Sorry about the delayed review everyone, Sunday was an extremely busy day for me and didn’t have time to watch the men’s relay, I have now and I got some strong opinions in the analysis section. I’d love to know if you agree if disagree with my on my points. Anyway, here’s the race recap.

THE RACE

The opening leg was very uneventful with Hellner leading the race for a very pedestrian for first 2.5km; however, Japarov of Russia II increased the pace on second lap and remained at the front for the majority of the leg. Something happened to Kershaw at 7.5km and was 15 seconds off the pace as was

The pace was continually pushed by Japarov and on the final 2.5km the field began to splinter as Russia I, Norway I, France, and Russia II opened a five second gap on the rest.

Coming into the first exchange it was Belov of Russia I, Rønning of Norway and Gaillard of France with a small lead, but like most relays the pace slowed down considerably which allowed the lead three to be caught and the lead pack swell to eight athletes just a few minutes after they started the second leg.

Behind the lead eight, Freeman for USA was leading a foursome of USA, Czech Republic, Norway II and Germany II in an attempt to hunt down the leaders. The combination of the slower pace by the leaders and at 4.3km, Freeman and Jaks of the Czech Republic had regained contact up front and made.

Cologna was going insanely fast and was only 19 seconds down at the half way point, which meant he gained 27 seconds in the first 5km. Only 1.8km, Cologna had closed the gap by a further seven seconds. Ahead of Cologna, Vylegzhanin of Russia I was beginning to turn the screw and the lead 10 immediately began to thin out.

At 7.5km of the final leg, Rickardsson and Vylegzhanin’s good work had Sweden, Russia and France up front and the top 10 now spread out by 12 seconds. Vylegzhanin was relentless and he was able to drop Rickardsson to the drop to the chasers that included Jauhojaervi, Krogh and di Centa.

At the exchange, Manificat and Vylegzhanin’s hard work had paid off and there was a five second gap between them and the other four teams (Finland, Norway I, Sweden and Italy). There was a big 18 second gap to the other four teams (Switzerland, Cazech Republic, Norway III and USA).

Like the second leg, it didn’t take long for the top six to clump together as Fischer for Switzerland was going extremely hard and closed the gap to the leaders by 12 seconds within the first 1.8km.

Olsson continued to lead the top six while the other athletes comfortably sat behind. Further behind, Fischer came back to Earth and was caught by Norway III’s Eilifsen and USA’s Tad Elliot and the threesome began to work together but weren’t closing the gap to the leaders as they were about 30 seconds down.

At 7km, Lars Berger decided it was time to increase the pace and took the lead from Olsson but the Norwegian wasn’t able to do anything meaningful up front as the six remained together. With 700m left, Clara injected some speed and took the lead which was enough to drop Russia I’s Turyschev immediately.

At the final exchange, it was Norway I, Italy, Sweden, France and Finland together with Russia I in Legkov just five seconds behind but was able to close that gap right away. Just a kilometer in, the pace slowed to a crawl as no one wanted to take the lead. How slow was the pace? Well Norway III in Røthe and Switzerland in Perl were 44 seconds down at the exchange and at 1.8km they had closed the gap to 13 seconds. The cat and mouse race was fully on. Interestingly, as soon as Røthe and Perl caught the leaders, Røthe burst to the front and inject speed that the lead was severely lacked which forced the lead pack to follow suit. Unfortunately, the pace slowed down soon after and the lead eight were closely grouped together.

Coming into the 5km mark, Perl lead the group, but saying the pace was comfortable was an understatement.  At 7.5km, Svendsen of Norway II had pulled back an amazing 1:30 and almost bridged the gap, but at the same time Perl put in a brief injection of pace, but slowed right down again. This allowed Svendsen to make contact with the lead group just in time for the last sprint.

At 700m, it was Legkov’s time to put in the final sprint and Northug slotted in right behind him as did Røthe, Halfvarsson and Perrillat. Coming into the stadium, Northug took the lead as Røthe tucked in behind for the sprint finish. Northug put on his after burners and Halfvarsson was unable to overtake Røthe for silver.

