Life on the World Cup is one giant judgment call. Each day brings new decisions and, sometimes, unforeseen challenges. With little time, athletes and coaches often make up their minds and go with it. That’s about all they can do.
The spontaneity often leads to uncertainty – as is the case with this weekend’s World Cup in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic. Several teams will probably do as the U.S. Ski Team plans and select its relay teams for Sunday based on Saturday’s races.
U.S. head coach Chris Grover said in a phone interview on Friday that only two of eight relay members between its men’s and women’s teams were final. Kikkan Randall opted to skip Saturday’s 15 k classic mass start to rest up for Sunday, and with an abundance of World Cup podiums and freestyle sprint victories this season, she was a shoe-in for the 4×5 k relay.
Tad Elliott was the only definite for the men’s relay since he isn’t racing Saturday, Grover said. Like Randall, Elliott is a skate specialist, and is sitting out the 30 k classic mass start because the U.S. had filled its allotted number of entrants.
Grover said they would name the men’s and women’s relays pending Saturday’s results, and also consider the state of each athlete and previous 5 k and 10 k performances.
“We’ll see what kind of shape people are in and how they’re feeling,” he said. “We have to weigh people’s strengths. I mean, tomorrow’s a classic race but we still need skaters in the relay, so it’s not necessarily the top three that come in.”
Randall resolved to skip Saturday’s 15 k nearly a week ago, Grover said. Despite feeling healthy, she decided with the help of her Alaska Pacific University coach, Erik Flora, that it would be better to rest before the relay.
“She just knew that she was kind of feeling a little bit tired, and she needed to kind of skip a couple races during this period in order to focus on recovery and skiing fast for the rest of the season,” Grover said.
Given the depth on both American squads, Grover was excited about their prospects in the relays. With Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, Holly Brooks and Randall in the last relay in Sjusjøen, Norway, the U.S. women were ninth behind four Norwegian teams.
That was in November, before several American women notched career bests and Jessie Diggins joined the team in Europe. They will also have at least two fewer Norwegian teams to contend with on Sunday.
“I think everybody is stronger,” Grover said. “We don’t really know what our limitations are quite yet. We just haven’t had a chance to ski enough relays, but I feel like we can put together, for both men and women, quite strong teams if we can get a great performance out of all four athletes from each team.”
The previous U.S. men’s relay with Andy Newell, Kris Freeman, Simi Hamilton and Elliott was 11th in Sjusjøen. They were 13.3 seconds behind the Russians in 10th and trailed three Norwegian teams.
Earlier this season, Grover said his team set a goal to field relays good enough to compete on the World Cup, World Championship and Olympic levels. He was excited they had enough depth – with at least five men and five women – to see that out.
Following the trend they set earlier in the season, the Canadians will not compete in the relays, but not because they can’t.
The Canadian men have enough numbers and have been particularly dominant in recent World Cup races, with Devon Kershaw winning last Saturday’s 15 k freestyle mass start in Rybinsk, Russia. In the last four races, he and Alex Harvey helped Canada land in the top 10.
Ivan Babikov is also back with the team after recovering at home for part of January, and Lenny Valjas opted to race this weekend after originally trying to find a shorter race in Austria, head coach Justin Wadsworth said. Without much luck, Valjas and another Canadian sprinter, Perianne Jones, decided to join their team for the distance mass starts.
Jones will be Canada’s lone female racing on Saturday. Chandra Crawford returned to Europe on Friday after a brief trip home in Canmore, Alberta, and Dasha Gaiazova was in Ramsau, Austria.
Because Wadsworth did not expect Valjas to be available for the relay, he decided not to field a team.
“We made all the travel plans (flights etc.) based on that, so that’s one reason,” Wadsworth wrote in an email. “The other reason is it’s been a huge last 8-10 days for Devon and Alex.”
He noted the wear of traveling between Moscow and Rybinsk, where Kershaw and Harvey endured two hard races in cold weather. Then there was the long trip back to Austria, where the team had been training, the trip to the Czech Republic, and this weekend’s races to consider before heading back to Austria and then Poland next Wednesday.
“All that makes doing the relay after the 30 k WAY too much,” Wadsworth wrote. “Right now I’d be happy to get the guys out of this period without blowing up, and it’ll be close as it is. … All the races lately are great, but we do need a training period to ensure it all keeps on track, both mentally and physically.”
Saturday’s race holds a challenging 5 k course with plenty of long climbs and few double-pole opportunities, according to Grover. He said the hardwax should be straightforward with cold temperatures expected to reach about minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) at race time.
“It will be a hard course, but perfect for our team,” Wadsworth wrote.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.