Saturday, May 15, 2010

World Cup Review

After spending the last 5 months or so focused on the World Cup, this past week has been tough. No longer do I have a World Cup weekend in Otepaa, Falun, Dusseldorf or Prague to look forward too. No more debates over whether Petter Northug is a goon or the real deal. No more rooting for Andy Newell to get to the next level of sprinting, and turn in consistent heat results. No more getting up at ridiculously early hours to watch some grainy live feed in a language I don’t understand, just to see Justyna Kowalcyzk win by a minute. Again.

But as a sendoff to the 2009/2010 World Cup season, I have prepared some quick hits on what I liked, didn’t like, and thought was off-the-charts-bullsh*t (that falls under ‘ugly’)

The Good

World Cup Mass Start Distance Races

Mass starts are supposed to be exciting for the spectators, fun for the participants, and a completely different beast from the Individual Start slog-fests that the sport of cross-country skiing is most known for. But mass-start pack racing is not actually all that exciting. It rarely matters who is leading at the 10km mark of a 30km Pursuit. The pack pace is often slow enough that upwards of 40 people can hang around until the last few km. Enter pure boredom for the fans, and pure annoyance for the racers, who are sick of Northug not doing any work, and then humiliating them in the last 500 meters (see Axel Teichmann, pg. 1-1 million). But beginning last year, that changed.
And this year, those changes were awesome. Sure, bonus points and ski exchanges seem a little gimmicky, but they really shake things up. I mean, Nishikawa scored some World Cup points in Russia on one of the bonus sprints, and got one hell of a cool experience up at the front of a World Cup pack, and actually had something to show for it. The ski exchange brings in some extra variables, like making sure your wax tech takes the ski ties off before you hop on the new boards, or gives statheads another set of numbers to look at on the FIS post-race PDF. That’s right, you can now look at lap times, split times, AND ski exchange times. Sure, Christian Zorzi finished in 45th place, but his ski exchange time was, like, 3 seconds faster than Petter Northug’s. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.
To me, mass start racing is exciting, and the bonus seconds and ski exchanges have only made it more awesome. Throw in some multi-car pileups like in Falun last weekend, and I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to hustle out of bed at 4 AM EST. (If you haven’t seen the clip I am referring to, check out the CCC homepage, it’s on there somewhere. Take note of Teodor Peterson (SWE – white suit) doing his most amazing flying slide tackle on Brian Gregg (USA – red suit). Trust me, you’ll understand when you see it)

The Bad

World Cup Sprint Races

I know, I know, you’re shocked at me of all people saying this. I love sprinting, I think it’s probably the best race format on the World Cup. Sprinters are flippin’ awesome fast, there are crashes galore, anything can happen, etc. etc. But some of the magic was ruined this year. I should clarify – it’s not the sprint races themselves which let me down, but the courses.
With the exceptions of most of the city sprints (Dusseldorf, Drammen, Stockholm), the sprint courses this year were mostly all unnecessarily long. I have watched a fair amount of sprints this year, and the most have not been what I consider to be the ‘sprint’ distance of about 1.2 km. They have all been getting longer, in the range of 1.5km to even a 1.8km, which is basically a prologue. Both Chandra Crawford and Devon Kershaw have brought up this point in their blogs, and lay the blame at the feet of Vegard Ulvang, who seems to think long sprint courses are the way to go. For those who don’t know Ulvang is a Norwegian cross country legend with 3 Olympic medals, among other accolades. However, these days he is chairman of the executive board of FIS’s cross country committee, as well as the organizer and creator of the Tour de Ski. Basically, e holds a lot of power in the international ski community, and if he says that sprints need to be longer, than it happens.
What this does is to make life harder for the true sprinters. It turns the sprint race into an endurance event. At 1.8km, it is no longer sprinting, just fast skiing. Possibly a contentions claim, I know, but watch the videos.
My point here is, you have to be an all-around good skier to win the World Cup. If you are good distance skier who gets decent sprint points just because you’re in good shape and can manage to qualify for the heats, it defeats the purpose. This is more of a problem on the female side, where certain high-powered women end up being classified as ‘all-around skiers’ just because they happen to be strong enough on long sprint courses.
Regardless of World Cup points, long sprint races don’t do anything for anyone. The heats are more spread out, reducing the excitement of the racing. Racers get more tired, reducing the speed of the racing. Extra terrain has to be found, and needless features have to be put in, changing the tactics from ‘make attack here, slow pack here, this is my strength, etc’ to ‘ohgodihavetojusthangonout

End result: Kieran thought it was unnecessary, Vegard, please shorten the sprint courses for next year.

