by Andy Newell
Something many cross-country-skiing fans and TV viewers are probably unaware of this season is that some of the new rules put in place for sprint racing have definitely added a new dimension to race-day tactics. The two major rule changes this year are 1) a new heat-selection process after qualification and 2) a yellow-card infraction for a false start in a sprint. Now, believe it or not, these two very different rules have a lot more in common than you might think, and hopefully I can provide some insight into how it is affecting the World Cup athletes.
Since the days of the first sprint races, a skier's qualifying time determined which heat the skier would race in. This qualification placement determined which of five quarterfinal heats the skier would be in, as well as which lane choice the skier would get at the start line. It all seemed pretty simple at the time. If you qualify first, you are in the first heat with skiers 10, 11, 20, 21 and 30.
This approach was simple because there was no decision-making to be done on behalf of the athlete. Initially, there was some kind of math equation involved that concluded a bracket system such as this was the fairest way to split up the top-30 skiers, trying to separate the top-five fastest qualifiers so that they were each in their own heat. After years of using this method, more and more research came out showing that it was, in fact, not a particularly fair way to separate the top-30 sprinters especially for the second- and third-fastest qualifiers stuck in the bottom half of the bracket. The primary limiting factor for these skiers was a shortened recovery time before the final.
The studies showed that skiers who came from the top of the bracket and the first semifinal were 80% more likely to be on the podium because of this extra five minutes of recovery before the final. This essentially made it more likely for the 10th-place qualifier to be on the podium than the second or third qualifier. To fix this problem, last season the International Ski Federation tested out a “choose your own heat” system in order to fill the brackets for the heats, and it put the new rule in place for the entire 2015-2016 season.
I have to admit that initially athletes and coaches were a little bit skeptical about the new change, thinking it would just add additional stress and confusion to an already long race day. However, after we learned to use the new system, it has added much more control over the athlete's path to the podium. Of course, if you have qualified in the high 20's, you won't have too many options to choose from, but for the top-15 qualifiers, there is more personal accountability. Does it miraculously make it any easier to get through to the always tight quarterfinals? Definitely not, but depending on athletes' strengths, it can allow them to implement a different strategy on the day.
The first obvious advantage is for any type of team tactic. You can either choose a heat your teammate is in so that you can push one another, or stay clear of the heat to create different scenarios for the team to advance. If you are one of the top-15 skiers to choose, you can position yourself in the top half of the bracket for more recovery time, but also risk a severely stacked heat. There are always tradeoffs. One major factor, especially for the women's heats (which tend
to string out more), is that skiers can opt to choose a heat with a few top sprinters, knowing their likelihood for a Lucky-loser position with a top-four finish is greatly increased.
This has been a major strategy in both men's and women's heats because, in general, we are seeing the first two quarterfinals stack up with more top sprinters than under the old formula, increasing the likelihood of Lucky-loser spots from those two heats. With that being the case, it can often leave the fourth and fifth heats more open, with slightly less competitive quarterfinals, so we have been seeing some skiers opt for the opposite strategy, depending on their goals for the day. When skiers are more focused on scoring a top-10 finish (and a podium finish is more of an afterthought), they might try to position themselves in one of the bottom-bracket heats for a better chance of advancing.
In the end, it still comes down to capitalizing on your heat, skiing to your strengths and knowing, no matter what, it's going to be a fun, tough battle to the final. These changes were primarily introduced with the concern of recovery time in mind, which brings us to the second rule change of false starts.
In the past, the first false start by any skier in a heat simply resulted in a warning. The second false start in that heat had more consequences, but the first one was basically a “gimme” under the old rules. What became an issue, believe it or not, was that typically in the finals skiers would false start on purpose in order to buy themselves a few more recovery minutes. This was a strategy employed by many skiers if they had come from the bottom bracket and needed a few more minutes to catch their breath before the final.
Now with the new yellow-card rule, if a skier false starts in any heat, in any race, it's a yellow card that will remain in place for the entire season. Two yellow cards can result in a disqualification, so essentially two false starts during the season and you will get a disqualification. This is making racers much more cautious at the line, with good reason. Although these changes seemed a bit drastic when first enforced, the World Cup has adopted them and racing continues on more smoothly and with fair competition. Although these rules are not yet implemented on the domestic circuits, look for them to adopt the changes in the years to come.