Trondheim, Norway – The annual late season 30/50km World Cup event was run yesterday in Trondheim. This race is traditionally held outside Oslo at the famed Holmenkollen Ski Stadium, but was moved due to construction in preparation for the 2011 World Championships.
Trondheim hosted the 1997 World Championships, and has become known for its challenging courses, but there was no reason to think that these races would be different than any other World Cup race – 80% or more of the race consisting of a large lead pack, with little excitement until the jockeying for the final charge to the line.
Last month Canadian World Cup star Devon Kershaw wrote this on his blog following the 30km mass start pursuit at the World Championships.
“Men’s mass start racing is nothing short of weak-sauce. It’s pure and utter boredom to watch on TV as the best skiers in the world ski around at training pace looking at each other for 90% of the race before someone (mainly only one man – Sodo – who seems to be the only top skier with some stones) attacks.”
Unfortunately Kershaw is generally correct. The FIS’ goal with mass start racing was to increase the excitement and make the long races more spectator friendly. Overall this has not played out, and there is little reason not to fast forward to the final 5km.
But it can be different! Saturday’s races in Trondheim featured two of the most exciting ski events I have had the pleasure to witness. It certainly helped that I was attending in person, but I was prepared to spend several hours soaking in the Norwegian ski culture and relaxing in the stands, before heading to the finish area to await the inevitable mass sprint.
Both the women’s 30km and the men’s 50km featured relentless attacks, numerous lead changes, comebacks, and overall excitement for the duration.
The day was warm and sunny, relatively straightforward red klister conditions. As in the World Championships, skiers would have the option to periodically change skis during the race. Additionally, for the first time, the race featured intermediate sprints awarding 15, 10 and 5 World Cup points to the top three. With the competition for the overall World Cup titles extremely close, the potential for bonus points added to the drama.
The women skied first, and is often the case, the stands were only half full. Unfortunate, but the Norwegian ski fans definitely are more interested in the men’s events. But there were still plenty of boisterous supporters to send the women on their way.
Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) had led the World Cup since the Tour de Ski, but an illness took her out of the recent Lahti races, and she relinquished her lead, falling to third behind Petra Majdic (SLO) and Justyna Kowlaczyk (POL).
The race broke up surprisingly early. One Norwegian coach told me he had never seen a World Cup mass start spread out so quickly. By 7.5km, the pack was down to 15 and just 1km later, three women skied off the front, with the field strung out behind. Saarinen staged several strong attacks and appeared to be on the brink of pulling away for good. But each time the chasers pulled her in. Kowalczyk and Norwegian Theresa Johaug stayed with in striking distance. Saarinen looked strong, and every time she was caught, she moved again.
At 11.2 she was up by 10 seconds – but just 1.1k later she was back with Kowalczyk and Johaug. She attacked again and once again held a 10 seconds lead at 15k. But she was unable to break her competition, and less than two kilometers later, the wheels started to come off. She ended up in no-man’s land with Kowalczyk and Johaug off the front, and a second group of chasers behind. Looking tired, she continued to fade, and by 20 kilometers, it was clear her chances for the podium were over.
Meanwhile, Johaug set a blistering pace off the front, attacking hard and periodically pulling away from Kowalczyk. But the Pole hung tough, and a second Norwegian, Kristina Stoermer Steira picked up the pace, and closed rapidly on the leaders. At 15km Steira was in 11th, 30 seconds off the pace. At 20k she was 10 back, and 2.5k later she was in the lead.
A second group began to close as well. Marianna Longa (ITA), Masako Ishida (JPN), and Evi Sachenbacher Stehle (GER) skied to within 10 seconds at 26.2km. But the leaders looked strong and continued to push the pace.
The ability to switch skis did create additional drama and an opportunity for tactics. Some skiers opted to skip the pit stops; others took new skis. The decision clearly had an impact, but the biggest benefit went to overall World Cup leader Petra Majdic.
After skiing at the front early on, Majdic slid back, holding steady just inside the top-10. The tall Slovenian looked to be struggling, and at 23.6k she was over 30 seconds out, in 9th place. There was no reason to think she would be a factor in the fight for the podium. But she switched skis at the next pit stop, and the difference was apparent on the first downhill. In less than 2k, she had closed the entire gap and was skiing with the lead pack. It was amazing to see her eat up the seconds on the downhills.
The lead pack of Kowalczyk, Steira, Majdic, and Johaug, came through the stadium one last time with 3.5k to go. Kowalczyk attacked hard on the big climb out of the stadium. She has had good success in races with late surges, and as the gap grew to 12 seconds with only 2.5km to go, Kowalczyk appeared on track for another victory.
But Majdic’s skis were too good – the lead disappeared on the big downhill and Majdic cruised to an easy victory.
