Can Kikkan Randall Win The Sprint WC Title?

With the slew of high profile retirements among female sprinters this year, American skiing fans have been quick to note that the two women ahead of Randall on the overall sprint WC podium this season won’t be returning next year. Clearly, this is an opportunity, but how significant an opportunity is it?

Overall WC point titles put a lot of weight on showing up to as many races as you can and finishing on the podium when you do. (1st place gets double the WC points of 4th place.) This title rewards consistent, across the board sprinting. At the moment, Randall’s big weakness is classic sprinting. She finished 10th, 17th, 21st and 42nd in classic sprints last season. It’s going to be nearly impossible, I think, to win the WC overall without making the finals in at least a few classic sprints.

Working slightly in Randall’s favor is the fact that there are 7 freestyle and 6 classic sprints on the schedule next season, and 2 3 of the classic sprints (vs 1 freestyle sprint) fall in stage race events, which only get around half the WC points. So there are slightly more points to be had from freestyle sprints.

But that’s not much of a difference, particularly when your closest competitors in the overall are making the finals in the sprint races as well, limiting any point gaps you may open up by winning.

The other big wild card is who attends which races. It’s impossible to guess each athlete’s planned race schedule, but without any major championships next year, it’s a safe bet that all the main sprinters will be planning on attending as many races as they can. Bjørgen skipped several weekends last season to prepare for World Champs, but it’s unlikely she’ll miss so many races next year.

Let’s take a closer look at how Randall fared directly against the top female sprinters last season:

The dots mark the median difference in rank (finishing place) for the head-to-head matchups between Randall and each of these skiers. I’ve omitted some key folks who are retiring. The black dot is the median for all races, the red and blue are for just the classic and freestyle races. Positive values (right) mean that Randall had an advantage, and vice versa.

The technique difference is obvious, particularly among her best competitors. There’s no way she wins the WC sprint overall title without being competitive in classic sprints. Keep in mind what that means: Randall has never qualified for the finals in a classic sprint, and has made the semis only four times, ever. She’s going to have to consistently qualify for the finals in classic sprints next season in order to cut her point losses in those races.

Also note that even though Randall ended up third in the overall last season, there were four skiers (not including Majdic and Follis!) who beat her more often than not overall. This is the sort of wild card that race selection (which races athletes attend) and the unbalanced nature of WC points (lots of points for podiums, only a few for 5th-10th) can introduce.

Personally, I think how this plays out depends largely on how dominant Marit Bjørgen is next year. It’s not inconceivable that she’ll win or podium in nearly every race she enters, which will probably lock up any overall titles. However, if we have a significant amount of turnover on the podium that could allow someone like Randall to sneak into the overall point lead with a handful of well timed freestyle sprint victories.

Related posts:

  1. Career Retrospective: Arianna Follis
  2. How’d We Do? USA/CAN Season Review 4
  3. Is Qualifying In The Top Ten A Good Sign For Kikkan?
  4. Mid-Season Review: North American Sprint
  5. USST Preview: Kikkan Randall

About Joran

Comments

7 Responses to “Can Kikkan Randall Win The Sprint WC Title?”
  1. Christopher Tassava says:

    Fascinating stuff, as usual. I’d love to know if Randall is focusing this summer/fall on classic. She’s probably the best freestyle sprinter right now, so does she have enough accumulated skill (fitness, technique, etc.) there to let her work harder on classic? At any rate, I’ll be eager to see what next season brings for her. Considering the number of retirements and Randall’s improving distance results, she might be able to make a bigger impact in those races, too…

    • Joran says:

      Thanks!

      I wouldn’t pretend to know how athletes at that level can have such an apparent difference in ability across techniques when their fitness levels are so high overall. I would venture a guess that at her level, the “large” difference in her classic/freestyle sprinting is mostly an effect of how small the margin of errors become. Being 2% more efficient at skating won’t make any difference to me if I raced the Boulder Mountain Tour vs Craftsbury Marathon, but for a (top) WC skier that could easily mean the difference between winning and 10th, which to us can seem like a huge performance discrepancy.

      My basic prediction is that if she can repeat her freestyle sprinting performance next year she’ll be a lock for the overall WC podium, but she’ll either have to get drastically better in classic (or get some serious help from other external factors) to seriously contend for the title.

