The second annual Tour de Ski came to an end in exciting fashion on Sunday. Young Charlotte Kalla of Sweden overtook Finn Virpi Kuitunen on the final climb for the women’s victory. Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic finished off a dominating week by extending his lead an winning the men’s crown by almost three minutes.
The Tour de Ski is modeled on cycling stage races. Eight events were held over ten days, with distances ranging from sprints to 20km. Bonus time is awarded to the top three finishers in distance racers, and to the top 30 in sprint events. Additionally, bonus seconds are awarded at intermediate points during distance events. 54 women and 75 men started the event. By the finish, 45 women and 59 men had completed the grueling week and a half of racing.
The Tour began with a prologue in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic— an unconventional 3.3km for women and 4.5km for men. Defending women’s champion Virpi Kuitunen got off to a strong start, taking the victory and the 15 extra bonus seconds. In the men’s race, Lucas Bauer came away with the win on his home soil. Canadians Devon Kershaw and David Nighbor finished 25th and 37th respectively.
Competition continued the following day with a freestyle pursuit. Marit Bjoergen (NOR) one of the pre-Tour favorites, edged out Charlotte Kalla in a sprint to the line to take the victory and the leader’s bib. Kuitunen finished fourth, 15 seconds back over the 10km course.
Bauer showed he was the man to beat with an extremely strong performance in the men’s 15km. He skied away from the field, extending his overall lead to 47 seconds. The next 30 men were all bunched within 15 seconds. Kershaw moved up one spot to 24th, well within striking distance of the podium.
The Tour then moved to Prague for the first sprint competition. Qualifying times counted toward total Tour time, while bonus seconds were awarded based on the final heat results. Bauer, a poor sprinter, finished 45th and fell into second place, 12.1 seconds behind Norweigan Simen Ostensen, who took second in the sprint. Nikolay Morilov (RUS) claimed the stage victory but remained well back in 44th place due to his poor distance racing. Kershaw had a great qualifying round, taking the 5th spot. An unfortunate crash in the heats knocked the Canadian out early and sent him to a 27th place finish.
Italian Arianna Follis won the women’s sprint, with Bjoergen third and Kuitunen fifth. Kalla finished a disappointing 16th after qualifying in 5th. Overall standings remained tight, with Bjoergen holding a 9.4 second leaf over Follis.
The first rest day gave athletes a chance to recuperate and travel back to Nove Mesto. These races were originally scheduled for Germany, but confusion with event organizers led to a last minute change. Charlotte Kalla won the second 10km freestyle pursuit of the Tour over Follis by 8.5 seconds. Kuitunen remained close with a 4th place finish, and Bjoergen could not keep pace, slipping to ninth, +38.0. As this was a pursuit start based on the overall standings, the order of finish also represented the overall standings.
Bauer held onto the men’s lead — barely. Posting the 13th fastest time of the day, the Czech skier saw his lead slip to just 3.2 seconds over teammate Marin Koukal. Pietro Piller Cottrer (ITA) moved into third with the fastest race. Overall, the top 6 men were all within 8 seconds of the lead.
Canadian Devon Kershaw withdrew form the Tour due to illness. He stood in 16th place at the time.
Continuing in Nova Mesto, the Tour switched to the traditional individual start format for a 10/15km classic event. As expected, these served to spread out the field somewhat. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) won the women’s race by just under three seconds over teammate Kuitunen. Kalla continued her consistent racing, taking 6th. Bjoergen continued to fade. Her 20th place was over a minute off pace. With the strong race and associated bonus seconds, Kuitunen regained the overall lead, with Kalla in second, 25 seconds back.
Bauer won the men’s 15km event by 28 seconds over Norweigan Jens Arne Svartedal. Because of the high turnover behind Bauer, the Czech was able to stretch his lead to over two minutes.
Another day off and travel to Asiago, Italy before the Tour resumed with another sprint. Kalla won her first straight individual World Cup race of her career, with Follis in 4th and Kuitunen in 11th. Kuitunen barely held onto the gold leader’s bib — in front of Kalla by .2 seconds, and setting up an exciting final weekend. Justina Kowalcyzk (POL) continued a strong tour with her second podium appearance and third place overall.
Petter Northug (NOR) won the men’s sprint, leading four Norweigans in the top ten. Bauer once again failed to qualify for the heats, but still held a lead of 1:17 headed into the final two events. Norweigan Tor Asle Gjerdalen and Piller Cotrer of Italy stood in second and third respectively. Overall, the men’s field clustered tightly between 4th and 15th place.
The final races took place in Val di Fiemme, Italy. The mass start format on Saturday would make it difficult for anyone to open up significant time, but numerous opportunities for bonus seconds made this race very important.
Kuitunen won the women’s 10km classic event, and took all the bonus seconds with the help of her teammate Piro Muranen. Kalla overcame a fall at 3km to finish second, but slipped to 40 seconds back in the overall standings. Marit Bjoergen (NOR) withdrew from the Tour with a stomach illness after several sub-par performances dropped her out of contention for a top spot.
