Monday, February 22, 2010


Our Winter Doppelgangers

Long-time readers will know that I’m not a huge fan of the Olympics. The competition is great, of course; my distaste is more due to the influence the IOC exerts over the sports world and my generalized intolerance for sappy, against-all-odds athlete bio segments on TV. But despite all that, and the lamentable absence of bicycles, I do have to admit that the Winter Olympics offer a lot for a cyclist to love.

Let’s start by looking at Saturday’s cross-country skiing 30k pursuit, as well as by noting in advance that I know next to nothing about XC ski racing. For instance, I know that biting is frowned upon, but I have no idea how common tactical, team-oriented skiing is in this event. What I do know is that a recording of this year's race should be shown to beginning racing cyclists everywhere as a tactical tutorial.

Just after the mid-race transition from classic to freestyle technique (more on that later), Swede Johan Olsson worked out to a 12 second lead, with two teammates at the front of the main field covering for him as he established his gap. When a serious four-man chase formed in the final, Olsson’s teammate Marcus Hellner was there in the thick of it (but not on the front of it). As the catch was made near the last kilometer, Olsson kept driving the front, allowing Hellner to stay tucked in a bit longer before making his charge into the lead, and a gold medal, through the inside of a downhill righthander. With Hellner away, Olsson soldiered on, providing another body’s worth of distance and dissonance in the racing line between Hellner and German Tobias Angerer. Angerer finally did come around Olsson’s gritty final effort to move into the silver position, while Olsson got the bronze for his trouble.

While the vagarities of, say, ice dancing leave me a little lost, to an observing cyclist this race made perfect sense. It was a page from the textbook – send a guy up the road, make other teams bring him back, and then when they do, use his last ounces of energy to spring your ringer in the finale. Very nicely done, whether or not it was part of any pre-race plan, and it made for closing kilometers that were as exciting as the end of a classic. So, can anyone fill me/us in on how common tactical teamwork is in XC skiing? Because if it’s common, well, hey, that was still a heck of a nice example. If it’s not, the Swedes may have just changed the game.

For a cyclist, though, the television commentary may have been more interesting than either the tactics or the nail-biter finish. U.S. cycling fans would instantly recognize the voice on the NBC coverage – none other than our old Tour de France straight man, Al Trautwig. I can hear you groaning, but the Traut did work to learn a bit about cycling over his Tour tenure, and it showed on Saturday. Throughout the 30k pursuit broadcast, he and his co-announcer used cycling parallels to illustrate the concepts at work on the XC ski course to good effect, and they botched nary a one.*

(*My only real quibble was in their discussion of a potential “long break caught on the line” scenario, where they cited Paris-Roubaix as a race where you'd be likely to see it. To my knowledge, that almost never happens at Roubaix, where the early break catch and reshuffling tend to come well before the velodrome. But that’s minor.)

The Traut not misinterpreting cycling’s inner workings, though laudable, wasn’t the really interesting aspect of the commentary for me, though. Rather, it was the realization that I may have been witnessing the first time that a major U.S. television outlet has used cycling as the “more accessible sport” with which to explain a more obscure sport to an American audience. That’s a huge milestone. I want to believe that it speaks to cycling’s higher U.S. profile over the last 15 years that the commentary team didn’t stretch some ill-fitting baseball or NASCAR simile to the point of snapping in order to explain the pursuit, but rather turned to cycling as the best educational fit. That decision comes with the implied assumption that enough of the audience would understand the cycling references to make them worthwhile rather than confusing.

I am willing to admit that that’s probably an overly optimistic assessment of the decision making process, though. It’s far more likely that the designated XC ski expert on the NBC crew knows that there’s substantial XC and cycling crossover, and that most Americans watching XC skiing on a Saturday afternoon would have at least a passing familiarity with cycling. Or, it could just be that after being replaced by Craig Hummer on Versus, the Traut just wanted to roll out his accumulated cycling knowledge one more time. But what the hell, I’ll take the optimistic explanation.

In closing, what do you think of the 30k pursuit format, specifically the switching of equipment and skiing styles from classic to freestyle at the halfway mark? From a cyclists perspective, it’s odd, a bit akin to riding the first half of a classic on a fixed gear, then switching to a nice SRAM Red equipped something-or-other for the last 137 kilometers. But I suppose if we look at it from a more Olympic perspective, it’s a little akin to swimming’s individual medley, or the Alpine Super Combined, which features a downhill run and a slalom run. I doubt the format phases the competitors a bit, though, since the Olympics love to throw crazy combinations of activities at XC skiers. Shooting and XC skiing? Sure! How about an XC race and then a ski jump? Alrighty! How about a 15k classic race and then some competitive falconing? Why not?! Those Nordic skiing folks are a flexible bunch, and in the overly specialized world of professional sports, I admire that.

So what could cycling take away from skiing’s 30k pursuit format? Hell if I know, but I’ll go ahead and say that it means we should bring back Bordeaux-Paris, mostly because I want to see it. 560 kilometers or so, raced in the classic bike race style to the halfway point near Poitiers, then behind dernys for the remainder of the distance. Come on professional cyclists, you know the XC skiers would do it…

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What cyclists can and should take away from the Winter Olympics is biathlon.

Think of it - riding and shooting.

It would be awesome to combine your favorite crit with periodic stops for target shooting.

If the level of bike handling skill is anything to go by, however, maybe it isn't so smart to put guns in these people's hands.
Ryan - I watched almost the entire XC race. It was brilliant! And to hear the voice of Al T. commentating it, I was in disbelief. Amazing race. Ken and I might have to invest in those ski thingies.
I think 'cross and guns is a better mix than with a crit, particularly considering the widespread beer consumption in 'cross.
Speaking of geographic pride, utah has both a bike biathalon:
(read the last paragraph)

and a pursuit style road/mountain bike race:

I've done the first but not the second, and yes its fun and no most bike racers can't shoot straight to save their lives. The range officials get sick of testing guns because "the barrel on mine is bent".
Phenomenal post, nice work.

I've been watching the Olympic XC skiing and wondering whether the teamwork was planned or effective, as well. Watched an American attack his breakaway companion at the end of a race up a hill, fail, and his competitor come around him in the sprint to win the race.

Gotta think it's tougher to drop someone when you need so much space to pass from behind them, but if the aerodynamic benefits are there, drafting makes sense, and so do the rest of the tactics you witnessed.
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