All 2012 FIS World Cup Finals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of Fischer Sports USA, proud sponsors of Kikkan Randall, 2012 overall Sprint Cup Champion.
FALUN, Sweden – It is amazing how interesting a 2.5-3.3-kilometer individual start race can be.
There might not be the head-to-head drama of sprints and mass-start events, but observing how skiers approach the prologue distance, and the challenging nature of the “not a sprint, not a distance race” leaves plenty to talk about.
With Mördarbacken (killer hill) falling within the first kilometer of the race, racers appeared to apply one of two basic strategies—throw down from the start and hope to hold on in the later gradual terrain, or open more moderately and accelerate over the top of the hill.
In the men’s race, the Norwegain team notably chose the later. On the lower pitches of Mördarbacken the first time around (the men added their extra distance by climbing the first third of the hill a second time), almost to a man, the Norwegians appeared to be having a collective bomb of a day.
Compared to many of their competitors, they were moving with a slow tempo and little explosiveness—maybe appropriate for the early stages of a 50k.
But this had changed when they appeared again as they attacked the last hill with a vengeance.
The results sheet supported the observations with eight of nine Norwegians improving their placing after the steepest pitch of the Mördarbacken.
Most notably Niklaus Dyrhaug, who was 4th moved up 13 spots, Sjur Roethe 11, Martin Johnsrud Sundby 19 and John Kristian Dahl 21.
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier that “at the start of a race like that you can be really stressed and high tempo,” basically inefficient.
Despite the experience of most of these athletes, many appeared to fall prey to this trap.
A number of the Russians started hard, only to fall back later in the race.
Petr Sedov, however, was not one of them. He improved a remarkable 32 places over the final 2.1 kilometers of the race, from 44th to 12th.
Going the other direction was teammate Dmitriy Japarov, who fell 21 places from 15th to 36th.
The women showed somewhat less volatility, most likely due to the fact there was just the single large climb.
The top-6 at the finish all were within that number at the top of the hill and only Jessie Diggins and Laure Barthelemy moved up double digits among the top-25.
Diggins improved 12 places from 20th to 8th and Barthelemy moved up 16 from 26th to 10th.
In addition to starting pace, there were quite a few differences in technique choice among the skiers—again more so with the men.
A few, like Jean Marc Gaillard, impressively chose to V2 the entire first portion of Mördarbacken, while others quickly switched to V1.
Completely anecdotally, the V1 choice seemed the better bet. The top three men, Alex Harvey, Dario Cologna and Devon Kershaw all used a powerful V1 relatively early in the hill, while the two most notable V2-ers, Gaillard and Marcus Hellner placed 24th and 9th respectively, with Hellner slipping after leading at the top of the hill.
German Josef Wenzl appeared to employ the Norwegian slow-start strategy, but someone forgot to tell him he was supposed to speed up later in the race.
The sprinter looked more than a little sluggish early in the climb and ultimately beat only American Sylvan Ellefson, who crashed hard and required on-course medical attention.
Watching the women up at the crest of Mördarbacken revealed different technique choices as well.
Some quickly switched out V1 as they crested the steepest pitch, V2-ing the remaining gradual climb, while others continued to V1.
Again, unscientifically, it seemed that V1 was the better choice for most.
Some women, notably the Norwegians, hugged the outside of the climb on skier’s right, sticking to the shaded part of the track along the barrier.
Most of the Norwegians executed this to the extreme, staying outside of even the twists, while other skiers opted to take a better line.
Two of the top Norwegian women did not start the race, withdrawing from the mini-tour.
Vibeke Skofterud made the decision not to race after warming up.
“She is a little bit tired after the Vasaloppet (the 90k Swedish ski marathon that Skofterud won two weeks ago),” Norwegian women’s coach Egil Kristiansen said.
He added that she is having some minor issues with her elbow after the double-pole fest that is the Vasaloppet.
Astrid Jacobson also passed on the prologue citing stomach problems according to Langrenn.com.
Their teammate, Therese Johaug, however, was in fine form, placing 6th and climbing to 19th in the World Cup Finals standings.
“It is a steep hill here in Falun and it is really hard, but I like to climb these hills,” said Johaug.
She attacked the Mördarbacken with her usual double-time tempo.
“I train a lot for this one in the summer at home in Dalsbygda and when I was a little girl, my grandfather said, ‘If you should be a good cross country skier you have to train on uphills,’” she said.
And thus she trains uphills, something she “likes very much.”
At this point, Johaug is considered the best climber on the World Cup circuit after twice winning the Tour de Ski final climb.
“I push myself to do my best,” Johaug continued. “The important thing is to not be too far away from first place…In the end it is a tour and that’s the reason to get to the top.”
Eirik Brandsdal, winner of the Royal Palace Sprint continues to lead the World Cup Finals after placing 31st in the prologue, a result he was pleased with.
“It was a good race,” Brandsdal said. “I saved some power on Mördarbacken, and from there I just pushed as hard as I could.”
Climbing, Brandsdal said, is his strong suit, so the course suited him.
He is currently three seconds ahead of Harvey entering the third day of competition.
Following the prologue, he had yet to consider the possibility of going for bonus seconds in Saturday’s mass start.
“I think I will just try to stay with these guys [Harvey at al] as long as possible,” Brandsdal said. “I am a sprinter, so it will be hard for me, but I will do my best.”
He added that his performance in the mini-tour thus has already exceeded his expectations.
Matt Voisin contribute reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.