Bauer finished 7th, just seconds off the pace in the men’s 20k. Norweigan classic specialist Odd-Bjorn Hjelmeset made his first appearance at the top of the result sheet since the prologue, taking the victory. Bauer picked up an additional 45 seconds in bonus time during the race and extended his lead to nearly two minutes over Gjerdalen. After Bauer, the men’s field remained tight, setting up an exciting final stage.
The waxing was tough and Bauer made the decision to race on waxless skis. â€œWhen I came to the stadium before the race today each kind of wax that we used was bad and I got very nervous about the race. A few minutes before the race I decided to use no-wax skis. My service man had to run to get the skis from the wax cabin and he gave them to me very shortly before the race. The first kilometers of the race were terrible because the skis were too warm. I was close to crashing on the first downhill since my skis were full of snow. But after that the skis got better and better and I started to go for the bonus seconds.â€
Many of the top athletes told the media that they would not inspect the â€œfinal climbâ€ portion of the last stage prior to the race. The hill was so intimidating, that they would rather not know what was coming.
The course did a rolling loop before dropping down the valley to the base of the 3km climb. Kalla quickly closed on Kuitunen and then rested behind her until the last kilometer where a strong move left the fading Finn behind. Kalla collapsed over the line, 17 seconds aheaf of Kuitunen who held off Italy’s Arianna Follis. Ukrainian Valentina Schevchenko put in a tremendous effort, posting the fastest time of the day by a full minute. This catapulted her from tenth to fourth — one place behind her finish last year.
Kuitunen easily won the Tour de Ski sprint ranking over Follis. The ranking is determined by the total number of bonus seconds accumulated during the Tour.
Bauer grew his lead over the course of the final stage and crossed the line 2:47 ahead of Germany’s Rene Sommerfeldt. Sommerfeldt had a tremendous day, posting the fastest time and skiing up from ninth place. His best finish had been a tenth place in Stage 4. The German barely out sprinted Giorgio di Centa (ITA) at the line.
Said Sommerfeldt after the race, â€œToday I worked together with Axel Teichmann, Martin Koukal and Franz Goering until the start of the Final Climb. Then I attacked and was able to improve my rank one by one. I was not too tired this morning; rather I had a good feeling before today's race. I have been training on a very steep uphill in my home town to get ready for this Final Climb.â€
Petter Northug (NOR) won the Sprint title in a tie-breaker with teammate Tor Arne Hetland. Di Centa was third.
The Tour introduced a Team competition for the first time. In each stage the times of the top two men and women were added. Norway won handily by 4:21 over Russia. Italy took third, edging Germany by 10 seconds.
Overall, the tour proved an exciting event. Between the men and the women there were six different leaders and substantial changes in the standings throughout the 10 days of racing. The challenging final climb provided a nice change from the mass start races — where most of the skiers remained in a tight pack for the entire race. It is impressive to see how much difference there can be among skiers at the level on any given day when they are put to such a challenging test.
Wrote Vegard Ulvang, the Chairman of the FIS Cross-Country Committee —
â€œI am very happy overall. We saw many good races and very good sport. As the President of the International Ski Federation said last night, last year the Tour was a baby. It is a one-year-old child now. All children learn something new all the time and we, too, will continue to work and develop the Tour. Hopefully we will find several nations interested in organizing the Tour Stages for next year. Of course, we would like Germany to return to the calendar. We will take the time to discuss the sports side of the Tour with the athletes and coaches later on this season, and hope to present an even better program for next year. It is a Championship season next year so we have to review the length of the Tour in terms of the number of races.â€
Juerg Capol, the FIS Cross-Country Race Director, was also pleased –
â€œOne of the main goals for the Tour de Ski was to create interest for the sport of Cross-Country Skiing. And that we have achieved! In terms of the number of TV viewers and number of media on site, the Tour is a totally different story from the regular World Cup races. This is the 2nd year of the Tour and we can say it has established its own character, it has found its space on the calendar and delivers a strong image. This year, too, we could create a good story that developed Stage after Stage.â€
Athletes seemed tired, yet pleased with the overall event. Peter Northug, the Men’s sprint winner told FIS, â€œWe don't have something like this uphill race at home but I've tried to train on something similar. It's a special race and I think its popular for the audience. I like this competition style and I like TDS. I think this number of races is enough, and I think we all feel that we have had two hard weekends. Now I'm looking forward to some days of rest. For me it doesn't matter if it's 6 or 8 races, but I prefer 8 races.â€
Charlotte Kalla agreed with Northug — â€œI think it's great to have eight competitions in the Tour de Ski. There should not be more or less competitions. It's been a wonderful week, but you feel now that you have a lot of races in your body.â€
All races of the Tour de Ski are available for viewing on WCSN, including the exciting final climb! Commentary by Peter Graves.
Men's Tour de Ski Champion Charlotte Kalla (SWE) (Photo Credit: Fischer Skis)