Liveblogging the women's 30km yesterday was quite a bit of nerdy fun, so I'm going to give the men's 50km the same treatment. The 50,000 meter mass-start in classical technique is perhaps the biggest test on the World Cup circuit, so grueling that it's only run it at the world championships. I'm revising my picks from yesterday - 1) Veerpalu (Estonia), 2) Estil (Norway), 3) Fredriksson (Sweden) - in light of the fact that my hero Andrus Veerpalu isn't in the field. I'm going to instead predict this podium: 1) Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset (Norway), 2) Frode Estil (Norway), 3) Mathias Fredriksson (Sweden)
Start: 73 racers were listed in the starting field, with Tobias Angerer (Germany) front and center, as befits the defending World Cup champion and current number 1 in the World Cup overall. Flanking him are more world-class racers than can be named, although it's worth nothing that Frode Estil - who won this race at the 2005 Worlds - is seeded fifth, next to sixth-seed and red-hot racer Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset, who scorched the field in his leg of the men's relay earlier this week. A few men in the field are very well known for their skill in at very long-distance racing, but they are further back in the starting order - not that kilometer zero matters to ironmen like Anders Aukland (Norway), Giorgio di Centa (Italy), or Mikhail Botwinov (Austria, despite the name), for the sheer duration of the 50km gives them plenty of time to "ski into the race" and into the front. As far as tactics go, I expect a massive pack to hang together until at least the 30km mark, if not 40km, and then to fracture under a series of attacks, first by racers with weak sprinting speed who need to create the conditions of a 10km time-trial to the line (Aukland, Botwinov), and then - if those initial attacks don't work - by any speedsters who might be in the top 15 at a late point (Angerer, Eldar Rønning (Norway)). And of course, who knows but that someone like Swedes Matti Fredriksson or Anders Sødergren can't mount a long-distance breakaway.
1.3 km: Fully forty-seven racers are within 10 seconds of the leader, and 65 within 30 seconds. (Only a few "exotics" like the Brazilian and Irish racers are further back than that.) Notably, Hjelmeset, Estil, and Rønning are the front trio.
3.9 km: It's still largely the same situation, though now the group within 10 seconds of the front is down to 28 - smaller than the group within that much time of the lead at 40km when this event was run at the last world championships.
5 km: Never mind! A tenth of the way in, the 10-second group is back up to nearly fifty. Now the race moves onto the a new section of the course, a 7,500 meter lap they'll repeat six times.
12.5 km: Now at a quarter of the way into the race, there are still 34 racers within ten seconds of the leader (Rønnning, for what it's worth). I note that Pietro Piller Cottrer (Italy) did not start the race, the biggest name among the four DNS racers.
14.2 km: The race is still tightly bunched, but American Kris Freeman has fought his way up from his low starting seed (42nd, waaaaay back) into 10th place. New Hampshire native Freeman is the best hope for a U.S. medal, though he's joined in this race by two other Americans: Lars Flora and James Southam, both of Alaska (Utah), both of whom are much further down the field. Freeman has, as they say in cross-country skiing, a "big engine." When poor snow conditions in Europe chased the American team back to the States before Christmas, he did some extraordinary workouts, including an epochal six-hour, 110km session in January.
17.45 km: We might be seeing a very early break: just 15 skiers are within 10 seconds of Anders Sødergren's lead here, down from 27 racers at the 16.25km mark.
18.15km: The break continues, with Sødergren pushing the pace up front. Only ten racers are within ten seconds of the Swede, and what's more, there's a three-second gap between a five-man lead group and the five men skieing together in a second group. Kris Freeman is in that second quintet, and his bib number is far and away the lowest in the front ten, which makes him the biggest surprise of the race so far.
18.85 km: The front ten have spread out more evenly, but they still have a little gap back to the eleventh-placed racer, Anders Aukland, who's trying to move up with remains 12.9 seconds down. (Freeman: 8th place).
20 km: The breakaway might be failing, as eight more racers have pulled back to within ten seconds of Sødergren.
21.7 km: Sødergren plummets out of the lead, sliding back to eleventh position, 7.2 seconds down. There's no longer a real lead pack, with the top 25 racers racers fairly evenly distributed over about a half minute of time. After that, though, there's a 20-second gap back to number 26.
