Many of the world's best cross-country ski racers competed in the three-part Saku Suverull in Otepaa, Estonia, last weekend. An important off-season test for World Cup-level athletes, the Suverull includes a short rollerski prologue, a middle-distance running race, and a long-distance rollerski. Given the wide variety of rollerskis, the Suverull equalizes the field by giving every competitor a standard model. That oddity aside, Estonian, Finnish, and Russian skiers are always overrepresented in both the ranks and on the podium, and this year was no different.
Friday's prologue - 2.7km for both men and women - established starting positions for Saturday morning's footrace. Finland's Pirjo Manninen took the women's race, just under a second up on countrywomen Riita Lissa Roponen (formerly Lassila) and Aino Kaisa Saarinen and just over a second up on Kristina Smigun, the Estonian who has won the Soverull eight times, and every year since 2003. The men's prologue saw German Tobias Angerer, the defending World Cup overall champion, finish second, two seconds down to a surprise winner, Ilya Chernousov of Russia. Two other Russians, Vassili Rotchev and Evgeny Dementiev, finished the prologue in third and fourth.
Saturday morning's footraces, with racers starting according to the times in the skiing prologu, shook out both fields. The women's 3km race turned into a three-way sprint narrowly won by Valentina Shevchenko (Ukraine) ahead of Smigun and Lada Nesterenko (Ukraine); this result put Smigun in excellent position for the evening's rollerski competition. The men's 6km footrace, too, was a pack affair, with five racers bunched at the halfway point. There, Rotchev and Lukas Bauer (Czech Republic) broke away. Rotchev edged Bauer - who had started the running in 55th place, most of the way down the field - by less than a second for the win and the leading position in the rollerski event. Almost half a minute back, Sergei Dolidowitsch (Belarus), Nikolai Pankratov (Russia), and Anders Södergren (Sweden) took third, fourth, and fifth.
The rollerski races on Saturday evening offered a confirmation in the women's results but a mild surprise in the men's. By the end of the first lap of the 12km women's race, Kristina Smigun had caught and dropped Valentina Shevchenko. Cruising in for the win, Smigun even stopped to talk to the crowd, ultimately winning by six seconds over Riita Lissa Roponen, who recovered from a poor run in the morning, and almost ten seconds over another Finn, Virpi Kuitunen. In the final standings, Shevchenko slid all the way to tenth.
On the men's side, the 47-second spread of the first eight starters quickly evaporated as a seven-man pack formed and stayed off the front. With just one kilometer to go in the 20km affair, Anders Soedergren of Sweden put in a big uphill surge reminscent of his failed attempts to break up the pack during the 50km at Torino. This time, the effort paid off in a one-second margin of victory. Behind him, a field sprint saw Rotchev take second and Angerer third; the top six all finished within four seconds. The big surprise was Estonian Inrek Tobreluts, who took sixth.
Any freestyle (roller)skiing event is weaker without top-notch skaters like Petter Northug and Marit Bjorgen from Norway, Vincent Vittoz of France, or Giorgio Di Centa of Italy, but the Soverull nonetheless indicates who's staying strong and who's getting stronger for the world championship season this winter. Who knows but that Tobreluts might form a surprisingly good relay team with fellow Estonians Andrus Veerpalu and Jaak Mae on the classic legs and Kaspar Kokk or Aivar Rehemaa on the other skate leg.