Like everyone else in the world (seemingly) I enjoy Noah Hoffman’s blog. Apparently he gets a little bit of a hard time for how often he posts, but I think it’s pretty remarkable how much he shares about his training and racing. A lot of athlete blogs will, quite understandably, shy away from sharing some of the lower points during their season. So I was struck by Hoffman’s post following the Sochi 50k in which he was quite open about questioning whether he should remain in the sport at all.
Part of the reason I found it interesting was that for a while now I’ve felt like Hoffman hasn’t been making much progress, and based on what I read elsewhere I don’t seem to be in the majority on that front. Obviously, as a fan of US skiing, I root for him, but form my very distant vantage point looking only at race results, I haven’t seen much sign of the dramatic improvement we’d like to see.
This is all of his major international results. So you can see why I’d be puzzled by comments suggesting that his results have improved dramatically. Clearly the last two seasons have seen more good results, but his typical race hasn’t improved all that much, if at all.
Hoffman had an excellent race this past fall in what FIS now calls the pursuit at Kuusamo, and that certainly was noteworthy. But I’ve long felt that you can’t really generalize much from those pursuit races since so many skiers alter their pacing in response to the overall standings. Clearly Hoffman had a good day; I really wish he’d had that effort in an interval start race since that would be a much clearer signal of his ability.
Another example was the Sochi 50k, a race that Hoffman professed some disappointment with. He skied with the leaders nearly the whole race and had some bad luck near the end with a broken pole. On the other hand, by his own description he was basically toast with 5k to go and said that nearly everyone was leaving him behind. In the end he finished a little over a minute off the pace, or about 1.07% back. To say that a minute out in a 50k is pretty good is a bit misleading here. The fact is that modern mass start races (for the men at least) are essentially medium intensity cruisers with several kilometers of mad sprinting at the end.
I often joke that we might as well simply put the whole field on stationary bikes for a set period of time and then have them do a mass start 5k. A little bit more than a minute out in a 5k race doesn’t sound quite so good.
So you might say that I think that percent back in mass start events isn’t necessarily indicative of much. If I had better split data, a more informative metric would be a skier’s pace over the final 5% of the race, not their overall percent back.
Regardless, let’s try to take stock of where Hoffman is. I collected all top 30 men’s results in major international mass start, skiathlon and interval start races (so, yes, I’m dropping those misleading “pursuits”) over the past four seasons. For each person I calculated their median mass start percent back and their median interval start percent back. Here are the results, separated by whether they have ever achieved a top 5 result (in either type of race):
One thing this makes clear is that 1.07% back in the Sochi 50k is actually one of his better results, but it’s also clearly not been the rule. His other two strong mass start results were both held in North America.
All this isn’t meant to just rag on Hoffman. I genuinely hope he succeeds (if you don’t already count was he has done a success). But I was struck by his post-50k blog as being remarkable honest and clear eyed about his progress, which isn’t something I feel like we see very often expressed in public. I also think his coaches are right: he’s got at least two more Olympic cycles in him, and that’s a lot of time to work with. But I can’t say that we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in his race results…..yet.
Now that I have some nifty code for analyzing the optimal relay team given a set of skiers to choose from, I thought I’d have some fun by looking at the Norwegian women.
Now, clearly on some level it almost doesn’t matter which folks you put on this team in addition to Bjorgen and Johaug. But I thought it would be an interesting exercise to learn a little about what my methodology is actually measuring.
Recall that what I’m doing is evaluating each skier against only the other potential relay team members. The idea being to identify who is the most “valuable” given the set of possible replacements. So each matchup between a pair of skiers is recorded, and weighted based on how recent it was. Then each combination (and order) of four skiers is evaluated comparing each leg to the potential replacements who aren’t on the team. I have no way to numerically evaluate who might be particularly suited to scrambling or anchoring, so that simply isn’t accounted for. But differences in technique are included.
My starting pool of skiers for the Norwegian women was essentially their first two teams in Lillehammer, plus Kristoffersen. This results in a bit more than 3000 relay teams, about a quarter of which are actually distinguishable by my methodology.
When I say that the composition of the Norwegian women’s team doesn’t matter much, this is what I mean:
The drop off in scores for the Norwegian women just isn’t very steep at all. The Norwegian women are a deep, deep team.
What’s more interesting to me is that my analysis strongly implies that the Norwegian team would actually be quite a bit stronger if Bjorgen skied a classic leg. The logic here is that the difference between Bjorgen and her teammates in classic is considerably larger than in freestyle, so they’d have more to gain by having Bjorgen crush everyone in one of the classic legs. The three best teams all put Bjorgen on a classic leg. The 4th/5th best shift her to skating, but then the 6th has her on a classic leg again.
The top team according to this analysis would put Bjorgen and Weng on classic legs and Johaug and Jacobsen on the freestyle legs. The 2nd best team simply swaps Steira for Jacobsen.
It’s more ambivalent about where to put Johaug. In the ten best teams, she is placed on a classic leg 4 times and a freestyle leg 6 times. For comparison, Bjorgen is placed on a classic leg 7 times and a freestyle leg only 3 times.