After a weekend of city sprinting in Germany, including gluhwein, spills, and DSQ’s, the FIS World Cup heads to Davos, Switzerland, this weekend for another pair of skate races.
Saturday sees a rare beast on the World Cup — a long distance individual start skate race (15 for the women, and 30 k for the men) — while Sunday features what might be the most intense sprint of the World Cup season.
While Dusseldorf lacked the full cup complement of skiers, missing most of the distance specialists, Davos, home of Dario Cologna and one of the most spectacular World Cup venues on the circuit, will see all of the regulars return to racing.
There are plenty of story lines heading into the weekend, but FasterSkier fills you in on some of the most intriguing.
Kikkan Randall vs. Marit Bjoergen
If you’re the kind of person who likes winning streaks, try this one on for size: Kikkan Randall has now won three consecutive World Cup skate sprints.
While the connection is somewhat tenuous – it counts Dusseldorf 2011, as well as Liberec, Czech Republic and Drammen, Norway, but skips over the World Championship sprint in Oslo – it obviously matters, because U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover was eager to mention it in an interview last weekend in Dusseldorf.
“When you think about it, she’s won the previous three skate sprints on the World Cup,” he said following her win last Saturday in Dusseldorf.
“That’s a pretty impressive record.”
Grover also mentioned that Randall fell at World Championships, cutting short her chances there. It was also the last time she faced Marit Bjoergen (NOR) in a skate sprint.
In an interview with FasterSkier on Friday, Randall wasn’t shying away from facing the Norwegian star.
“I’m excited!” said Randall of the prospect of facing Bjoergen in the sprint. “I was in the final with her here last year, and I’m looking forward to going up against her again.”
Randall is also currently the Sprint Cup leader. While it’s still early in the season, Randall is enjoying the experience.
“It’s a nice bonus for sure,” she said, of being the top-ranked sprinter on the World Cup. “I’ve been steadily working my way up to that point; it’s just fun to have an American in that position.”
But speaking of streaks, Marit Bjoergen owns a considerable one herself. The Norwegian queen has already collected 5 consecutive wins this season (if you count all three days in the Kuusamo mini-tour. Which you should, except for the individual times on Sunday – Bjoergen started so far clear it would have taken a miracle for her pursuers to catch up).
She won the skate sprint at World Championships in Oslo, and hasn’t faced off in a skate sprint against Randall since last winter in Drammen, where the American finished first, and Bjoergen was left off the podium in 5th.
Bjoergen may have a slight advantage in skipping Dusseldorf to train, but if you managed to catch any of Randall’s exploits in Dusseldorf – specifically her last-lap heroics in the team sprint, where she blasted from ninth to second place and history in the space of 850 meters – you could hardly say the high-energy Alaskan looked fatigued.
The Disappearance of Justyna Kowalczyk
In the first two weekends of the World Cup season, Kowalczyk (POL) has appeared just ordinary. She has yet to win a medal, and has been dominated not just by Bjoergen, but by most of the Norwegian women.
While the short laps and relatively small and punchy climbs in Sjusjoen, Norway, didn’t exactly suit the Polish superstar’s strength, a week later in Kuusamo, Finland, it was a different story.
Both individual skate and pursuit classic days featured tough courses with major climbs, difficult races in which Kowalczyk has traditionally excelled, even dominated. Her demise was especially worrying in the 10 k classic – while her ninth place finish isn’t catastrophic, in the last year she had no fewer than seven medals in World Cup classic races over 10 k.
In Davos, she will be handed yet another prime opportunity to turn her season around. The individual start distance skate will be filled with big climbs, giving Kowalczyk an opportunity to use her motor, rather than her woeful descending and tactical abilities.
And speaking of her lack of tactical abilities, last year in Davos in the skate sprint made some dubious decisions leading to her being bumped to the back of the final. In the last hundred meters, Kowalczyk made the mistake of cutting off none other than Kikkan Randall.
The Rise of Vibeke Skofterud and Inter-Female Norwegian Competition
Vibeke Skofterud has been the surprise Norwegian this season. Everyone knew Bjoergen was hot, and Therese Johaug had a coming out party of sorts in Oslo, but Skofterud has never really been given top billing – she’s best known for anchoring a relay team that seems to be skiing so fast that they could probably survive with just about anyone skiing the final leg.
