Gällivare: Wrap-Up

Continuing on with some notes about the World Cup opener in Gällivare last weekend.

It’s always the case in a season opener that much will be made of a handful of people who had unexpectedly good or bad races. Usually, this is an overreaction. But let’s play that game anyway and look at two skiers chosen more or less at random: Andrew Musgrave and Justyna Kowalczyk.

This is a graph of each of their major international results over different points in the season, with the Gällivare race highlighted in red. As you can see, Kowalczyk seems to have a bit of a tendency to start off fairly slow (I believe she said as much herself after this weekend’s race). Still, her Gällivare race was somewhat worse than usual for her, even this early in the season.

On the other hand, Andrew Musgrave tends to display the opposite trend, skiing considerably faster early in the season than late. And, like Kowalczyk, his race in Gällivare was unusually good for him, even granting his overall trend throughout the course of a season.

US Women’s Depth

The relay aside, the US women displayed a level of team depth in Saturday’s individual race that we really haven’t seen in a distance race in a long time. The US (men or women) have only placed two skiers in the top ten in a distance race twice since 1992: the Gällivare 10k freestyle, and the 2.5k prologue at the World Cup Finals last season (Kikkan Randall was 7th, Jessie Diggins was 8th). And the prologue probably doesn’t even really count as a “real” distance race for many people…

The Canadians, of course, have managed to place two skiers in the top ten much more frequently. The Canadian men (mostly Harvey and Kershaw, of course) have done this 16 times, and the women two times (Beckie Scott and Sara Renner). Only two of those races (both men’s events) were short, prologue style events, and there is a healthy mix of classic, freestyle and pursuits in the mix. Not terribly surprising, given Harvey and Kershaw’s ability to contend for the WC overall title recently.

Women’s Field

Finally, just as a reminder that when it comes to the World Cup women’s field, it’s Norway’s world and we just live in it. The individual race on Saturday saw 10 Norwegians in the top 30. Then Sweden with 6 in the points, followed by Finland with 5. The rest was rounded out by the US (3), Russia (3), Germany (2) and Poland (1).

Fast Times

And of course who couldn’t notice that the times on Saturday was extraordinarily fast? How extraordinarily fast? Well, I’ll tell you:

Those are the top 15 times for (almost) all men’s 15k freestyle races and (almost) all women’s 10k freestyle races. I’ve omitted the handful of men’s 15k handicap start events, since the times from those are always a little wacky. Also, there’s a single women’s 10k from 1995 that happens to be one of my “problem races”. The FIS website says that it was a 10k, but the times are all well over 40 minutes. The men did a 15k that same weekend, with reasonable looking times (mid-30s), so I’m not sure what’s up.

In any case, the Gällivare races were clearly some of the fastest on record, ever.

Encouraging Signs From Liz Stephen

One of the more exciting stories out of the early season FIS races in Muonio, Finland was the strong performances from Liz Stephen. Now, being a cautious, data centric guy, I also tend to be a bit of a downer. So I am loathe to predict much based on a single race, although there have been other signs of dramatically improvements from her, such as her dominant win at the Climb To The Castle roller-ski race. Still, I remain only cautiously optimistic.

One interesting way to look at things is this. Stephen was only 4.5 seconds behind Justyna Kowalczyk in the Muonio 10k freestyle race. If she had been the same percentage behind Kowalczyk in every interval start distance race last season, Stephen would have accumulated 7 top tens and 4 podiums. So the big question in my mind is (ignoring the question of whether Kowalczyk had a good day that day) was this Muonio race more like Stephen’s ceiling, or her average? If it’s more like the former, than I’d say she has a decent shot at maybe 1-2 top tens this season, but still a significant long shot for a podium. If this was more like an average race for her, then, well, we’re in for an exciting season indeed. And of course there’s plenty of room in between those two extremes.

For completeness, let’s look at graphs that compare Stephen’s results in the Muonio freestyle and classic races versus only the top 30 in each respective race that’s she’s face before in the past. First the freestyle race: Read more

Can Kikkan Randall Win The Sprint World Cup?

Recall that at the start of the season, I considered this question with a bit of skepticism. I was definitely more skeptical about her prospects than some others. Hopeful, but skeptical.

My skepticism stemmed from the fact that while Kikkan is arguably the best freestyle sprinter in the world right now, her classic skiing has traditionally lagged a bit behind. Based on the only experience I have, which is looking at lots and lots of results patterns over time, I was skeptical that she could improve her classic sprinting that dramatically.

So what has happened so far? Read more

An update on the Marit vs Justyna rivalry

You’ll recall that recently this rivalry has been fairly one sided, no matter how much Justyna’s fans want to believe otherwise. The previous two season simply saw Marit winning far more of their head to head match-ups. At the start of the season, things looked even worse for the Justyna camp, as she struggled quite a bit in the early races.

But Justyna may have simply been using those as training for the Tour, as she fared much better last week against Marit. Let’s take a look at how their complete history stand as of now:

So these are just the distance races, measured in difference in percent back. Values above zero mean Marit won and vice versa. Marit had the better of this match-up for two straight seasons, with the occasional lapse. This season, you can see the early group of really poor races for Justyna, and then during the Tour things were more tilted towards Justyna, though the margins weren’t terribly large, for the most part.

As for sprinting:

Marit is still ahead on this score, though we’ve only had a handful of sprint races thus far.

So my question is: will Justyna, having clearly peaked for the Tour, slide back again to being mostly beaten by Marit? Or will she be able to sustain this level of fitness through the rest of the season?