  2. Hzj says:

    Intresting post, on which I just had to add some thoughts. Was recently going through the bookmakers’ predictions for the upcoming season, and they held Randall as just fifth favorite at 11 to 1 with Bjørgen and Kowalczyk beeing the favorites. This seems kind of wrong, since they’re both aiming for the overall, rather than the sprint cup. Even though there’s no upcoming championship, nobody’s going to do all the races, and the lowest priority for the overall contenders, would probably be the free-style “city sprints” in Düsseldorf and Milano. Also the two mentioned favorites suffer from not having a fast start in such events even if they decide to participate.

    Also I think there is 3 classical stage events (Kuusamo, TdS and Stockholm/Falun-tour) which means the top performers getting their points split in half, but the ones gaining lower positions is actually getting the same amount of points as if it would have been a regular WC-race. In other words; this schedule benefits free-style specialists.

    Randall should therefore be a small favorite for the win, challenged not so much by Bjørgen/Kowalczyk (at least not the pole), but rather from the young duo Falla and Falk who probably will perform top results more consistently than before, and has proven to be good in both classic and free. They’re also likely to participate in all the sprints, except maybe TdS.

    • Joran says:

      You’re right, I miscounted the number of classic sprints in stage events. Fixed now…

    • Kieran says:

      You have some good points here Hjz, and I agree that Randall should be listed higher than the 5th favourite on the betting lines, however there are good statistical reasons why she is not, as Joran has pointed out.
      The fact that Bjoergen and Kowalczyk are aiming for the World Cup Overall is actually a point in their favour, rather than Kikkan’s, because to win the World Cup Overall, you have to attend the majority if the races, and do well at each one (consistent top 5 or top 3, would be my rough guestimate – Joran would have a better idea.)
      Both Bjoergen and Kowalcyzk do so in both classic and freestyle sprints – unlike Kikkan, as Joran has pointed out. While I agree that it is possible and even likely that Bjoergen and Kowalczyk will choose to sit out the city sprints, the fact is that they consistently finish in the Finals of every classic sprint. When compared to Kikkans top 20, those two will generate more points than Kikkan will by winning both freestyle city sprints, which is itself far from a lock, due to the extremely unpredictable nature of city sprinting (see: Dusseldorf, crashes, every single year).
      Bjoergen trailed Kikkan by a mere 24 points in last years’ Sprint Cup standings, and raced 3 fewer sprints on the World Cup. And she’s Marit Bjoergen, so it’s pretty tough to say she should trail Kikkan on a line.

      As for Falk and Falla, they are both damn good young sprinters, I think you’ve nailed it. However, Falk seems to qualify well, but can’t seem to get through to the Finals. She also took a bit of a nosedive last year in overall points, and gives away boatloads of points by not doing the Tour.
      Falla is the real deal, and another year of experience should mean she makes a big leap.

      But an off-the-radar pick? Katja Visnar. Steadily improved over the last 5 seasons, has turned into a top-tier classic sprinter, and can get the job done in skate when need be. The departure of Majdic means the loss of what was probably a great mentor, but it does make Visnar the center of attention. Oh, and it probably doesn’t hurt she’s dating Ola Vigen Hattestad…

      • Hzj says:

        Good to see some discussion here, which this site really deserves more of. :)

        Some things pointed out by Kieran, made me think about if I had to reconsider my previous analysis a month ago, so I made a new longer one. This particular cup is rather interesting since all the others seem to have an obvious outcome.

        First of all since I’m far from an expert on statistics, there’s a possibility that I might be interpreting the whole graph completely wrong, although I think I get it but you never know…

        The above graph suggests that there are four contenders who last season had an advantage over Randall. That being said, the graph threats freestyle and classical equally. But we know by looking at the WC-schedule, that there are more freestyle races this season.

        We also have to consider the fact that difference in position does not equal difference in WC-points. (Finishing second instead of first means losing 20 points, while finishing 19th instead of 18th means just losing one.) While looking at the graph we can see that Kowalczyks average position is significantly lower than Randalls, this gives me the impression that since Kowa got beat by Randall in the sprint WC, she must have participated in fewer races. However, that’s not the case since they both competed in all but two races.

        Comparing the 8 races in which both raced together, counting the WCS as if it had been a WC, Randalls positions added together is 125 and Kowalczyks 85; advantage Kowalzcyk. But measured in points Randall gets 252 and Kowalczyk 247. And that is even though; due to the “selection of competitions” half is classical and half is freestyle in this particular comparison. Even though Kowalczyk is a much better classical sprinter she falls behind due to not winning races but only reaching the final. With the classical disadvantage this season I would say it’s very unlikely that Kowalczyk will win the Sprint WC.

