My trusty rollerskis haven't been getting enough kilometers this summer, but I have tried out a few new trails over Minnesota's rainy spring and now its overheated summer, piquing my interest for the upcoming World Cup season. Unlike me, the big guns on the cross-country World Cup circuit are training hard. After all, as the cliche goes, winter's races are won in the summer. The powerhouse teams like the Norwegians are spending time on glaciers
and at altitude all over Europe
and doing a great deal of dryland training
. Less powerful teams, like the Americans, are shuffling around the world seeking snow
. Next season is no ordinary ski-racing season: the World Cup will take second place to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy
. The home snow has brought Italian racer Stefania Belmondo back from retirement
, hoping to add to her score of Olympic and World Champs medals.
With that in mind, Sweden made maybe the biggest non-athlete change of the year
, importing as national-team coach Norway's Inge Braaten
, who has coached some of the best skiers ever, like Bjorn Dahlie
. Braaten's aiming for six medals at Torino and ramping up the training accordingly
. Accompanying Braaten to the Swedish training camps
, in fact, is perhaps the best racer of the last decade, Thomas Alsgaard
. This makes for an interesting reunion between "Tall Thomas" and Jorgen Brink
, the top-notch Swedish racer who, while leading the field during the anchor leg of the marquee men's relay at the 2003 Worlds in Italy, was so overcome by the knowledge that Alsgaaard was chasing that he literally stopped racing
and faded from first to third
- in nordic racing, a collapse as great and famous as the Yankees' choke in the 2004 World Series.
Contra the customary strength of teams from Norway, Germany, Italy, and Russia, and the rise or revival of teams like the Swedes, Czechs, and French, the United States is fielding a tragically small team for the World Cup: just five men and no women. (It's snowier in Canada, of course, but national-level will surely must account for the comparatively ginormous Canadian nordic team
.) Why? Well, our skiers aren't doing very well on the international level:
No U.S. cross-country skier met the ski team's standard of excellence -- top 50 in overall World Cup rankings or top 30 in distance or sprint rankings -- in the last two seasons. (More.)
In fact, not a single American named to the team over last six years has met the standard. The Olympic team may be somewhat larger, if strong racers do well early in the World Cup season.
On the World Cup circuit, controversy ensued after Norway's skiing chief criticized the International Ski Federation (FIS, from the French) for allowing race venues to use courses that are too easy for the top level of competition and for cutting the number of racers each country can place in World Cup race. This decision favors weak skiing countries over strong ones like Norway, which will have to keep many of its best racers competing to make room for far slower racers from other countries. No matter their nations, the racers are coming in for some good purses next year, though - up to about $12,000 for winning an individual race.
For my dollar, the most interesting race of the year will be the Vasaloppet, the 90-kilometer (55.8-mile) monster ending in Mora, Sweden. 13,000 hardy souls took part in the 2005 race, which has never before been part of the World Cup. The 2006 race takes place in early March, just after the Olympics, and may have a big impact on the World Cup standings as there will be only three more distance races after it. Besides the Vasaloppet, the 2005-6 season has races in many of the classic venues. I'm an especially big fan of the wooded hillsides of the narrow tracks in Kuusamo, Finland; the alpine surroundings of the brutal courses at Oberstdorf, Germany; and the way the courses in Val di Fiemme, Italy, zoom past beautiful old stone buildings. Unusually, the upcoming season also takes racers abroad for December events in Canada (in British Columbia and Alberta) and for March races in Asia: sprints in Changchun, China, and double-pursuit and team sprint races in Sapporo, Japan. All in all, it promises to be an exciting season.