World Cup Nordic Skiing: Summer Update

Today, the 2007 Nordic World Ski Championships in Sapporo, Japan, are a mere 200 days away. (We're just over 80 days from the start of the cross-country World Cup season, with the traditional sprint races in Dusseldorf, Germany, on October 28-29.) That's as good a reason as any to recap some of the spring and summer goings-on in cross-country skiing.

As athletes recovered from the season, several national teams saw significant coaching-staff turnover. Finland hired the Norwegian Magnar Dalen to run their men's and women's elite programs; Dalen coached the Swedish national team from 1998-2002, during which period Per Elofsson won the overall title twice (and then promptly flamed out). Finland's team has underperformed for years, stretching back to the ignominous doping scandal at the Lahti World Championships in 2001, so Dalen will have his work cut out for him. Of the Finnish racers, only Virpi Kuitunen (who was caught doping at Lahti) is considered a world-class racer, with numerous victories and championship/Olympic medals to her name. At the least, Finland hopes to echo the success of another Norwegian, Inge Braten, with another underperforming Nordic team, Sweden. Hired in 2005, Braten guided Sweden to three golds and two bronzes in Torino, as well as several strong individual races at all distances during the regular World Cup and the top two positions in the sprint World Cup for Bjorn Lind and Thobias Fredriksson. Just after the season ended, Braten signed an extended contract which ensures that he'll run the Swedish team through the 2010 Olympics - athletes' gripes about training notwithstanding.

The American team ended the 2005-2006 season with its strongest showing in years, with the sprinters doing best. For the men, Andy Newell finished third in the last World Cup sprint race, the first podium for an American racer since 1983. Torin Koos and Chris Cook both had top-15 finishes in World Cup sprints, as well. On the women's side, Kikkan Randall finished ninth in the individual sprint at the Olympics, then finished fifth in the World Cup sprint at Borlange, Sweden, in March. After a disappointing season, America's best male skier, Kris Freeman, is adding volume to his training in the hope of returning to the top tier of international racers. The Americans' training - detailed on the Team Today website - is taking place under new guidance, for no sooner had the season ended when the entirety of the coaching ranks changed. Pete Vordenberg took over the head coaching spot from Trond Nystad, and Chris Grover was hired into the sprint coaching spot, replacing Vidar Loefshus, who returned to coach in Norway.

Norway will need the help. On the ski tails of a total collapse at the Olympics, sub-par performances in the men's World Cup, and a weak overall showing in the women's overall WC (though Marit Bjorgen - the second-most-talked-about person in Norway, after the prime minister - did win the title again), men's head coach Krister Sorgaard resigned to take over a car dealership. While the Norwegians have lost some of their veterans like Kristen Skjeldal, the new head coach (who hasn't yet been chosen) can look foward to the continued emergence of Petter Northug, perhaps the most talented young racer in the world. Norway can also hope that their male sprinters like Eldar Ronning and Tor Arne Hetland can duplicate Bjorgen and race successfully in the distance events.

The powerhouse German team, though less successful than it might have liked at the Olympics, nevertheless ended the 2005-06 season by retaining the men's overall title for the third straight year. Defending champion Tobias Angerer is a favorite at virtually any distance for the upcoming season, and will certainly look to redeem himself for a relatively weak performance at Torino. The Germans are so strong, in fact, that they can afford to let Lukas Bauer, the talented Czech racer, train with them and, incredibly, to cut the 2004-05 overall champion, Axel Teichmann, from the main racing team. After suffering various physical maladies during the 2005-06 season, Teichmann underwent leg surgery and is in fact training on a rollerski wheelchair this summer!

The FIS continues to tinker, in reality and in theory, with the racing format. The centerpiece of the regular season this winter will be the new "Tour de Ski," a ten-day, eight-event series of races ranging from short prologues and sprints to long-distance classic races (15km for women, 30km for men) and middle-distance freestyle races (10km women, 15km men) with uphill finishes. As that l'Alpe d'Huezian gimmick indicates, the Tour de Ski imitates the Tour de France, and in fact the FIS is attempting even to model the planning and execution of the TdS on the bike race - though hopefully not the pre- and post-race scandals. In part because of the demands of the Tour de Ski and in part because of the long-distance travel to the World Championships in Japan, the upcoming season includes more frequent and lengthy periods without racing. In future winters, the FIS may also institute a "combi-combination" in which the athletes earn extra World Cup points by having high combined places in back-to-back sprint and distance races, and a mandatory "pit stop" to change skis and take on drinks in the longest races. (The FIS rejected an attempt by the Scandinavian teams to make the traditional interval start the norm for all 50km races, rather than running some as crowded, jostling mass starts.) As the chairman of the FIS cross-country committee said in an interview, most of these changes are intended to make the racing more amenable to television coverage. Certainly a great deal will ride on the success of the Tour de Ski. But with enormous loads of World Cup points at stake in the eight events, it seems likely that all the top racers will gun for the best possible showings at the Tour de Ski, accumulating points toward the overall titles and testing their form for the World Championships in late February.

email: christopher at tassava dot com