Northug the man to beat as Olympic season starts
Petter Northug enters the Olympic season as the man to beat in cross-country skiing, and he isn't doing much to downplay expectations. The 23-year-old Norwegian has an unrivaled sprinting ability that is matched by his confident swagger and unwavering belief that he is close to unbeatable in the final stages of a race. It's an attitude that has helped make him the sport's biggest star going into the Vancouver Olympics, but also has a habit of rubbing some of his rivals the wrong way. Before this weekend's World Cup opener in Norway, some German reporters wanted to know whether Northug really is as arrogant as he seems. The three-time world champion's retort was simple: It's not arrogance, he insisted, when you're the best. "I just cross the finish line first," he said with a shrug. "That's it." He'll get his first chance of the season to prove that in a 15-kilometer freestyle race in Beitostoelen, the first event of the World Cup calendar. A team relay is Sunday. Northug already has his sights set on a bigger target, however. After taking three golds at this year's world championships, Northug can cement his place as the next Norwegian skiing great with an equally dominant performance in Vancouver. "You think about the Olympics pretty much every day, all the time," Northug said. "It's in the back of your head throughout." Northug's explosiveness and speed gives him the potential to be the most dominant cross-country skier since Bjorn Dahlie, the Norwegian all-time great who won eight Olympic golds between 1992 and '98. Northug represents a new breed of skier who excels in the increasingly common mass-start races - a format that is seen as more TV friendly than the traditional interval start competitions. While interval starts force every skier to set his own pace throughout the race, a mass start becomes a more tactical event - similar to long-distance running - where the good sprinters can simply tag along behind those up front, biding their time before the frantic finish. No one does that better than Northug. If his rivals can't shake him off before the final kilometer, he usually wins. He showed that at this year's worlds in Liberec, Czech Republic, where Northug won the 30-kilometer skiathlon and 50K freestyle races - both mass-start events - and anchored Norway's winning relay team. All three races finished in identical fashion: After letting others do the hard work up front, Northug blew by them shortly before the end, quickly building enough of a lead to start celebrating well before the finish line. This year, he is determined to become more of a force in the interval starts and classical-style races after finishing second overall in last season's World Cup behind Dario Cologna. Cologna has been hampered by a thigh injury this offseason, and the Swiss skier only decided this week that he is fit enough to compete in the World Cup opener. "I'm pretty tired from the number of training hours over the last week," Cologna said. "I'm very anxious to see where I stand compared to the competition." Northug's other main rivals include German duo Axel Teichmann and Tobias Angerer, along with Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic. On the women's side, Norway's Marit Bjorgen is showing signs of returning to the form that earned her two overall World Cup titles and four world championships titles this decade. Bjorgen dominated both warmup races in Beitostoelen last weekend, a 5K and a 10K. "I think and hope that my form is going to last," said Bjorgen, who struggled last season and is still looking for her first Olympic gold. Northug also showed good form his last warmup event, winning last weekend's 15K race in Beitostoelen. "I'm in better shape than I was at this time last year," Northug said. "I believe I'll take a step forward this year." However, his preparations were distracted this week after Northug clashed with the Norwegian skiing federation over a private sponsorship deal with energy drink producer Red Bull. The deal has rankled the other sponsors for Norway's ski team, and Northug was fined by the federation after wearing a hat with the company's logo during a TV interview without permission. A Norwegian newspaper then reported that Northug was considering breaking away from the national team after this season, although both the skier and the federation have denied those intentions. All the fuss is unlikely to affect Northug, who claims not to have read a single newspaper article about himself in years. That should help him keep his mind focused on Vancouver, and making up for the disappointment of failing to make the Norwegian team for the 2006 Turin Games. "If I leave the Olympics with a gold, I'll be happy. That's the goal," he said. "I've used what happened in 2006 as motivation. This is my first chance to come to an Olympics, so it's new and exciting for me."