Johaug died hard, slipping from the top 3 with 2k to go, all the way back to 7th. Ishida of Japan, also with excellent skis, staged her own late charge, and the battle for the final two podium spots came down to a three way sprint between Kowalczyk, Steira and Ishida. The ever-strong Kowalczyk took the silver, and Ishida claimed her first ever World Cup podium finish.
Kowalczyk took all three intermediate sprints, gaining an additional 45 World Cup points. So she actually closed the overall gap on Majdic despite finishing second. Saarinen and Johaug each took 15 bonus points, and Steira 10.
If this race shows up on Universal Sports, it is a must watch. So much changed so fast that a glance away from the stadium video board could result in all sorts of missed action.
Majdic’s victory was impressive, but would likely not have happened had ski switching not been an option. It certainly made for a more exciting race, but it shifts the outcome even more to the waxers.
It was hard to imagine the men’s race being more exciting. In fact, because the men’s field is so strong, their races are usually less exciting than the women’s. I confidently told my companions to expect a huge lead pack and little to write home about. I was completely wrong.
The Russian duo of Alexander Legkov and Vasili Rotchev broke away at 7km, and eventually opened up a 24 second gap. They easily claimed the first intermediate sprint, and pushed the pace off the front. Swede Anders Soedergren (who Kershaw commended for aggressiveness) attempted to bridge the gap, and ultimately succeeded. The pack swallowed up the Russians at 14k, but the high pace left only 23 skiers at the top. Skiers continued to drop off the back with each passing kilometer and at 20k, 15 remained.
One of the big story lines for the race was the battle for the overall World Cup lead. With a tremendous run, Petter Northug (NOR) had closed within 100 points of Dario Cologna (SUI), and the two were clearly keeping an eye on each other.
Northug had the crowd on their feet when he took the second intermediate sprint, sneaking from behind to grab the 15 points. The sprint was at the top of a very steep hill, and the points did not come easily.
Young Canadian Alex Harvey spent the first portion of the race solidly in the lead pack, usually in the top 5. At 22k he skied off the front – he appeared to be skiing strong and controlled, and a small gap formed. He continued to push, and the gap grew. It seemed foolish, trying to break away before the half way mark in a World Cup 50k. But the gap continued to grow, and Harvey held a 20 second lead at 25k. The pack began to close, but the break had dropped even more skiers. When the inevitable happened, and the chasers caught Harvey, there were only seven left, and his aggressive move netted him 15 more World Cup points to go with the 5 from an earlier intermediate sprint. This is significant for an athlete with limited World Cup starts, and is equivalent to a top 20 finish.
After Harvey lost the lead at 30k, the pack stayed together for several more kilometers, before Finn Sami Jauhojaervi made his move. He pushed the pace, and several more skiers fell off. He was bold to pull away, skiing to an 8 second lead. Surprise World Championship medalist Maxim Vyleggzhanin (RUS) bridged, and the two continued to push.
Ski switching again played a role as the two entered the stadium at 42k. Jauhojaervi opted to switched, while Vyleggzhanin skied through, claiming the lead for himself. The chase pack also skied through, with the exception of Estonian Andrus Veerpalu. Jauhojaervi was absorbed by the chasers, and Veerpalu was unable to regain contact.
Jauhojaervi immediately attacked again, and quickly closed on Vyleggzhanin, bringing the pack with him. He kept the pressure on, and again pulled away. With 3km to go he was skiing strong and 13 seconds up on German Tobias Angerer, a lead he would not relinquish.
Angerer is a story in his own right, moving up from 30 seconds down at 10km in, to rejoin the leaders and make his way to the front. He, Northug, Harvey, and Vyleggzhanin remained close with 4km to go. Northug, after claiming a total of 45 bonus World Cup points, and opening a substantial gap in the race on rival Cologna, faded hard and couldn’t keep up in the last kilometers. He ultimately finished fifth, and needed help changing his shirt at the finish.
Angerer pulled away from Harvey and Vyleggzhanin on the last climbs to claim second, and Harvey, in the race of his life, outsprinted the Russian to reach the podium for the first time in an individual World Cup race.
Like the women’s race, the men’s event featured constant action. The intermediate sprints were very exciting with high stakes and hard efforts. Harvey’s stellar performance, and Northug’s overtaking of Cologna in the overall World Cup standings just added to the excitement of the day.
Trondheim represented the full potential of Mass Start racing. The Trondheim courses are very hilly – either up or down, with little gradual terrain – highly conducive to attacks and responses. And while I am not a fan of the ski switching, it certainly added to the drama and suspense. The FIS is constantly working to create events that are more spectator and television friendly – often at the expense of tradition, and even the quality of the competition. Hopefully the FIS will recognize that ski fans prefer a battle of this sort over a 25 man sprint at the end of two hours of yawning.