just the top-3.
The big news is the Marit Bjoergen (NOR), the women’s overall World Cup leader, will not race. She is suffering form a cold, and while not seriously ill, does not want to take any chances with the Tour de Ski rapidly approaching.
The Americans and Canadians start robust squads, with 15 North Americans getting the call.
On the men’s side, Canadian teammates Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey represent the best chances for top results.
Both sat out the distance race in Davos last weekend, and both are excellent sprinters. Kershaw finished third in a similar event in last year’s Tour de Ski.
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth is looking for big things from his dynamic duo.
“On paper, this is one of the best weekends. Fifteen k classic mass start, they could go 1-2 tomorrow…this weekend is really big,” Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth sees both men fighting for intermediate sprint points, saying, “Oh yeah, we like world cup points, so for sure Devon and Alex will be looking for those.”
He did say that the skiers will evaluate as the race progresses and could decide the fight for points in the middle of the race might not be worth it.
And despite the fact that the field usually remains tightily compressed, Wadsworth only sees a small portion actually engaged in the hunt for extra points.
“I think only 10 to 15 guys are seriously thinking about it, tactic towards it, so its not something the whole field gets anxious about, but it will create some stir at the top, maybe,” Wadsworth said.
Kershaw and Harvey will be joined by Ivan Babikov and Graham Nishikawa, both of whom are coming off strong performances in Davos.
Babikov is a stronger skater, so he is unlikely to match his top-10 of a week ago, while Nishikawa looks to crack the top-30.
Kris Freeman leads the way for the Americans. He has not skied particularly well to date, and while 15k classic is normally on excellent event for the veteran, mass starts are not ideal.
He is unable to ski his own race, forced to respond to the whims of the leaders, and while he has had respectable sprint results at the World Cup level, his finishing speed is not his greatest strength.
He is joined by Noah Hoffman, Lars Flora and sprinter Andy Newell.
Hoffman just missed the points in Davos, but like Babikov, prefers skating.
Newell has never excelled at distance on the World Cup but has surprised in mass start events.
US Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb references some impressive relay scramble legs by Newell when discussing the sprinters chances.
Whitcomb does not see the field breaking up much do to relatively gradual terrain.
“The distance probably lends itself to powerful skiers with strong double poling,” Whitcomb said. “I don’t think it’ll split the pack apart too much.”
While the Canadian men are likely to lead the North American charge for the podium, it is the Americans on the women’s side.
Kikkan Randall has already put together a stellar season with two victories and several breakthrough performances in distance races.
She proved in Kuusamo that she can ski in the top-10 in longer events, and will have the opportunity to do that again, and show off her much-improved double pole.
Holly Brooks and Liz Stephen will attempt to join Randall in the top-30, something they both did in Davos, an unprecedented feat for the US women.
While Stephen is a better skater, both she and Brooks are skiing very well. Neither woman is a pure sprinter, with Brooks definitely holding the edge there, a fact that will serve the APU skier well in the mass start format.
Ida Sargent will also get the nod, and will use the opportunity to pick up more experince.
Experience and fitness is the name of the game for the Canadian women.
Chandra Crawford, Perianne Jones and Dasha Gaiazova will start, but all are by far and away better in the sprints. Top results are not in the cards, and even points might be a reach.
Wadsworth sees the race as good prep for Sunday’s sprint, given the relatively short distance and mellow course profile.
“I’m looking for those three to be in there tomorrow,” Wadsworth said. “Chandra always skies well in a group, and it is probably easier for Peri and Dasha to pace if you just go with the group than in an individual start race. It’ll be a better chance for a result for them.”
Wadsworth also sees a podium opportunity for Kersahw and Harvey in the freestyle sprint on Sunday, and Randall enters the clear favorite in the event after dismantling the field in Davos.
She leads the overall Sprint Cup, and while she has shown vastly improved classic sprinting, she needs to take advantage of the freestyle versions.
“It’s very exciting that Kikkan will being going in as talk of the town,” Whitcomb said of Randall’s position as the fastest woman in the world. “She’s an incredibly bigd eal over here. She’s popular on our facebook site, and it’s 50 times that in Europe. “She handles it like a pro and has a good time with it.”
Whitcomb also sees Newell ready to break out, and has high hopes for Simi Hamilton, who has battled illness all year, before a solid 33rd in the Davos sprint.
Sargent will also get a chance on Sunday.
“Ida is hungry, chomping at the bit,” Whitcomb said. “I’m confident she’s a World Cup sprint qualifier. It is just a matter of learning more and landing in there.”
The distance races will take place on a shortened two kilometer loop due to lack of snow.
The men will race seven loops and the women five.
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.