Just when you thought you couldn’t go another day without races to follow and results to check, the Tour de Ski is here to deliver a concentrated dose of cross-country drama. The seventh edition of the event begins on Saturday with a freestyle prologue in Oberhof, Germany, where organizers are filling dump trucks with artificial snow to overcome the warm local weather.
There are a few notable differences between the 2013 Tour and last season’s iteration. At seven races long it’s two whole events shorter than it was in 2012. Some think this makes it a lesser event, but shorter doesn’t necessarily mean easier. There’s less room for error and fewer bonus points — one bad race could ruin an athlete’s entire Tour. With one fewer skiathlon and sprint, the new event lineup lends a slight advantage to distance specialists this time around.
Though it isn’t the biggest event on the calendar this year and there are a few notable names sitting out, the Tour is definitely not just a warm up for World Championships. The start list is chock full of skiers who are serious about their Tour ambitions: Justyna Kowalczyk is poised to make it four-straight, Petter Northug desperately needs to live up to his own hype, and for once Dario Cologna enters the Tour as a bit of an underdog.
Marit Bjørgen, of course, is a notable scratch. Recent heart trouble, now under control, forced the Norwegian start to skip the Tour in favor of recovery. She would have been the best candidate to finally dethrone Kowalczyk, but the week should nevertheless provide plenty of excitement. Here’s a breakdown of the likely contenders:
Men (Start list)
Petter Northug, Jr. (NOR). As the most outwardly brazen athlete on the World Cup Northug has a lot of credibility to lose if he fails to deliver in yet another Tour. He’s already told the Norwegian press exactly how he’ll win the title that has so far eluded him. If they gave out medals based on sheer force of personality, Northug would be a shoe-in.
Still, the proud owner of a personal tour bus is probably the closest thing to a podium guarantee this year. Despite not going to Canada he sits only a few points behind Emil Jonsson (SWE) in the overall World Cup rankings.
Northug started the Tour strong in 2012 but ruined his chances when he fell apart during the 5 k classic in the fifth stage. With a victory in the Kuusamo mini-tour earlier this month, Northug appears to be in better health and shape this time around and is clearly hungry to keep going. Whether he does or not, he’s at least going to be the most exciting skier to watch over the next nine days.
Dario Cologna (SUI) has won this event three out of the last four years, including in 2012. He’s the defending overall World Cup champion. Duh.
He’s had a shaky start to this season, however, and hasn’t been on a World Cup podium once. Compare that to pre-Tour results in 2012, when he had already filed away a sprint victory and ascended to second in the World Cup rankings. Perhaps if Cologna had traveled to Canada we would have seen him in similar shape at the end of Period 1, but as a no-show for the past five World Cup races he’s a bit of a wild card going into Saturday.
Nevertheless, he clearly knows how to win Tours, and began showing signs of improvement a few weeks ago. Instead of racing in Canada he competed in a series of Alpen Cups in Austria, where he was second, first and second in three races against the likes of Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ) and Alexander Legkov (RUS). He wrote on his blog afterwards that those final tune-ups gave him confidence in his fitness heading into the Tour; we’ll just have to see how that plays out once he puts on a bib.
Marcus Hellner (SWE). Maybe he’s just been easing into the season to save up for the more important things, but the 2012 Tour runner-up has had a lackluster start to his season. The same was true of his opening results last year, however, and he wound up finishing second in the Tour, so as long as he’s been training for it and comes to the starting line healthy, Hellner should be in the hunt over the next seven races.
Emil Jönsson (SWE), though traditionally strongest at sprinting, is at the top of his game at the moment. The victor in both individual sprints in Canada, he is sitting at the top of the overall World Cup rankings. He had a poor showing in last year’s tour (41st), but the Swede says he’s feeling “calm, relaxed and incredibly charged” heading into this one.
