World Cup - Back to Europe
In some ways, the men's 30-kilometer race duplicated the immortal 50-kilometer classic race at the world championships last February. In both races, a huge peloton hung together until the last lap and only a frantic sprint decided the final standings. Over the first seven laps at Canmore, a big frontrunning group marched up and flew down the hills, with favorites like Tobias Angerer (Germany), Frode Estil (Norway), Matthias Fredriksson (Sweden), and others trading the lead. In the final lap, Estil tried to use his characteristically rapid turnover to break the field open, but a posse of Germans, cooperating like a bicycle road racing team, perfectly positioned Angerer to capitalize on his superlative kick, taking the lead with about 500 meters to go. Trapped behind Angerer's teammate Jens Filbrich, Estil had to find a clean track for his own surge to the line. After a mad sprint, Angerer got there first, 0.5 seconds up on Estil and 2 seconds up on Filbrich. Behind them, some established distance specialists, like Fredriksson in fourth, and some interloping sprinters, like the Norwegian Eldar Ronning in sixth, demonstrated their readiness for the long races at and after Torino. Among North Americans who finished in the point-scoring top 30, Kris Freeman (USA) was 20th and George Grey (Canada) was 26th.
The women's 15-kilometer had an utterly different character. Would-be favorite and World Cup leader Marit Bjorgen had headed home to Norway, substantially opening the race to others. Within the first two kilometers, Canadian Beckie Scott's light, compact classic technique, perfectly suited to the course's steep, seemingly endless ramps, had shattered the field. Only two Russian racers, Julija Tchepalova and Olga Rotcheva, initially stayed with Scott, and then even Rotcheva slid back to the chasing group. With superior skills and faster skis, Tchepalova used the descents to maintain contact with Scott, even to the final dogleg downhill into the stadium. But Scott then exploded into a masterful sprint that carried her to the line 4.7 seconds ahead of Tchepalova. The win was Scott's fourth podium in four races, and her second win. Nearly a minute back, Claudia Kunzel (Germany) emerged from a small chasing pack to capture third. Canadians Sara Renner, Milaine Theriault, and Amanda Ammar finished 6th, 21st, and 27th, respectively, and American Wendy Kay Wagner finished 29th.
The next day, men and women competed in the amazing team sprint event, in which two-person teams complete six alternating 1.3km laps. Hardly a sprint in the traditional track-and-field sense, the race takes about 16 minutes for the men and 18 minutes for the women. On the men's side, the traditional sprinting powerhouses, Norway and Sweden, dominated the final heat. Fresh from his strong showing in the 30-km event, Eldar Ronning chased down and then burst past one of Swedish anchormen, winning by a tenth of a second. The American team of Torin Koos and Andy Newell qualified for the final and finished a respectable ninth despite a crash that required Newell to get stitches after the race. Having set a new bar for American sprinting, Koos and Newell look to improve as they build toward the Olympics. The women's final was equally tight, with Beckie Scott handing the lead over to Sara Renner for the last leg. Racing from the front, Renner could not hold off German Viola Bauer, who snuck through to win by a second. A second Canadian team of Chandra Crawford and Milaine Theriault finished ninth.
Though the team sprint does not count toward the overall World Cup standings, the mass-start races furthered ongoing changes to the overall World Cup standings, which were already shifting thanks to the decisions of the Estonian, Czech, and Finnish teams to stay in Europe and of overall women's cup leader Marit Bjorgen to skip Canmore. Bjorgen still leads the women's standings, more than 125 points up on Julija Tchepalova in second and Beckie Scott in third place. But with the Russian and the Canadian only five points apart, the sprint and 10-km races at Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic after Christmas are very important, not least because Bjorgen has already announced that she will not be competing at Nove Mesto. If either Tchepalova or Scott can reach the podium twice, she will surpass the Norwegian.
On the men's side, Angerer, too, benefited from the absences at Canmore of rivals like Vincent Vittoz (France), Lukas Bauer (Czech Republic), and Andrus Veerpalu (Estonia). Now more than 100 points up on Norwegian Tor Arne Hetland and more than 200 up on Vittoz, Angerer is poised to solidify his World Cup lead with strong sprint and distance performances at Nove Mesto.
Looking further forward, the International Ski Federation has indicated interest in bringing World Cup racing back to Canada soon - probably in the 2007-2008 season as well as the 2009-2009 season which will lead into the 2010 Olympic games at Vancouver. If the Canadians can enjoy this kind of success on home snow, we Americans should agitate for a few cup races in the states!