        Without looking into it I would estimate that the same would apply to a comparison between Randall and Jacobsen/Kalla too, since those two, although decent sprinters will find it hard to fight for the top spot.

        And then there is Bjørgen whose chances I might have “slightly underrated” in the previous. (Maybe due to me being Swedish and that we’ve seen enough of Norwegian success of late. ;) ) Anyway, compared to Randall , Bjørgen raced two sprints less, which equals the ones in TdS. If she would have competed there and won both, she would have gained 50+50 points and had been about 80 points ahead of Randall. Even with both participating in the same amount of races. If Randall was given a “one race advantage” and won that race she would still be ahead. (Which could have been the Rybinsk sprint for instance.). So there’s not so much in it after all, even with Randalls rather mediocre classical results in consideration.

        Also one of few weaknesses of Bjørgen has been that she hasn’t been able to produce the same good results when racing at a tight schedule (like the TdS), she often needs time to recover, which is why she has chosen to skip races in the past. It is likely to believe that her average will be lower if she attends races more frequently. Aiming for the overall will demand participation in most races but some of them might be dropped for recovery, which most likely will be sprints, since she’s almost guaranteed to podium in a distance race and therefore has more points to gain in them. And those sprints probably will be Düsseldorf and Milano. (Also it seems to be a third free city sprint in Moscow.) So the overall WC-goal is really not a fact that points in the favor of Bjørgens chances of also winning the sprint cup.

        And finally there’s the imbalance of free/classical again. There’s only 350 points maximum to gain in five classical races, compared to 650 in free. Also in the “stage event” the difference between victory 50p and 21th place 10p equals the difference between first and third in an ordinary WC-race. Hence the key to victory in the sprint cup seems to be winning (or maybe finishing second) in the non-stage events. (2 classics 6 free.) Or in other words consistent top 2 :). And returning to the statistics there is no one having an advantage in the 6 freestyle events on Randall. The conclusion is that I still can’t see why Bjørgen should be the big favorite over Randall, but probably over anyone else. (And also that I might need to put some money on that 11 to 1 odds…;) )

        Visnar, I also think is a good pick for a “surprise victory” along with the two other mentioned.

  3. Joran says:

    Excellent comments from all…

    You make a lot of good point Hzl, to which I would add only this clarification:

    My basis for thinking that Randall will have a tough time beating Bjørgen in the overall comes from the following fairly simple line of reasoning:

    Assume for the moment that Randall and Bjørgen will remain roughly on par in freestyle sprints. Let’s be generous and suppose that Randall wins three of the five non-TdS, non-city sprint freestyle races. So she’s maybe up 30-40 points if she’s lucky at this point. Let’s be more generous and assume that Bjørgen skips Dusseldorf, and Randall skis well there, so now she’s up ~120-140 points. Let’s give Bjørgen the TdS sprint, so perhaps she claws back another 20-30, so now Randall’s lead is ~90-110 points, ballpark.

    That leaves six classic sprints for Bjørgen to pull back ~100 points, or less than 20 points per race. Randall making the semifinals in multiple classic sprints would be a significant jump for her, but even then if she’s 10th and Bjørgen’s in the finals she loses ~150 points to Bjørgen in the three non-stage classic sprints alone. And then Bjørgen has another three classic sprints in stage races to work with as well.

    But as you all have noted, this is all subject to lots of wild cards, like illness, injury, who chooses to attend which races, random crashes, etc. I’d consider Bjørgen the favorite, but not overwhelmingly so. Randall could pull it off, but I think a lot of things would have to go just right for her.

    One thing that hasn’t come up yet is that while the schedule favors freestyle sprints, the WC overall requires attending most, if not all, of the races on the schedule, and that will almost always favor the Europeans over the North Americans. If you’re Randall looking at this schedule and thinking you need to contest every sprint race next season, when in this schedule will she be able to fly back to the US, let alone all the way to Alaska? Living in Europe all winter, away from your friends and family can be quite draining (not for everyone, of course, but it can be) and flying back home means you either have to skip some races, ceding points to Bjørgen, or you have to fly 12+ hours twice in the space of 10-14 days which poses a lot of health/fatigue risks. Randall has spent some time this summer training in Sweden with some of their top skiers, so it’s possible she’s making plans to be based in Sweden all winter and essentially live there. If she spends enough time there and gets comfortable, maybe it won’t be such a disadvantage for her…

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