24.95 km: Just shy of the halfway point, fifteen racers are inside that magical 10-second mark and a twenty-one comprise an amorphous lead group, with Anders Sødergren occupying that spot, 13.4 seconds down. Is he blown, or is he recovering? Was his attack a feint to test the others, or an error that's knocked him out of contention? Certainly, he's not out of it quite yet, as Estonian Kaspar Kokk's climb into the top 10 shows: Kokk started in 46th position, but needed only the first 3900 meters to push up to the front of the field already by the field. In the outright absence of his countryman Veerpalu, and after uncharacteristically poor results from his countrywoman Kristina Smigun, perhaps Kokk can represent Estonia on the podium today.
27.5 km: The field's spreading again. Estonia has doubles its representation in the top ten, with Olympic silver medalist Jaak Mae now joining Kaspar Kokk up front. Estonia's two racers in the top ten matches Norway's number, but is one fewer than Germany. France, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia all have individual racers in the top 10, and surprisingly Russia's best-placed racer is in thirteenth, just ahead of Kris Freeman, who is 12.3 seconds down.
31.25 km: Though of course the field might accordion back together soon, the front ten have made a clear break from everyone else. Lying in tenth, Nikolai Pankratov is just 6.1 seconds off the lead, but six seconds ahead of the eleventh-placed racer. Kirs Freeman is the last racer maintianing contact with the front, and he's nineteen seconds down. Behind him, the gaps are big and getting bigger. Anders Sødedrgren is nearly a minute down. Nearing the two-thirds point of the race, this event is turning out to be entirely and refreshingly different from its precedent Oberstdorf. Can anyone make a late run to bridge the big gaps to the lead group?
35 km: At every time check, the gap between the front group and the rest of the field grew, but here, with 15km still to go, the race is clearly broken open. The nine men up front are traveling as a group, separated by 5.5 seconds. The 10th-placed racer is nearly 25 seconds down. Everyone has another 15km to ski, which is significant insofar as that's the length of the most common distance race on the World Cup circuit. In other words, these nine men know how to race 15,000 meters.
38.75 km: It's only getting tighter up front. Jaak Mae in ninth is only 3.8 seconds off the pace of leader Lukas Bauer (Czech Republic). Buaer is better known for his skating abilities, but he helped establish his long-distance classic-technique chops by making a a big late move in the 50km two years ago at Oberstdorf - the last serious attack before Frode Estil (who has been in the top three virtually all day today) demolished the field with a stunning run for home that put him in gold and his teammates Anders Aukland (well out of it today) in silver and Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset (fourth at this time check) in bronze.
40.65km: The race is inside the last 10,000 meters (one of those strange statements that makes it clearer just how far this race runs), and there here goes the Russian Pankratov! The front group becomes an octet as he slips to 13.3 seconds off Bauer's lead. In eighth, Jaak Mae is losing touch. Will he fall out of the lead pack, too?
42.5 km: As the leaders begin their final lap, it's clear that Mae is done. He's let a four-second gap open between him and Frode Estil, recovering at the back of the front seven. This relentless winnowing-down must be painful to see on screen or in person. There will be no medal for Estonia today.
44.2 km: Estil surges back to the lead! Is he making a - the - break at almost exactly the same place he broke open the Oberstdorf 50km? Besides the defending champion, the front septet includes (in order) Tobias Angerer, Jean Marc Gaillard of France, Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset, Jens Filbrich (Germany), Lukas Bauer, and the twentieth-seeded racer, Martin Bajcicak of Slovakia.
46.25 km: No! The attack comes from the other Norwegian, Hjelmeset! He is leading a four-man break! Only Filbrich, Bauer, and Angerer could respond! Gaillard has blown up and is suddenly more than 30 seconds down. Did he fall? In between are Bajcicak and Estil, seven seconds behind.
47.45 km: Bauer's in front, Angerer is slipping behind a bit, and Estil has fought his way back to within 3.3 seconds! Is there enough snow for him to pass Angerer and catch the front trio?
48.15 km: Estil takes back the lead! He's a half-second in front of Hjelmeset, with the Germans Filbrich and Angerer there too, just over a second down. In fifth, Bauer has a tough 2.5 seconds to find. Bajcicak is well back in sixth and out of it.
48.85 km: The last time check before the finish, at the top of the long descent to the stadium. Having surely used his patented climbing technique to attack the hill, Estil has a 1.4 second gap on Hjelmeset! Can he keep it? Behind them, the Germans are three and four seconds off. Only superlative descents and devastating sprints can bring them back into contention for gold. Is Filbrich's slim lead over Angerer enough for the bronze? Can Hjelmeset's top-notch sprinting speed bring him back to Estil?