World Cup - Back in Europe
country ski races are taking on more importance as coaches try to select their best racers and
individual racers either try to get back on form or stay on form. After a great series of races in Canada, the cross-country circuit went back to Europe with four pairs of races in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, and Otepaa, Estonia.
The time-trial races on the rolling Nove Mesto courses, run in the freestyle or skating technique, are always occasions for Czech skiers to vie for wins, and this year was no different. On the women's side, Katerina Neumannova used phenomenal turnover to handily win the women's 10k race by about thirty seconds into Julija Tchepalova (Russia) and Valentina Shevchenko (Ukraine). Norwegian Kristin Steira and Estonian Kristina Smigun finished fourth and fifth, showing promising form for the upcoming Olympics. World Cup leader Marit Bjorgen (Norway), who sat out both the sprint and distance races, surrendered big chunks of her leads in the sprint, distance, and overall competitions, with Tchepalova inching closer in the distance and overall categories.
In the men's 15k race, France's Vincent Vittoz won for the second straight year, edging Czech Lukas Bauer by 8.5 seconds. Austrian Christian Hoffmann, in a rare World Cup competition, showed he's in good shape for the Olympics, finishing third. World Cup leader Tobias Angerer of Germany should have made like Bjorgen and stayed home, but instead he ran an exceptionally poor race, finishing out of the points and losing ground to Vittoz. The individual sprints went to specialists: Bjorn Lind (Sweden) won the men's and Anna Sidko (Russia) won the women's, ahead of other sprinters.
The next weekend, racing shifted to frigid Otepaa, where the contests are always run in the classic technique and where the athletes meet the best crowds on the circuit. The best German men did not even make the trip, perhaps indicating another new year's slump on their parts, with Tobi Angerer reprising Axel Teichmann's 2004-05 role - worrisome with the Olympics just five weeks off. Vassili Rotchev of Russia took full advantage, running a perfectly paced time trial to conquer the jagged Otepaa hills and win by a half second over Lukas Bauer, who couldn't quite push hard enough over the closing 50 meters to erase Rotchev's splits. Another Russian, Serguei Novikov, finished third, ahead of classic specialists Frode Estil (Norway) and Jaak Mae (Estonia). All five men must be considered strong contenders to win the 15k classic race at the Olympics - while Angerer's absence must lengthen his odds in that and other races.
The women's 10k classic race at Otepaa was a magnificent victory by one of the sport's great servants, 41-year old Hilde Pedersen of Norway, who had never before won a World Cup race. Pedersen won by just two-tenths of a second over Estonian Kristina Smigun. Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, back from an abbreviated doping suspension, finished a surprising third, ahead of Marit Bjorgen. The Otepaa sprints closely resembled the preceding events at Nove Mesto. Bjorn Lind won again, but this time good distance racers made it onto the men's podium - namely Vassili Rotchev in third and Tor Arne Hetland (Norway) in second. Hetland, now back in second in the overall, may be getting back into form. Swede Lina Andersson won the women's sprint; Marit Bjorgen betrayed continuing struggles by finishing fifth and can no longer be considered the favorite for the Olymnpic individual and team sprints.
American racers were scarce at Nove Mesto (where two sprinters did race) and Otepaa, largely because of the U.S. Nationals at Soldier Hollow, Utah, on the 2002 Olympic courses. Ironically, the best skier at was Ivan Babikov, a Russian who now skis in Canada and who won several races. Sensibly, only Americans can win US national championships, however, so the titles went to Andrew Johnson (30k freestyle mass start - an epic race), Kris Freeman (15k classic and 30k pursuit), and James Southam (10k freestyle). On the women's side, Kikkan Randall won three races (the sprint, 10k classic, and 5k freestyle), Wendy Kay Wagner won one (the 20k pursuit), and Rebecca Dussault (15k freestle mass start). All of the winners, and some others who placed consistently, will probably make the US Olympic team, which will be announced on January 17. Incidentally, both the US Nationals and the Olympics will take place at high altitude, which may give some of the racers an edge in Italy.
As racers continue to tune up for th Olympics, the next round of World Cup races occurs this weekend on the sweeping courses Val di Fiemme, Italy: with freestyle mass start events (15k for women, 30k for men) and relays. The Italian team will want to do well: the individual races are in their favorite technique, they'll want to win on home snow, and Torino is drawing near. Predictions: Pietro Piller Cottrer in the 30k, Katerina Neumannova in the 15k; France, Russia, Norway in the men's relay, Germany, Russia, Norway in the women's.
More coverage: FasterSkier.com - Eurosport