While Skofterud’s fast starts have been debated extensively in the blogosphere, FasterSkier staff are interested to see how she does in her third World Cup weekend, particularly due to the race formats.
Skofterud seems to have the package to get it done this season, whether the race be sprint, distance, mass start or individual – but so does Johaug. She and Johaug seem to be locked in competition for second-best Norwegian female. Skofterud is the better skate sprinter, while Johaug is the hill-climbing ‘Energizer Bunny’ – the weekend should be a good match-up between the two.
Surprise Swiss Sprinters
The Swiss sprint team pulled off plenty of impressive performances in Dusseldorf. Most notably was Laurien Van Der Graaf, who managed to finish 3rd in her first trip to the semi-final and final.
For the men, without Dario Cologna in attendance, three managed to slip in to the top 12, including second place qualifier Eligius Tamborino – a tall, thin man with a serious expression. Martin Jaeger and Joeri Kindschi also picked up top 15 places – just Kindschi cracked the heats in Davos last year, so you can bet the home-country boys will be skiing as hard as they can.
It has to be said that people who perform well in Dusseldorf are not guaranteed to perform well in other venues (see Wenzl, Josef).
However, at just 24 years of age, Van Der Graaf has yet to even enter her prime. Sunday will be a good test of whether she has broken through, or whether her performance in Dusseldorf was a fluke.
At the very least, the Swiss are coming off a confidence-booster of a weekend in Dusseldorf. In Davos they have home course advantage, and they also have legendary Norwegian sprinter Tor Arne Hetland for a sprint coach. While the crowds may show up mainly to support home-town hero Cologna, if they are given someone else to cheer for, they won’t hesitate to do so.
North Americans in the Sprint Arena
Speaking of sprinters, Davos has been kind to the North American contingent in the past.
Last season, Canadians Phil Widmer and Len Valjas both finished in the top 20, securing spots for Oslo, while Simi Hamilton also skied well enough for 16th place, his best finish on the World Cup last season.
And there are a few North Americans who need to borrow a little bit of Davos magic.
Hamilton desperately needs to find some of that form he displayed last season in the Swiss ski mecca. He has had a miserable start to his European campaign thus far, suffering from illness and failing to start an individual race yet.
Skyler Davis would also like a bounce-back weekend — the young American finished last in his first World Cup start last weekend in Dusseldorf, and didn’t have a much better experience in the Team Sprint. But American fans shouldn’t panic, as in Len Valjas’ first World Cup race, he also finished atop the reverse podium.
While Davis was disappointed with his last place finish, he put it into perspective.
“Obviously it sucks to get last,” he said. “But I was 17 seconds out on my first World Cup.”
As for the women, Chandra Crawford took advantage of Dusseldorf to break out of her slump of sorts, finishing fourth in her first final since 2008.
Crawford would like to keep the ball rolling — she has started the 2011-2012 season far better than in the past, and another trip to the final would keep her in good standing.
Perianne Jones would like to find her way through to the heats as well. After making the Canadian World Cup team on the back of a 6th place finish in the Team Sprint at World Championships last February, the 26 year old is coming off one of the best training seasons of her career.
Her 32nd place in Dusseldorf (by a mere .2 of a second) was tough to swallow, and when paired with Crawford the two Canadians finished 7th on Sunday, just missing out on the money.
Another Canadian sprinter to watch is Dasha Gaiazova – she came out hot in Kuusamo, but struggled in Dusseldorf. Gaiazova was the strongest female Canadian skier on the World Cup last season, and she has traditionally been a better skater sprinter.
After a start-wand snafu in Dusseldorf, Ida Sargent will look for more in Davos.
Fellow young American Sadie Bjornsen is fresh off a 36th place finish in Dusseldorf. More importantly, Bjornsen found herself paired up with Kikkan Randall on Sunday, which the rookie American admitted was a major bonus.
In an interview Friday, Bjornsen said that she liked the sprint course, and was excited about Sunday.
“I think it’ll be good, there is a good amount of hills, and a good amount of transitions, and everything in there, so it should be fun,” she said.
