MILAN, Italy – Benvenuti a Milano, the fashion capital of the world!
No, FasterSkier has not expanded coverage to the catwalk (though you have to wonder how those French suits would fare)—the conclusion of the Tour de Ski does not mean a break on the World Cup—racing continues this weekend in the heart of Milan, Italy with a city sprint weekend a la Dusseldorf.
In this in-between year of no World Championships, and no Olympics, FIS has used the schedule flexibility to experiment with new venues on the World Cup.
The weekend following the Tour de Ski finale is perfect for a city sprint. Most of the skiers who completed the Tour are hard at work recovering, but the sprint specialists either skipped the Tour entirely, or dropped out after the fifth stage and the second of two Tour sprints.
Tomorrow’s race is an individual skate sprint on flat 650-meter track in the Parco Sempione, the largest park in Milan.
Both men and women will race two rounds of the pizza-flat loop, and the same course will be used for Sunday’s team sprint event.
With temperatures at +8C at 7:00PM, the trucked in snow was soft corn. The Pisten Bully was at work before 9:00, but it is unclear how firm the course will set-up on this balmy night.
The race is overlooked by the Castello Sforzesco, a massive stone fortress originally dating from 1360. The structure was completely demolished once, only to be rebuilt after, and has suffered a rather painful history over the past 650 years.
It will be tested once again, this time as the media center for the weekend’s racing.
The venue brings back not so distant memories of the Oslo World Championships—the whole taking the subway to the race thing.
Despite missing many weary Tour de Ski survivors, the fields are loaded.
Kikkan Randall (USA) is the clear favorite on the women’s side. She won in Dusseldorf this fall, proving she doesn’t need a long hard V1 climb to open up a gap.
Her top competition includes Canadian Chandra Crawford, who was 4th in Dusseldorf, and second in Rogla, and did not race the Tour.
Crawford appears to be back in top form this year, but will be hard pressed to unseat Randall without a little luck.
In her quest for the overall Sprint Cup, Randall needs to keep an eye on Natalia Matveeva (RUS). Matveeva sits in second, 94 points down on the American, and was second in both of Randall’s victories this year.
There are plenty of other women who have a good shot at the podium. Keep an eye on Laurien Van der Graaff (SUI) and Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR).
The cliché of “anything can happen in sprinting” has gone way beyond overused, and should be left to molder in a junkyard of discarded cappuccino machines.
Yet it hangs around because there is plenty of truth in those words, especially in a city sprint where passing opportunities are limited, and terrain unvaried.
Winning in Milan will take skill and speed, but also more than the usual dose of sprinters luck. Of course the best seem to find a way to create their own luck more often than not.
The men’s field is deeper, able to withstand the absence of the distance skiers somewhat better—the short of it is that there are more male sprint specialists than female.
Norway, Russia, Sweden and Italy all bring teams of short distance experts, with the Norwegians the most rested.
Sweden is missing Emil Joensson, who completed the Tour de Ski and has come down with a cold.
The favorite has to be Alexei Petukhov, the bearded Russian who prefers to win like a man—skiing hard from the front. The strategy doesn’t always work, and he appears to be learning from his failures.
Petukhov was second in Dusseldorf, and has been in the top-10 in every World Cup sprint this season, garnering the points to lead the Sprint Cup.
In terms of challengers, pick your poison—Teodor Petersen (SWE), Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR), Oystein Petersen (NOR), teammate Nikolay Morilov, or any number of others.
The North Americans start a large contingent.
Randall is joined by Sadie Bjornsen, Ida Sargent, and Jessie Diggins. The former two are both back on the World Cup after a break over Christmas, while Diggins makes her much-anticipated 2012 international debut.
Canada starts established sprinters Dasha Gaiazova and Perianne Jones in addition to Crawford.
With Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw resting, Lenny Valjas holds the Canadian honor on his tall shoulders.
For the American men, Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton look to bounce back after illness shortened both their Tours and Mike Sinnott makes his European World Cup debut.
Qualification starts at high noon in Milan.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.