World of XC predictions and preview: The Skiathlon
The Skiathlon opens up the Olympics for the Cross Country skiers in Sochi: The women ski 7.5 km + 7.5 km Saturday and the men 15 km +15 km Sunday. The Skiathlon is the discipline for the all-rounders who can perform well in both classic and free technique. With two techniques involved, there is more tactics in the Skiathlon than in regular mass start races.
Saturday 8 February
Women: Fight between the “big three” + Kalla
In the women’s class the fight is yet again between Justyna Kowalczyk, Marit Bjørgen and Therese Johaug – with Charlotte Kalla mixing in due to some very good results this season. Kowalczyk has had a big weakness in free technique this season – but can still fight for a medal in a Skiathlon. The last four World Cup Skiathlon’s have had four different winners: Bjørgen, Johaug, Kowalczyk (limited start field Canmore December 2012) and Kristin Størmer Steira (limited start field Sochi pre-Olympics).
Marit Bjørgen is still the big favourite, though. The Norwegian is reigning World Champion (from Val di Fiemme in 2013 and Oslo in 2011) and reigning Olympic Champion (Vancouver 2010) on the Skiathlon – and has shown that her shape is exceptional these days. She will definitely be hard to beat; Kowalczyk probably needs to get away already on the classic part to take the win – while Johaug needs to get away in the last uphill on the last loop of the free technique loop. This tactical play is what will make the Skiathlon very interesting to watch.
Johaug’s weakness in the Skiathlon is her finish sprint – the Norwegian with the high frequency seldom wins a sprint finish against Bjørgen. Johaug has however shown earlier that she can decide earlier if the course is tough enough – and that might very well be the case in Sochi (although Johaug has said that she is disappointed by the courses not being tough enough).
The last skier who has been mentioned as a possible gold medal candidate is Charlotte Kalla. Kalla needs top skis on the classic part – and a very good classic performance to be in on the fight for the gold medal. The conditions (hard snow) are however good for Kalla!
Outsiders in the women’s class are Kristin Størmer Steira (winner of the pre-Olympic Skiathlon in Sochi, Heidi Weng, Anne Kyllönen, Nicole Fessel, Katrin Zeller.
Sunday 9 February
Men: Norway against Russia and Switzerland?
One year ago at the pre-Olympics in Sochi the two main favourites were Dario Cologna (SUI) and Petter Northug (NOR) – with Cologna winning and Northug finishing down in 12th place. A few weeks later at the World Champs in Val di Fiemme Cologna took another victory with Northug in 4th. Fast forward to today, and both Cologna and Northug have had problems with injuries and illness – and although both are still among the favourites, they are not as big favourites as they would have been with a perfect season run-up.
However, Cologna is one of the top allrounders in the World Cup circus – mastering classic and free technique equally well. The Swiss won the last two Skiathlon World Cup races – and he showed with his 2nd place in Toblach last weekend that he is in shape! But is it good enough for 30 km – and is his sprint good enough in a mass start.
The Norwegian Petter Northug used to be the man to beat in any mass start sprint finish, but lately his results have been better in interval start races. Still Northug is known to be able to take out all when it really counts – and he won the Skiathlon both at the World Champs is Olso in 2011 and in Liberec in 2009.
Swedish success in Vancouver
Marcus Hellner of Sweden took the victory after good tactical play, with another good Skiathlon skier Tobias Angerer (Germany) in second spot. Hellner has had a bad season this year, but is still mentioned among the favourites. The tough skate part of the course in Sochi is also an advantage for Hellner.
This year’s big skier Martin Johnsrud Sundby is another Norwegian favourite. Sundby finished 2nd in the World Champs Skiathlon in Val di Fiemme last year, and has shown impressive shape this year by winning the Tour de Ski and several World Cup races.
Two of the biggest favourites in the Skiathlon mentioned among the experts are the Russians Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin. They are both consistent in Top 6 in the Skiathlon – but have few victories to show off. However, the home ground advantage must not be forgotten.
Outsiders are the french Maurice Manificat and Roland Clara – both very capable of winning. Also include Sjur Røthe and Alex Harvey on the outsider list.