While the story of Sunday was Randall’s final-lap hustle, Bjornsen should be given proper credit – she was far from dead weight. In her first ever World Cup team sprint, Bjornsen stayed tight with the pack, and made sure she tagged off to her fast-finishing teammate in good enough position to give Randall a chance. Bjornsen picked up the first World Cup medal of her career, and a truck load of confidence heading to Davos.
“For the sprint it [the World Cup medal last weekend] has given me a little confidence, which is good — we’ll see what happens,” said Bjornsen.
This is also Bjornsen’s last World Cup weekend before heading back to the U.S., and she wants to make sure she goes out in style.
“Hopefully I’m going to make some heats!” she said of Sunday.
Will the North American (Distance) Men Please Stand Up?
With the exception of Alex Harvey and Len Valjas’ seemingly endless supply of tricks up his sleeve (hey, the guy has big sleeves), there has not been a lot to cheer about if you’re a fan of North American distance skiing.
Fine, so there have really only been three distance races thus far on the circuit. But between Canadians Ivan Babikov, Devon Kershaw, Graham Nishikawa, and Americans Kris Freeman, Noah Hoffman, Tad Elliot, and Lars Flora, all primarily distance-focused skiers, there have been a whopping three top-30 finishes.
Call us greedy here at FasterSkier, mainly because the American distance women seem to have hit their stride, but we think the NorAm male contingent also has the speed to get the job done. Unfortunately, this weekend doesn’t seem to be the best chance – Freeman and Kershaw are both better classic skiers, while Hoffmann and Elliot are all still quite new to the circuit, and are coming into Davos for the first time.
Canadian continental cup holder Graham Nishikawa is no stranger to Europe, but has yet to hit a race out of the park.
The Canadian contingent will be a little light on Saturday – both Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw are sitting out on the recommendation of the Canadian coaches, who are focused on the Tour de Ski.
Dario Cologna, Petter Northug, and… Ivan Babikov?
Swiss superstar Dario Cologna, with his own large fan club, will be present. You can bet the crowd will be out, and on his side. Cologna is incredibly well-rounded, as when he is at the top of his game he can win anything from a 50 k classic to a skate sprint, as he has proved with two Tour de Ski wins.
Dressed head to toe in black, and leading what has become a strong team, the Swiss monster has yet to emerge victorious this season – can he give his fans something to cheer about?
But it won’t be an easy road – primarily due to Norwegian ace Petter Northug.
Unlike last year when he limped out of the gate due to over-training, Northug has come out swinging to start of the 2011-2012 season. He called his doubters on the carpet by finishing 2nd and 1st in the two individual start races, putting a serious dent in the ‘he can only win mass-start finishes’ whining. Then during the 15 k classic pursuit in Kuusamo, after a game of cat and mouse with a seemingly disinterested Cologna, he uncorked his traditional finishing speed to gain an early lead in the World Cup Overall standings – a title which eluded him last season.
Last season in Davos, Northug was very human, failing to get out of his quarter in the sprint, and falling to 28th. He also struggled in the 15 k classic race, finishing 13th. FasterSkier does not recommend betting on that happening again – Northug seems poised to dominate the World Cup circuit this season.
Ivan Babikov may seem like a surprise add-on to the favorites list, but this weekend has some serious upside for the hill-climbing Canadian.
He obviously won’t be in contention for the medals (or, let’s be honest, qualification) in the skate sprint – not that much has changed – but the distance race Saturday is something he has been looking forward to all year.
On Friday, Babikov said that he was excited to race Saturday.
“Its been a long time since we’ve done a 30 k – individual start especially,” he said. “In Davos it’s at altitude, and a pretty hard course, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Babikov has always done well on climber-friendly courses, and he described the hills on Saturday’s 7.5 k as “not really steep climbs, but long.”
“Pretty much half of the course is all up and the second half is all downhill, which you still have to work hard,” he said. “It’s going to be a really hard race.”
He has also somewhat bucked his recent trend of slow starts – his 16th place finish during the 10 k freestyle during the Kuusamo mini-tour is a positive indication that he has the fitness and the speed earlier than usual.