November 21, 2011 (Sjusjoen, Norway) – Without a doubt, one of the most stressful weekends for a cross-country ski racer is the first meaningful race weekend of the year. All of the skiers have trained for six or more months and it is not until you race these first races that you know even a little bit about where you stand in relation to your competitors.
This is the nature of cross-country ski racing. There are no personal best times or world record times in this sport. You can do all the testing you want, and compete in roller ski racers or early season time trials, but the only way that you can really measure yourself is racing against your peers.
This is true at every level right up to the World Cup and if you read the quotes from the skiers from Saturday (link to this article) you will see that a common theme is that they didn’t know how they would do before the start and that made them nervous.
Here are some of my thoughts after the first weekend in Sjusjoen, Norway:
- I think that the Norwegian women are going to dominate all year long. They had seven of the top nine on Saturday and their relay teams finished 1st and 2nd in the relay on Sunday. Only Charlotte Kalla of Sweden and Kikkan Randall of the US were able to break into the top 9 – it looked like a Norwegian championship race.
- Marit Bjoergen has lost nothing since last year. She won by almost 30 seconds in a 24-minute race. If they had been racing a track and field event she would have almost lapped the whole field. Last year Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) won the overall World Cup because Bjoergen was concentrating on winning at the World Championships in Oslo. This year is going to be different.
- it’s clear that the USA’s Kikkan Randall is better than last year – 8th in a distance race is a fantastic result. Watch out!
- I also think that the US women’s team is really improving. With Liz Stephen placing 18th on Saturday and then having a decent relay on Sunday – and Randall’s and Brooks’ strong legs – the team is now showing just how much they have improved.
- Johan Olsson is one of the best technical skaters in the world and when he’s healthy he’s certainly one of the best. He had a tough year last year after two bronze medals in Vancouver but it looks like he is back now.
- I think that NO ONE – and I mean no one seems to be able to beat Petter Northug (NOR) in a sprint. It was sad watching the last leg of the relay on Sunday. None of the lead skiers was willing to put it on the line and go for the win except for another Norwegian Sjur Roethe. The lead group was going SO slow that he was able to come from 45 seconds back to pass all of them and take the lead in only 5km. It looked like Northug was just playing with those guys. He has an almost unbeatable formula now for distance races. All he has to do is hang around the leaders, never leading and then in the last km he moves to the front and wins the sprint.
- but Northug IS beatable in the individual start races, despite the fact that he’s getting better in these events as well. He was second on Saturday and is having a much better start to his season than last year when he over-trained and did not have any good results until after Xmas at the Tour de Ski. I also think that he is pretty well a lock to win the World Cup this year unless someone can figure out how to beat him in a sprint.
- that being said Canada’s Alex Harvey may be the one to beat Northug. His 5th place showed that he is in great shape and his sprint win in Oslo over Ole Vigen Hattestad to win the Team Sprint gold at the Nordic Worlds have shown that he has the fitness and the sprint speed to win. He has beaten Northug in a sprint in the past and even Petter has acknowledged that Harvey can beat him. I think that if Canada wants to do anything in relays they have to have Alex on the team as the anchor skier. This is the second relay in a row including the relay in Olso that Harvey did not race.
Next weekend the World Cup moves to Kuusamo, Finland for a three day mini-tour de ski. The skiers will likely have to race on icy, man-made snow again, but it will be colder and darker and the hills will be bigger and steeper. It will be the first chance for the sprinters to come out and play as well as the classic skiers. Should be a lot of fun to watch.