The Essent ISU World Cup series started this weekend. For the first time in history an international competition took place in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Since it was the first time that top skaters from all over the world visited the ‘Ural Lightning’ ice rink, track records fell at each distance except for the 500m Men. The arena was relatively warm, the ice had good grip and the skaters sounded content with the conditions.
Compared to the previous years there seemed to be a shift in the Ladies' 500m. World record holder Jenny Wolf (GER) who finished in 7th place did not make the podium; neither did Olympic Champion Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR), who was fifth. Jing Yu (CHN) won in 37.81, and behind her three skaters finished in 38.22. Annette Gerritsen (NED) was the first to race but last of the three, coming in at 38.228, later both Maki Tsuji (JPN) and Thijsje Oenema (NED) finished in 38.223 and shared silver.
In the Men's 500m, Pekka Koskela (FIN) won in 35.00 with a strong 25.2 final lap. It was his 7th World Cup victory in this distance. Jan Smeekens (NED) had the fastest opening of his career, 9.59, but lost a bit in his lap and finished second, only 0.01 behind Koskela. Yuya Oikawa (JPN), made clever use of the slip stream of his tall pair mate and finished in 35.07, keeping multiple world sprint champion Kyou-Hyuk Lee (KOR) 0.02 second behind him. Stefan Groothuis (NED) skated a personal best time of 35.12, which earned him fifth place.
On the 3000m, Claudia Pechstein (GER), almost 40 years old, was the first of the favourites to race. She set a strong time, 4:07.81, a track record. Then Ireen Wüst (NED) skated, and started like a whirlwind, too fast, as she slowed down considerably in the final lap, but her 4:07.16 was another track record. Olympic champion Martina Sáblíková (CZE) skated against her main rival Stephanie Beckert (GER), the Olympic silver medalist. Sábliková skated her race behind the lap times of Wüst, but took the win in the final lap: 4:06.54. Stephanie Beckert was a shadow of her reputation. There were personal bests for Janneke Ensing and Linda de Vries (both NED), the latter skated 4:07.96 and reached fourth place.
In the Men's 1500m 1:46.88 was the previous track record of Ivan Skobrev (RUS). The first to break that was Denny Morrison (CAN) with 1:46.82. Then Shani Davis (USA) and Stefan Groothuis (NED) raced together. Groothuis opened in 23.79. Usually Davis would pass him eventually, but this time Groothuis had laps of 25.6 and 27.0 versus Davis' 25.8 and 27.1. Groothuis skated the straight in the draft of Davis and had a good last inner turn, finishing in 1:45.70 versus 1:46.26 for Davis. In the final pair, Skobrev started carefully, but coached by Maurizio Marchetto skated an even race with laps of 26.8, 27.1 and 27.9 to finish at 1:46.46, overtaking Dutch Kjeld Nuis (1:46.59, fourth) in the last straight.
Saturday started with the second 500m races. First were the women where Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) showed her strength with 38.09. Jenny Wolf (GER) in the next pair, not as explosive in the first 100m as in the past, finished behind her in 38.22. In the final pair, Jing Yu (CHN), who had also won the first 500m, was superior again and lowered the track record to 37.65. Dutch skaters Oenema and Boer finished in fourth and fifth place. Yu now leads with 200 points, Oenema has 140 and Lee 130.
In the Men’s 500m, the Asian skaters took over the podium this time. Kang-Seok Lee (KOR) skated 35.19 and kept the lead for a long time until his team-mate Tae-Bum Mo, a day earlier the winner of the B-division, skated 35.01. Only Joji Kato (JPN) managed to set a time below 35, finishing with 34.92. Yuya Oikawa (JPN) was his pair mate, and he took bronze again with 35.14. Kato gathered 145 points this weekend, Oikawa 140 and Smeekens (NED) 130.
In the Ladies' 1500m everybody struggled to stay at speed in the final lap, but most were two seconds slower than in the preceding lap, even Marrit Leenstra (NED), who usually doesn’t have problems maintaining her speed. Still her time of 1:58.27 was good for bronze and a track record. Ireen Wüst (NED) later improved the track record to 1:57.02. After her, Christine Nesbitt (CAN) started faster, but in the last two laps she lost to Wüst and finished in second place with 1:57.44.
In the 5000m, the first to beat the old track record of 6:24 was Alexis Contin (FRA), with 6:23.97 in pair 9. In the next pair, Olympic Champion Sven Kramer (NED) made his come-back after more than a year. He raced against Ivan Skobrev (RUS), the world all-round champion, in what looked like too big of a challenge in the first half of the race. In the second part however, he skated away from Skobrev and finished in 6:20.60, 8 seconds faster than the Russian. Bob de Jong (NED) skated in the next pair, and did not quite manage the time of Kramer, but finished in 6:21.96. In the final pair, Håvard Bøkko (NOR) started fast but could not hold that speed to the end. After four laps, Dutch champion Jorrit Bergsma, who kept all of his laps below 30.3 seconds, took over the lead. Bergsma finished with five 29-second laps and won his first world cup race in 6:18.74. It was the first international defeat of Kramer in this distance since 2007.
In the Ladies' 1000m, the first to set a track record was Laurine van Riessen (NED), 1:16.93. In the next pair, her team mate Marrit Leenstra brought it to 1:16.77 and the Dutch continued to do well, as Margot Boer met last year’s World Cup winner Heather Richardson (USA), and took the race with 1:16.52 against 1:17.30. In the final pair, however, Olympic Champion Christine Nesbitt (CAN) impressed with a strong race (her lap times 27.7 and 29.8 were the strongest in the field) and took the victory in 1:15.97.
Then the men skated the 1000m. In the morning, Tae-Bum Mo (KO) had won the B-division in a track record of 1:09.33, which held until the tenth pair (out of twelve) in division A, Stefan Groothuis (NED) and Sjoerd de Vries (NED). They both opened in 16.6, but then Groothuis continued with laps of 25.1 and 26.6, both the fastest in the field, and came in with the fastest time here in 1:08.49. De Vries also managed to be below the old mark with 1:09.29. Pair 11 featured Olympic Champion Shani Davis (USA) and Kjeld Nuis (NED). Nuis did what the Dutchmen before him did: he opened in 16.6 and had a 25.1 lap next, so that he was on the schedule of Groothuis, leaving Davis (fifth) behind him. With a 26.7 final lap, he approached Groothuis’ time and took silver with 1:08.56. The bronze medalist came from the last pair. Denny Morrison (CAN) finished in 1.09.28, making De Vries just miss the podium. After his second win of the weekend, Groothuis commented that it was wonderful to take the double that only Shani Davis could win in the past.
The Team Pursuit for the Ladies had its best pairing when Canada met Russia. The Canadians started fast but each successive lap was a bit slower and so they eventually clocked 3:02.07. The Russians had the most even race in the field, each lap about as fast as the previous one but not enough to beat Canada, therefore taking bronze with 3:03.37. In the final pair, the Dutch team started faster than the Canadians, had a similar schedule, but lost in the final lap where one of the skaters could not stay in touch with the team, which finished behind Canada in 3:02.72.
The Men’s Team Pursuit had 13 participants. Before the ice preparation, the Dutch team set the fastest time, 3:41.25. None bettered that time. The US team finished in second place with 3:44.52 and the German team was third with 3:45.29. The French team (Contin, Macé and Fernandez) set a national record with 3:48.09.