As the World Cup athletes were forced to prolong their Christmas break with the cancellation of the World Cup in Otepää (EST), we used the competition-free time to check in with Eurosport commentator and Nordic Combined Awards Jury Spokesperson Roman Knoblauch. In this latest TUESDAY TALK, he speaks about his impression of the season so far, Olympic favourites and the shape of the German team.
How did you percieve the three World Cup weekends so far?
Roman Knoblauch: First of all with great pleasure! (laughs) It’s always great when the season finally kicks off, since we commentators begin to prepare in early summer.
After the German dominance of the last winter, we all had the question of how it would be this winter. Can Frenzel can take another overall World Cup victory? Can Rydzek top his success of the World Championships at the Olympic Games? And when we started the season, it was great because everything was totally different. All of a sudden, we had so many nations in the Top Ten, the German dominance seemed gone and there were even the first voices asking if they might be out of shape. But of course the Germans were quite good at putting these thoughts to rest when Rydzek won ahead of Frenzel in Ruka.
I was especially happy to see that the Norwegians were back among the best athletes. Me personally, I was really excited to see Espen Andersen win his first competitions and take the yellow bib. Jarl Riiber is also back and I was quite happy to see he improved his performance on cross-country skis. Paired with his amazing jumping skills, he might be a medal candidate for the Olympic Games.
It was also great to see the French team come back out after difficult times. They have been chasing their top shape for a while and now the French flags are back in the Top Ten. Finn Eero Hirvonen delights me again and again when he manages to end up in the Top Ten, Top Five or on the podium, which he has done quite some times this season.
I’m a bit worried about the Austrian team, who still seem to be in search for their shape at the moment. It will be good when Berni Gruber returns to the team. So far veteran Willi Denifl had to rake in the good results but I am sure the young guns will also get the one or the other good results or podiums in the upcoming weeks.
Who was the biggest surprise for you?
Knoblauch: Hands down, Espen Andersen. He is really an athlete to watch now. He won twice, started in yellow but this also means that the pressure is getting bigger for him now. People are starting to expect things, especially also thinking towards the Olympic Games. But the season is still young, so I expect there will be some more surprises coming up.
Speaking about Espen Andersen: in terms of the Nordic Combined Awards, do you see him as a candidate for the “Rookie of the Year” or might this be the start of an “Athlete of the Year” nominee performance?
Knoblauch: Well, it is always great to see new athletes taking the yellow bib and performing on a high level but he needs to back it up now. He is definitely a very hot candidate for the “Rookie of the Year” award. If he medals in PyeongChang, he would be a candidate for the “Athlete of the Year” as well, as it would be such a big surprise. But yes, he has three chances to do it at best, so we’ll see what happens.
Another athlete who set an exclamation mark was Alessandro Pittin. The Italian returned to the podium after an absence of two years. What do you think he is capable of in the rest of the season?
Knoblauch: Yes, I was so happy to see that. What did this man suffered have to suffer in the past few years! He’s such a machine on cross-country skis, it’s hard to compete with that. After seeing coach Paolo Bernardi try so much with this team and invest so many hopes, it was so satisfying to see Pittin reach the podium. Even more so after the unlucky injury of Samuel Costa sidelined him for this winter.
As a former high-performance athlete, I know how tough it is to underperform and to not be able to fulfil the expectations that the people have. As to his chances for the rest of the season: if he hits a decent jump in Korea, he can be in the game for the top results, as you don’t have to worry about his cross-country performance at all.
So fingers crossed for him. If somebody deserves success after so many setbacks, it would be him.
Unfortunately, we have a forced break with the cancellation of Otepää now. What are your expectations for the 2018 start of the World Cup in Val di Fiemme ?
Knoblauch: Yes, this is such a shame. We were all excited to go to Otepää for the first time and especially tragic, as we were supposed to have the premiere of the Ladies’ Continental Cup as well. I hope they will still receive the proper media attention when the series finally begins in Rena, Norway in a couple of weeks.
It’s great to have two three-day weekends in Fiemme and Seefeld coming up in January. The Olympic qualification is still in progress and some athletes still have to show some results. Val di Fiemme is always worth a trip. If the weather is nice, it’s so beautiful. The hill and tracks are fantastic and with the home advantage for Team Italy, who knows what Pittin is up to again.
Do you think the German team does have an ace up their sleeves when it comes to their Olympic shape or is the level of performance more in the same dimension as the other teams this year?
Knoblauch: I was not one to complain that the Germans are not in shape after they did not have three athletes on the podium in the first event. Eric Frenzel said quite clearly that his focus is on the Olympic Games and that up until then, he would use the competitions to build his shape. Eric is a veteran, he is calm and calculating and he doesn’t like to show his hand. I am quite certain he will win his medals and yes, that’s a conscious plural there.
I am also sure we will have the duel Frenzel vs. Rydzek again sooner or later. Johannes Rydzek is very focussed and that the successes of the past months (mainly in Lahti) and the narrowly lost overall ranking of the past season have motivated him greatly. But there will also be a lot of pressure, be it from himself or from the German media, who are more or less expecting three Olympic victories. It remains to be seen, who will be the athletes who are in top shape in the very second that counts.
To sum up, I would say who wants to win a medal in PyeongChang has to beat the Germans first. But I don’t think they will dominate in the same way as we have seen in Lahti.
Roman Knoblauch commentates the Nordic Combined events for Eurosport Germany, Austria and Switzerland together with expert Hans-Peter Pohl. The 49-year-old is a former Nordic Combined athlete and cross-country skier and holds a degree in sports science from the University of Leipzig. He has worked as a TV and radio host since 1993.