Ski Racing in August

August seems to be the month when training for the winter's ski racing tips from building endurance to testing speed. It's the rare location that allows racers to actually try their skills on snow, but Australia is one of those places, and today the elite "Worldloppet" series of marathons began with the 42km Kangaroo Hoppet in Falls Creek, Australia. Typically dominated by members of Australia's small but good national ski team, the Hoppet this year halfway fulfilled that tradition. The women's 42km was hardly a race at all, as Katherine Calder steadily pulled away for a huge 15-minute win ahead of Esther Bottomley and Belinda Phillips. The men's race was far more competitive. German Thomas Freimuth used a big climb to ski out of a six-man pack and solo in for the win, about two minutes up on Aussie star Ben Sim. Minnesotan Adam Swank took third, having made the long trek from Duluth to try the race - and set himself up for a strong season on the domestic racing scene, or the overlapping international ski-marathon circuits, the Worldloppet and FIS Marathon Cup.


In Europe, the biggest - or at least most prominent - off-season test is the Saku Suverull, a rollerski event in Estonia. This year's competition included only rollerski races, unlike previous years' competitions, which mixed rollerskiing and footraces.

The Russians dominated the Suverull races, beginning with the opening sprints on Friday, August 7. In the opening women's sprint race, unknown 21-year-old Natalia Matveyeva set the fastest qualifying time, and then took the final by more than a second (a rather large gap) over two other Russians. Only two of the top ten women weren't Russian racers. The men's sprint final was won by Eldar Roenning, the Norwegian who has a long record of sprint success, just ahead of another accomplished sprinter, Thobias Fredriksson of Sweden, and another unknown youngster, Matias Strandvall of Finland.

The two-stage distance pursuit races on Saturday, 8/8, reversed the usual format for pursuits by beginning with freestyle races. In the women's 10km, Yulia Ivanova of Russia finished first, well ahead of countrywomen Evgenia Medvedeva and Natalya Korosteleva. In the men's 15km, Olympic champion Eugeni Dementiev took first, more than 15 seconds up on his closest pursuers, Russians Vassili Rotchev and Alexander Legkov and Estonian Aivar Rehemaa, the strongest native in the races. The men's 20km classical technique race saw Dementiev take an uncontested win, but the trio who started behind him raced hard for the other two podium spots. Rotchev used his superior sprinting ability to seal the silver, and Rehemaa delighted the Estonian crowd by holding off Legkov, but the three all crossed the finish line in exactly one second. The women's 12km classical race was equally exciting, though not contested to the line. Starting in third, Korosteleva quickly took the lead and pulled away from Ivanova, who skied solidly to take second. Medvedeva faded badly, however, falling to sixth at the finish and allowing Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland to close a big timegap and finish third.

It's hard to draw too many conclusions for the winter from the Suverull (or the Hoppet, for that matter), but the results do show who's at least maintaining fitness over the summer. Certainly, the Russians - who have lately suffered quite a few doping scandals in their cross-country ski teams - seem to be training well, and of course Roenning and Kowalczyk look to be strong enough to vie for World Cup wins again this season - and perhaps for World Cup titles. Then there are my two favorite countries to follow: Finland and Estonia. If Estonian Rehemaa really is capable of top-level results, he could be a new addition to the WC podiums - and perhaps even to a solid Estonian relay team. (Of course, I speculated about the same thing last year...) And then there's the young male Finnish sprinter Strandvall: Finland has never had a good men's sprinter, so it'd be fantastic if he could show at Kuusamo in December or Lahti in March.

Forecast: Significant blowing and drifting, with the possibility of heavy accumulation in rural areas.