Alexey Poltoranin (KAZ) has been a bit of a surprise this season, but two outstanding sprints in Quebec and a series of strong Alpen Cup races against Cologna have shown that his recent success is no fluke. Poltoranin didn’t compete in the Tour last year but skied well in the Kuusamo mini-tour earlier this month.
Alexander Legkov (RUS) was fifth in the 2012 Tour. If he’s able to stay within striking distance in the early stages this year, Legkov will be a major threat in the final stage up the Alpe Cermis. One fewer sprint could work to his advantage, too, as Legkov has been slow in the shorter events thus far.
Devon Kershaw (CAN) was out of sorts on his home course in Canmore this month, but if he’s been able to rest and recover over the holiday break for his favorite event of the year he could be back to the kind of fitness that got him fourth place in last year’s Tour. He says on his website that he’s not feeling 100%, but we’re not counting the Canuck out quite yet.
Others to watch for: Lucas Bauer (CZE), Maxim Vhylegzhanin (RUS), Alex Harvey (CAN), Tobias Angerer (GER), Tim Tscharnke (GER)
Not the start list: The Norwegian sprinters, Maurice Manificat (FRA) due to a pulled muscle in Canmore.
Women (Start list)
Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) is leading the overall World Cup right now and enters the Tour as its three-time defending champion. That’s an impressive record. Say what you will about her bizarre technique, abysmal downhilling (both of which have improved this year) and November inconsistency, she proved in Canmore that she’s on top of her game. So what if there was less competition in Canada? Those winning margins were ridiculous.
Additionally, fewer sprints on the event lineup should work to her advantage as the shorter distances seem to be Kowalczyk’s current weakness. Her coach, Alexander Wierietielny, laments the shortening of this year’s Tour, but expects Kowalczyk to show up in Oberhof ready and fighting. And with Bjorgen off the start list there’s one less challenger standing in her way to a fourth-straight crown.
Therese Johaug (NOR) usually stands in Bjorgen’s shadow, but in her teammates’ absence this may be the year Johaug’s dream of winning the Tour comes true. She was third last year, with her climbing prowess showing through in the Alpe Cermis. If she’s going to challenge Kowalczyk, however, she’ll have to keep herself in the hunt throughout the early Tour to keep herself in contention.
Kikkan Randall (USA) has finished in the top 10 eight times this season — more than any other woman on the World Cup. Only once has she fallen outside that cutoff. That kind of consistency in sprints and distance races is why the American is currently ranked second on the overall circuit. Seeing her name at or near the top of results is a matter of routine these days, a fact that’s made believers out of American ski fans from Anchorage to Williamstown.
Randall was tenth in the 2012 Tour, and her challenges there came in the distance events. But she’s proven to be a stronger distance skier already this season, surprising many competitors who thought her injury would hold her back. Even with fewer sprints on the schedule, Randall will be in the fight for the podium.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE) is usually mentioned right after Bjorgen on any given list of top female skiers, but has done nothing special so far this winter. She was fourth in the season opener in November but has been missing from World Cup start lists ever since. Kalla has been training away from home in Italy over the holidays to prepare for the Tour, and if she has been able to get back to her usual form she can be expected to battle with Kowalczyk and Johaug.
Anne Kylloenen (FIN) had a pair of breakthrough races in Canmore and will definitely be interesting to watch as the Tour gets underway. Kylloenen skied decently well in the Kuusamo mini-tour, where she was 11th, but as the fourth-ranked skier on the World Cup and the third-seeded starter on Saturday she sits in a good position to mix things up with the frontrunners.
Others to watch for: Heidi Weng (NOR), Katrin Zeller (GER), Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN), Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR), Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR), Astrid Jacobsen (NOR)
Not on the start list: Vibeke Skofterud (NOR), Marit Bjorgen (NOR), Maiken Kaspersen Falla (NOR), Masako Ishida (JPN)
The 3.1/4.0 k freestyle prologue begins in Oberhof at 1:15 pm CET (women start first).