Liz Stephen destroyed the women’s field this weekend in the annual Climb to the Castle rollerski race. The margin, just over 5 minutes in a race that took the leaders between 40-45 minutes is certainly impressive. But I think that margin doesn’t provide much useful information.
Time trials that are most useful as gauges of performance trends are the ones that have the most stable, repeatable conditions. I believe Climb to the Castle has everyone using identical roller skis (at least that’s my recollection) and that helps. But as noted in the coverage, road and weather conditions can pretty severely impact times. In that light, the fact that Stephen covered the course more than a minute faster than last year in worse conditions is certainly a more reliably good indicator.
But even then, it’s sort of crucial to note how the race dynamics played out. Stephen skied alone basically the whole way this year. Last year, it sounded like she skied alone for over half the race. That will tend to make those efforts more similar to those produced by a interval start race, which are easier to compare, I think. For example, it’s hard to read much into the fact that Sargent skied around 2.5 minutes slower this time around, since once Stephen was off the front it’s easy for “group racing” mentalities to take over common in mass start events that slow the pace.
Even if we ignore all that, consider than Sargent and Diggins were around 12.3% and 11.7% behind Stephen. Looks at their head-to-head results from recent history, it’s hard to believe that Stephen really is that much faster than Sargent and Diggins:
Diggins was actually frequently faster than Stephen last season, and even then it was unusual for the margin between them to be more than 2.5% in either direction. Even Sargent, who had somewhat of a rough season, was almost never more than 10% behind Stephen.
As a data guy, I’d love to see Climb to the Castle run as an interval start race, which would somewhat improve it’s use as a benchmark, but you’d still have a hard time accounting for differences in weather, particularly wind. But obviously, that’s logistically more complicated.
Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall have been basically the top US skiers for quite some time now. (I’m sort of brushing Andrew Newell under the rug here, mostly just due to time contraints. I’ll do a follow up on him next week.)
Freeman has been more or less unquestionably the best US male distance skier for what seems like forever, and Randall has been fairly dominant domestically in both distance and sprint events. How long can this last? Not forever, of course. Nothing lasts forever.
But it seems like the shift may happen sooner on the men’s side than the women’s. Here’s what I mean:
This shows the head-to-head results of Freeman against a handful of the better US men’s distance skiers in recent years. Certainly, Freeman has way more wins (above zero, in the pink) than losses (below zero, in the blue). But the gaps are generally narrowing.
Now, there’s a big caveat here in that I can’t say much about whether Freeman is getting slower, or these guys are getting faster, or even if Freeman is getting faster but these guys are getting faster faster. (That made you think for a second, didn’t it?) Or maybe they’re all getting slower, and Freeman is getting slower faster. (See, now I’m just having fun messing with your head.) The point is that these are just relative comparisons, not absolute ones.
In any case, what does the similar picture look like for Kikkan Randall? Read more
Earlier this week I tweeted a little nugget I stumbled across: that Jessie Diggins now owns around half of all top 30 results for US skiers 21 years old or younger over the past two decades. In contrast, the most any single Norwegian contributes over the same time period is around 10% of all their top 30 results by skiers 21 or younger.
That fact illustrates two things to me: (1) Jessie Diggins may be the best talent the US has seen since in a long, long time, and (2) the US is really quite bad at developing skiers at younger ages. Usually, our best skiers are well into their late twenties or even thirties.
Among young World Cup skiers, how does Diggins stack up? Well, of her 16 starts, she was in the points over half the time. This is well behind the likes of Krista Lahteenmaki, Maiken Caspersen Falla and Heidi Weng. But it was better than Finn Hagen Krogh, Gleb Retivyhk, Petr Sedov and Hanna Kolb.
This all got me wondering what the age breakdown has been more generally for top thirty finishers, so I made this following graph:
(The handful of bars that don’t reach all the way to 100% are due to a small number of skiers, mostly Russian, from the 90’s who I don’t have a year of birth for.) Not surprisingly, the under-21 crowd is more strongly represented among the top sprinters.
What a weekend for North America!
It has to be said, so I”ll get it out of the way right at the top: the turn the World Cup takes through Russia is generally not fully attended and this year was the same, although perhaps not as dramatically as before. But there were plenty of notable absences, particularly on the men’s side.
Of course, I don’t think any of that makes 100 World Cup point any less sweet for Devon Kershaw. Not one bit.
But let’s focus on the Moscow sprints today. First the men’s finalists:
Notice that Dahl isn’t shown, since he was relegated in the final to 6th, so he wasn’t given a time in that heat. In what will perhaps become a theme for these races, it might not have been ideal for Kershaw to have won the qualification round by 1.5 seconds or so. Petersen skied considerably slower in qualification and the benefited from a rather slow quarterfinal.
Much of the pacing between round a racer doesn’t have much control over, of course. Backing off a bit in qualification has significant risks, and once you’re in the heats, you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to control the pace; the other 5 skiers have some say in that. So there ends up being a certain amount of luck involved in these sprints, which is one of the reasons I’m not as passionate about them as I am the distance events.
However, the semifinals are a good counter-example to this kind of luck: Read more
No, not that A-Team, although that’s an amusing idea. I saw some discussion in the comments over at FasterSkier about whether Jessie Diggins ought to have been named to the US A Team rather than the B Team.
Let’s be clear up front that this isn’t the sort of question you can answer by just looking at FIS points. But some data may provide some useful perspective. Let’s start by looking at a collection of women near Diggins’ age (born between 1990-1992). The following two tables summarize the data for sprint and distance events from this past season:
|SLIND Kari Oeyre||70.96||43.67|
|HAGEN Martine Ek||72.50||43.67|
|OESTBERG Ingvild Flugstad||76.74||28.80|
|FALLA Maiken Caspersen||43.14||11.10|
|OESTBERG Ingvild Flugstad||53.93||40.09|
|SLIND Kari Oeyre||64.39||48.57|
I’ve shown the median FIS points result for last season, along with the average of each skier’s best three results. As usual, all sorts of caveats apply regarding the crudeness of FIS points as a measure of performance. Still, this is an accomplished group of skiers to be lumped together with. I think it’s fair to say that Weng and Lahteenmaki stand out in distance skiing. Indeed, Lahteenmaki is sort of an unusual case as she’s already demonstrated an ability to perform at the WC level over the course of an entire season. There’s no question where she’ll be racing next season. And of course Falla (and a few other of these sprinters) will be WC regulars next season as well.
Then you have this large group of other talented young Norwegian women coming up (Weng, Haga, Slind, Hagen, Oestberg). It’s not exactly like they’re hurting for talent at the moment, so I guess it’s a good thing they get so many start allotments, since they have the talent to back it up on the women’s side.
Whether or not it’s a good idea to send Diggins to Europe for a full season may or may not have anything to do with how other nations deal with their own talented young women. But I think it’s pretty hard to argue that Diggins is at quite the same level as folks like Weng, Slind, Kolb, Falla, let alone someone like Lahteenmaki.