Are Women’s WC Fields Really ‘Weaker’?

I received an email recently asking about field strength for the men’s and women’s WC fields, particularly as it applies to mass start races. Lately we’ve seen the men’s field engage in a fair bit of pack skiing, whereas the women’s field strings out more quickly.

First, I want to dispatch with a common bit of lazy rhetoric in this area. Saying that the women’s field is ‘weak’ is not the same as saying the women are weak. I’m not sure what other people mean, but what I mean by a ‘weak field’ is simply that there are fewer skiers able to finish close to the leader. To say that there are fewer women able to (nearly) match the performance of Marit Bjørgen than there are men who can (nearly) match the performance of Petter Northug is not to say that the women are somehow less talented than the men. To the extent that this happens, I consider it primarily a legacy of gender inequalities in sports and society in general. We’ve made a lot of progress in bringing more women into this sport, but professional women’s skiing still must be several decades younger than men’s professional skiing.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s look at some data.  My preferred metric for this sort of thing is to look at the number of skiers within a fixed percent of the leader. It’s sort of a ‘musical chairs’ analogy: the more skiers you have fighting for a fixed number of chairs, the more ‘competitive’ the field. Let’s begin with interval start races (click for full version): Read more

New Zealand Continental Cups

Hey, the first international ski races of the 2011-2012 season took place recently in New Zealand! They are officially FIS sanctioned races, but my impression is that they have a bit more of a training camp time trial feel to them. The Americans, Canadians, some Russians, and then an assortment of Japanese, Korean, and locals (Australia + New Zealand) are spending time down at the Snow Farm. The fields are small, no one is in top form and probably everyone is treating them as training rather than a ‘serious’ competition.

But heck, let’s (over) analyze them anyway, just for fun. These will be very short, narrowly focused posts on these races. The men did a mass start 15k classic race (no Russians). I suppose it’s interesting that Newell finished second, which is nominally pretty good for him in a distance race, but of course it’s hard to read much of anything into that. I’m generally more interested in the younger skiers. Take Noah Hoffman, for instance:

This graph shows how Hoffman has fared against these specific skiers (a subset of the folks in the New Zealand race) over time. The New Zealand race is in red. That appears right in line with how he fared against Freeman last season, so that’s a good sign. In general, he’s been faring better against Newell over time, but this particular race was a bit against that trend. Given that Hoffman was about as far behind Freeman as he normally is, I’d guess that’s evidence for this being a strong race for Newell rather than a weak one for Hoffman.

The corresponding women’s 10k classic mass start was interesting for data nerds like myself. It consisted of Justyna Kowalczyk and only 5 others (it’s possible other folks raced who don’t have valid FIS licenses, so they won’t show up on the official results) from Japan, Korea and New Zealand. Obviously, this made for a somewhat uneven field. Kowalczyk won by around 4 minutes.

This immediately gets someone like me wondering how that margin of victory stacks up historically. In this case, second place finisher Sumiko Ishigaki was ~13% back. That’s the third largest percent back by a second place finisher that I could find in a FIS sanctioned women’s race (out of 2691 total). That means that I found two races with larger margins between first and second place!

One of them is impressive, but plausible, being another instance of a tiny field. The other, the largest, is so outlandish that I spent a while trying to decide if it wasn’t in fact an error of some sort. I’ve mostly decided that it must be a mistake and the winning time was really 34:32 not 24:32. Perhaps a reader will fill me in on the details…

Was Bjørgen vs Kowalczyk Really An Issue This Season?

Doogiski over at NordicXplained has a good post up regarding the rivalry (such as it is) between Marit Bjørgen and Justyna Kowlaczyk. The issue between the fans of these two great skiers is the question of which one is better. Shocker, I know.

Doogiski gives a good rundown of some of the limitations of comparing skiers using only World Cup points and does some adjustments for the number of races each skier did, plus a few other factors. I think this is a reasonable way to look at World Cup points, but ultimately I agree with one of his commenters that this is really fairly simple. In the specific case of two athletes who have actually raced against each other a fair amount, the least ambiguous way to measure who was better is simply to look at these specific head-to-head matchups.

In this case, they raced against each other in 7 sprint races and 14 distance races. (I’m not including the overall standings for the stage races both ladies competed in at Kuusamo and in Falun, just each individual race.) Kowalczyk beat Bjørgen in only one sprint race (Otepaa) and in only two distance races (handicap pursuit in Kuusamo and the regular pursuit in Lahti). That’s a record of 6-1 (Sprint) and 12-2 (Distance) for Bjørgen, and with numbers like that it’s very hard for me to take seriously claims that Kowalczyk was the better skier this season. And one of those wins for Kowalczyk was a somewhat unusual race, with Bjørgen holding the overall lead in the Kuusamo mini-tour and most likely not really trying to win the stage, but simply hold on to the overall lead.

In fact, if you extend this back to the previous two seasons, Bjørgen’s record is 11-3 (Sprint) and 20-5 (Distance). Kowalczyk can, and does, beat her on occasion, but it’s not exactly a back-and-forth rivalry lately.

Obviously, Kowalczyk skied very well at the Tour de Ski, and I think in doing so proved that she was (on average) better than everyone other than Bjørgen this season. (Although one could possibly argue that Johaug deserves that title.) Bjørgen didn’t do the Tour, but probably will next year, which I predict will lead to either an epic battle between the two, or a really boring Tour as Bjørgen crushes everyone.

Let’s kick things up a notch, though, focusing in on the times they’ve raced against each other in distance events overall: Read more

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