The first World Cup cross-country skiing competitions in the Canadian Rockies were an effective demonstration of North American racers' capabilities, and with the second round of Canadian races already underway, the stage is set for the World Cup standings to be significantly rearranged.
The big winner was Canadian racer Beckie Scott, who did very well indeed in the two "ladies'" competitions over hilly courses Vernon/Sovereign Lakes, British Columbia, last weekend. On Saturday, both men and women raced in grueling pursuit events, which commence in a jostling mass start and demand that the athletes complete the first half of the race in the classic or diagonal technique, then switch to the freestyle or skating technique for the second half. In the women's 2x7.5km pursuit, Scott skied with World Cup leader Marit Bjorgen of Norway in the steadily-shrinking lead group, then attacked the other leaders on the final uphill into the stadium and sprinted with Bjorgen to the line. The Norwegian finished first, 0.3 seconds ahead of Scott and about two seconds ahead of Hilde Pedersen (Norway). Bjorgen collapsed in the snow and later told the press it was her hardest race ever. The pursuit was Scott's first World Cup race of the season, so her second-place finish was an exceptional result which she bettered the very next day.
In Sunday's 1.3km sprint competition, Bjorgen did terribly and was relegated to the "small final," a.k.a. the loser's bracket. Beckie Scott qualified for the "large final," along with her Canadian teammate Sara Renner and, thanks to a tie in Renner's semifinal heat, three others. After pacing the field, Scott dashed home in front, notching Canada's first World Cup win in decades. Renner finished third, just back of Claudia Kuenzel of Germany. Notably, many other North American women joined Renner and Scott in the top 30 (for which World Cup points are awarded): Renner finished 12th in the pursuit, Chandra Crawford (CAN) 10th in the sprint, Wendy Kay Wagner (USA) 21st in the sprint, and Milaine Theriault (CAN) 30th in the pursuit and 25th in the sprint. For her part, “ski queen” Bjorgen, expectations unmet and mindful of the impending Olympics, headed back to Norway to recover. On the strength of their racing, Scott vaulted into seventh and Renner into 15th in the World Cup overall rankings.
North American men did not duplicate the women’s success at Vernon, though the races were nonetheless compelling. In the men's 2x15km pursuit, a huge lead pack comprising most of the world’s top racers hung together over the classic and freestyle legs, building the speed and tension for an inevitable final sprint. Ultimately, the decisive attack came at the same point as in the women’s race, on the final, sharp ramp into the stadium. This time, though, World Cup standings leader Tobias Angerer used his incredible poling rate to lead five Germans to the line. Last year’s overall WC winner, Axel Teichmann, finished second, Andreas Schlutter third. Unprecedented in recent nordic races, the German dominance hearkened back to races in the 1980s when Norway and Sweden routinely swept the top spots and, at least for one race, pushed against the growing breadth of nations who can compete in nordic racing. In the men’s sprint, Scandinavian racers took their customary spots in the large final, and Tor Arne Hetland (NOR) used his great upper-body power and superior gliding ability to explode past Bjorn Lind (SWE), who had led almost the entire race.
Though North American men did not get onto the podium for either the pursuit or the sprint, many raced into the top 30. In the pursuit, Russian Ivan Babikov, now racing for Canada, finished 10th and Kris Freeman (USA) finished 23rd. In the sprint, Americans Andy Newell (11th), Chris Cook (12th), and Torin Koos (14th) and Canadians Sean Crooks (25th), Phil Widmer (26th), and Drew Goldsack (28th) all placed well.
On Thursday, the racing recommenced one province to the east, at the Canmore nordic center which had hosted the nordic events during the 1988 Olympics at Calgary. The first events were individual-start skating races, time trials in which racers go off at 30-second intervals. Though this type of race is becoming less common as mass-start events like relays and pursuits gain prominence, they nonetheless can make for excellent drama. In the women’s 10km, the suspense took shape as Beckie Scott tried to match the pace of Julia Tchepalova (Russia), who in Marit Bjorgen’s absence started last and thus had the advantage of knowing exactly other racers’ split times. Tchepalova’s strong last kilometers put her into first, 14 seconds up on Scott and a minute up on Evi Sachenbacher Stehle (Germany). With her third podium in three races, though, Scott demonstrated that she is perhaps the hottest racer in the world right now, and moved up into 4th in the overall World Cup standings, behind Claudia Kunzel in third, Tchepalova in second, and Bjorgen in first.
The 15km men’s race, which might have been another demonstration of German prowess, instead saw the yellow hat of skating specialist Pietro Piller Cottrer (Italy) go fastest, just ahead of France’s Vincent Vittoz and Germany’s Tobi Angerer. The suspense in the men’s race came from the surprising performance of Ivan Babikov, who started well before the favorites and wound up in fourth, just five seconds behind Angerer, who retains his number-one ranking in the World Cup overall and distance standings.
As they await Saturday’s long mass-start classic races and Sunday’s team sprints, North Americans not named Scott and Babikov can look to build on strong results in the Canmore skating races: Sara Renner (12th), Sarah Konrad (USA, 23rd), Abigail Larson (USA, 30th), George Grey (CAN, 16th), Kris Freeman (18th), Carl Swenson (USA, 22nd). At 30km for the men and 15km for the women, the classic races will be the first long-distance events of the season and, thus, crucial indicators of who just might have form good enough to perform well at the high-altitude Torino Olympics. Given their track records, Beckie Scott and Tobi Angerer must be favorites, though any of the Russian or Norwegian classic specialists could also place well. And speaking of classic specialists, would it be too much to hope that Kris Freeman finishes well? A podium spot would be a high point for American nordic skiing.