The second problem I have with sprint race course design is the downhill finishes. Canmore, Rybinsk and most recently, Oslo, spring to mind. What is the point of finishing a sprint at the bottom of a steep, fast downhill?? I don’t want the speed of a racers ski to determine who wins. I want it to be a factor, but not the only factor. In Canmore, it was the big downhill followed by an excessively long double-pole suffer-fest that ground my gears. I have no problem with double-poling, I think it’s a great technique, and you have to be a monster to be good at it, but make the finish a combo (see Drammen or Stockholm sprint).
Oslo was a skate sprint, but suffered the same problem. Speedy downhill into the finish, where most skiers free-skate most of the way down the finish chute before throwing in a few quick one-skates. If I wanted to watch people free skate across a finish line, I would go to a biathlon race, because they seem to think it’s faster. In this type of finish, 99.99999% of the time, the two people in the front make it into the next round. At that high rate of speed, it is next to impossible to close and pass, even if the skier behind is way better. End result – if you’re near the front at the top of the last uphill, you do well. Gosh, that makes the final stretch exciting.

Real End Result: Consult Kieran before designing your next sprint course. There is a good chance it will be way better.

The Ugly

Believe it or not, there is a 3-way tie for ‘ugly’ this season. I will try to keep it brief, but there was a lot of ugly that needs mentioning. Some of you may think you know where this is going – you will not be disappointed.

1. The Finnish Men’s team. – Wow. At this point, that is all I can say. A tough season for what has traditionally been a super power in men’s cross country. Two bright spots, and both are not all that bright. One the distance squad Matti Heikkinen’s early season prowess (which crashed HARD roughly at the end of the Tour de Ski) was impressive, but the epic meltdown was heartbreaking for his owners in Fantasy Nordic (namely, me). If they handed out awards for biggest flop, Sami Jauhojaervi (one of my favourite skiers last season) would have won the voting by Christmas. Ville Nousiainen, while not touted to be anything great, also stunk. The second bright spot was the men’s sprint team. Kalle Lassilla skied surprisingly well, and when you have a guy with the nickname ‘The Hammer’ aka Lasse Paakkonen, who makes the qualifying cut 5 times, that’s not all bad. But it sure isn’t good either, because no Fin man ever made a sprint podium. Heck, even Andy Newell managed to nail one down.

2. The Russian Doping Saga. – I know, the Russians are perpetually involved in some sort of doping mess, but this seasons edition was just frustrating. It started with a petition by coaches from fellow countries making overtures that the Russian system was rife with doping. Followed by Alena Sidko being cut from Russia’s Olympic team because of being ‘overweight’ (I kid you not) and then testing positive and getting a ban. Finally, the Russian sprinters crushed the Olympics, which created a bit of a stinky smell, just because they are Russkie’s. It’s sad when it comes to the point where anytime a Russian does well, they’re automatically suspect, but hey, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

3. Justyna Kowalczyk – Yes, folks, I did go there, for about the 1000th time this season. I have been called a Kowalczyk-hater, Justyna-basher, and bitter (I may have traded Kowalczyk for $700 and Virpi Kuitinen at the start of the Fantasy Nordic season – hindsight is 20/20), among other things, which could be true, but hear me out. My ‘ugly’ judgement is based on quite a few things, namely; domination of the World Cup field, race attendance, technique, and obviously, looks. Domination – she won the World Cup outright by 700 points. She ended up with points in every single World Cup she raced. That’s pretty exciting. If you think Justyna Kowalczyk is exciting, which you shouldn’t because she is not. Race attendance – she won basically because she did 22 of 24 World Cup races. While it is impressive that she managed to be so good for the entire season, it also reeks. I can’t help but be suspicious of a girl who never gets tired, especially when… Technique – her technique sucks as much as it does. I will admit, it is better than last year, but that’s not saying much. She still looks like she could be skiing on the OUA some days, and that’s not a shot at the OUA, just at Justyna. It’s not pretty. Looks – speaking of not pretty, Google>Image Justyna Kowalczyk, and I guarantee you will be disappointed. While this has may have nothing to do with her skiing, it is worth mentioning. Oh, and if you feel like you need a pick-me-up after that Google of Grandmotherly-Justyna, give Therese Johaug a shot. It should make you feel better.

So that’s the World Cup from Kieran’s desk. Yes, it is quite biased, but you take what you can get in a field where the dedication to get up early to sit in front of your computer screen is limited. Just think, only another 8 months until the show starts up again! And hopefully by World Champs in Oslo next year, they will have changed the sprint course.

Jones OUT.

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