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…

Broomwagon (Zamboni?)

  • Cycling fans watching long-track speedskating have probably seen something familiar to them other than enormous thighs and Eric Heiden. The Russian team’s skinsuits are near dead-ringers for Katusha’s kit. All hail the beautiful branding consistency of state-sponsored sports.

  • If you’ve ever watched a Madison on the velodrome, you’ll understand the team events in short-track speedskating. Though this may sound biased, I have to say I find the Madison’s handsling exchange far more dignified than the short-track ass bump technique.

  • Short-track speedskating’s version of the Madison: good. Its commitment to the bulbous helmets and terrible lycra helmet covers of cycling’s late 1980’s: unfortunate. Every sport (cycling included) has its ridiculous traditions that must be observed, though, and maybe the helmets do give the short-track the same sort of endearingly anachronistic look as Japanese keirin helmets.

  • The connection between cycling and long-track speedskating is hard to escape, of course, with crossovers like Eric Heiden, Christine Witty, and currently active Canadian Clara Hughes all raking in accolades on both skates and wheels. Beyond the demonstrable link in the physical abilities needed for success in both, though, there’s something about the feel of the sports that’s the same, in the arena or on the “open road.” Classics fans, watch this clip of the Dutch Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) race over 200k of canal ice and tell me it doesn’t speak to you.

  • The Vancouver organizing committee named the hockey arena "Canada Hockey Place"? Really? Does that sound better in French or something? This goes beyond my usual prediction comfort zone, but I will go on record now as predicting that, in a show of blatant geopolitical one-upsmanship, the Russian organizing committee will name the Sochi 2014 hockey facility “Russia Frozen Water Building".

  • The skier cross and boarder cross events have been entertaining to watch, despite giving me horrible flashbacks to writing about various forms of gated mountain bike racing – dual slalom, then dual, then four-cross, plus that Jeep KOM thing. Great fun to watch, hard to capture in the printed word. I wonder if the recent addition of the Olympics’ various “cross” events, along with short-track speed skating, reflects not just the IOC’s oft-stated quest to modernize (and up the danger quotient), but also a realization that audiences like to see actual, head-to-head competition between athletes. Until recently, there wasn’t a whole lot of that at the Winter Olympics, where the marquis events are mostly timed or scored. Think of how terrible an all time trial grand tour would be, or one that included style points. (Just so you know, if style points existed in cycling, Filippo Pozzato would win a lot more and Fernando Escartin would have never been third in the 1999 Tour de France.)

  • Skier cross and boarder cross, together with mountain bike four-cross, do prove that you can throw four people riding damn near anything down one of those courses and produce solid entertainment. In the altruistic interest of bettering Olympic viewership and profit, you know what I want to see? Bobsled cross.

  • From the style desk: Speaking of bobsleds, the all-red CCCP bobsleds of my youth were so much cooler than this year’s ornate Russian ones.

  • From the style desk II: I have to admit, it took 12 years, but Apollo Ohno has finally started to grow on me (not literally) by showing nothing but class both on the ice and in interviews. I do have to wonder, though, if he’s kicking himself for making the goatee and bandana his trademark look way back in Salt Lake City. It was already sorrowfully dated then, and it must be just torturous to have to keep it up in 2010. He’ll probably retire just so he can shave that thing and buy a hat.