RESULTS
1. Norway I (Rønning, Krogh, Berger, Northug)
2. Norway III (Dahl, Ansnes, Eilifsen, Svendsen)
3. Sweden (Hellner, Rickardsson, Olsson, Halfvarsson)

Analysis

These types of races are becoming really frustrating for me as they’re no longer indicative of which nation is truly the best because of all the cat and mousing in the final leg. For me as an avid ski fan, the frustration doesn’t come from Northug winning (I respect him as an athlete and am continually in amazement of his abilities), but from the predictability these races have garnered.

The relay has become a spectacle in which a top nation can show off just how good their sprinter is compared to the rest of the nations (read: Northug). Today was a great example as Perl and Røthe should not have even been in the conversation for a top five place going into the final leg. If the athletes in the top six skied to their full potential like the do in an individual race, Perl and Røthe would not have been able to claw back the 45 second deficit they had at the start of the leg.

The amount of tentativeness is truly amazing and you need to look no further than the biathlete Emil Hegle Svendsen who had the fastest final leg and was 1:45 fastest than Northug, Legkov and the rest of the lead pack. Think back to Legkov’s blow-up during the relay last year at World Champs, he was 1:53 slower than the fastest leg time and that was huge news.

In the same breath, an skier like Legkov is the perfect athlete to break the other athletes in the final leg. We saw an example of this in Kuusamo last year. He’s hard as nails and has a decent sprint. There’s two scenarios for races like this… 1). You successfully break the pack and in doing so drop Northug before the final kilometer or 2). You wait until its too late the concede the victory to Northug. It’s pretty black and white at this point which makes me scratch my head as I watch someone like David Hofer of Italy slow down the pace to which Northug can diagonal skate up some of the hills.

It almost seems like the racers are deflated even before the leg starts if Norway I is within 15-20 seconds of the lead. A mentality of “Well, he’s gonna beat us so we might as well stick together and fight it out for 2nd place…”

Obviously, it’s much easier for me to sit at my computer and write this, but that’s why I’m a blogger and not a World Cup skier and I’m sure many others share the same sentiments in terms of the “Northug Era” of relay tactics. Simply put, it’s making the relay a fairly boring affair since there is very little predictability. A hint to new ski fans, for the next relay forget watching the first three legs and turn on your TV/computer for the final leg. If Northug is in the lead pack at the final exchange, you can turn off the race as you know who is going to win, if he isn’t in the lead pack, then watch the final leg because you really don’t know who will win the race which makes it exciting again.

Anyway, about the actual race, some unexpected poor performances including Kershaw and Fischer in the first leg that were well off the pace. This has been Kershaw’s third sub-par performance of the early season and it is a little worrying for Canadian ski fans. Hopefully he turns it around sooner than later as the Tour de Ski is just over a month away and many are hoping to see him replicate last year’s stellar performance.

To say Germany had a horrible weekend would be an understatement. Yesterday only had Angerer (14th) in the top 30. Today, both their relay teams finished last and second last (Canada dropped out). It wasn’t as though a couple athletes had bad races; every single athlete had a bad race. If it was bad skis or just poor fitness is something we’ll find out next weekend in Kuusam.

What a great weekend France had! A 5th place in the women’s relay and then 4th place today in the men’s relay. So far it looks like they aren’t missing Vittoz at all. They put their two big guns in the first half of the race, but Duvillard and Perrillat did a great job of keeping them in the race right til the end.

As for Sweden’s plan for Halfvarsson beating Northug, the young Swede’s inexperience of racing the final leg was apparent in the final kilometer. First, he got stuck behind Røthe coming up the hill into the stadium and had him stumble slightly, then coming into the final stretch he had to try to move up from 5th place. He sprint abilities were impressive and was able to pass Legkov and Perrillat in the final stretch and I’m sure if he had a 50 more meters he would’ve had Røthe. This should be a good learning lesson for Halfvarsson and if given the chance in the next relay, will remember to line-up closer to the front in the final kilometer of the race.

That’s it for me. Talk to you in a few days with a Kuusamo preview.