For the past few years, the World Cup in Rybinsk, Russia has been the weekend frequently skipped over by national teams and various individuals. With the overall World Cup title a focal point this season and no major championship to save up for, however, the expected fields are nearly double what they’ve recently been, in spite of the handful of athletes who have decided not to race in the extreme cold.
The forecast initially looked borderline, but on Friday Rybinsk was predicted to get as high as 0F on Saturday. The FIS cutoff for a race to get cancelled or postponed is -4F. If Saturday’s temperature is right on the edge prior to the races, Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth said he thinks officials will “blow on the thermometer a little bit and make it happen.” With the races set to go off in the afternoon, the temperature will likely have gotten as high as predicted by the time the men start at 2:15 pm local time.
If the Moscow city sprints on Thursday were part of a push to attract more skiers to the Russian races, it worked. Sixty men and 53 women are on the start lists for the 10/15 k mass start freestyle races on Saturday, which include intermediate sprint bonuses. By comparison, only 30 women and 33 men took to the line in Rybinsk last year.
Luckily for World Cup fans, that should this weekend a little more interesting. On the men’s side, current World Cup leader Dario Cologna (SUI) has decided not to race in the cold, and neither will the Swedes, Finns, and a few other big names—notably Petter Northug (NOR) and Lukas Bauer (CZE).
There are still plenty of fast skiers set to battle it out head-to-head on Saturday. Home-field athletes Maxim Vylegzhanin and Alexander Legkov (RUS) currently sit fifth and sixth in the distance rankings, and will have plenty of motivation to perform well in front of Russian fans.
The two mid-race sprint bonuses could potentially throw the race. Maurice Manificat (FRA) is coming off a bit of a down run following his second-place showing in the Tour de Ski final climb, but could be a contender. Devon Kershaw (CAN) seems on the brink of his first official World Cup win, and teammate Alex Harvey is coming off a fourth-place finish two weeks ago in Otepaa, Estonia. Ivan Babikov has rejoined his team in Europe, and after a strong finish in the Tour final climb, will be raring to go in the mass start.
The American men’s squad, led by Kris Freeman, will have thinner ranks on Saturday. Noah Hoffman is still in Ramsau, Austria with the stomach flu, and sprinters Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton rejoined him after the Moscow sprint on Thursday.
Freeman is coming off a comfortable win at Austrian nationals last weekend, and if he skis where he believes his fitness to at, he could mix it up with a top 15. Tad Elliott is back in World Cup action after staying in the US for a few SuperTours after nationals, and with plenty of time in Ramsau to adjust to the time difference, should be ready to go. Sylvan Ellefson is still hitting his stride on the World Cup, but with high energy carrying over from Thursday, could be ready for another good performance.
On the women’s side, there are fewer big names skipping Rybinsk, and for good reason: Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) pulled 38 points ahead of Marit Bjoergen (NOR) in the overall World Cup on Thursday, and if Bjoergen wants to fight for it, she has to gut it out even at the remote venues.
The course on Saturday features about 500 feet of climbing per lap, with the women doing four 2.5 k loops and the men six. In addition to Bjoergen, Therese Johaug and all of the big Norwegian names will be lining up. Charlotte Kalla (SWE) is also back for Rybinsk, fresh off of two Swedish national titles.
The U.S. women have the momentum of a string of top performances on their side. Most recently, they placed three in the top-12 in Moscow, led by Jessie Diggins’s seventh—the 20-year-old undeniably on a roll this year.
Kikkan Randall is sitting out the 10 k in order to be ready to go for Sunday’s skiathlon. According to USST head coach Chris Grover, Randall is prefectly healthy, but feels she needs to take Saturday off in order to be sharp the next day. Ida Sargent is also skipping the 10 k.
Liz Stephen is coming off a 21st in Otepaa and a second at Austrian nationals, and the climbing-heavy course could work in her favor in Rybinsk. Holly Brooks, wrist mostly healed, is back on the American roster, and though she may have lost some strength in her arm and core while she recovered from the injury, her coach Erik Flora thinks she’s just as fit as ever.
Sadie Bjornsen, though missing the heats in Moscow, nonetheless skied a respectable 39th. Bjornsen has said many times that falling just short of the points only gives her more motivation for the next race.
Barring weather delay or cancellation, the Rybinsk men’s 15 k starts on Saturday at 2:15 pm in Russia (6:15 am EST), with the women starting 1.5 hours later.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.