Tour de Ski Set to Start!

Topher SabotDecember 26, 2008

The 3rd FIS Tour de Ski gets under way tomorrow.  The event has become one of the big highlights of the long World Cup season, and features 7 races in 10 days.  A mixture of sprints and distance races, as well as intermediate bonus points during the longer races means that the event favors all-around skiers over specialists.   To win an athlete needs to be able to excel in both techniques over all distances and have the fitness to do so over the course of the grueling schedule.

The athlete with the fastest overall time is the winner.

The Tour starts in Oberhof, Germany with a 3/3.3 km freestyle prologue.  The individual start event will set up the next day’s 10/15 km classic pursuit start.  Given the short distance of the prologue, we can expect the field to be extremely tight at the start of Sunday’s pursuit.

Racers head for the Czech Republic for a 1km freestyle sprint in Prague on the 29th.  After the first day of rest, action continues in Nove Mesto (still in the Czech Republic) with a 10/15km classic individual start on the 31st and a 1.2km freestyle sprint on the 1st.

After the second and last rest day, the Tour comes to its challenging conclusion in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Saturday the 3rd features a 10/20km classic mass start, and Sunday the famed “Final Climb,” a 9/10km hill climb.  This last event is a pursuit start based on the overall standings of the Tour.  The first across the line is the overall winner!

Three of the four full distance races are classic this year, giving an advantage to skiers who favor that technique.  Both sprints and the prologue are freestyle, but there is more time to be made in the distance races, despite bonus seconds awarded to the top 30 in each sprint race.   First place in a sprint garners an additional 60 second time bonus.  Bonus seconds are distributed on a scale down to 1 second for 30thplace.             

Additional bonus seconds are awarded at intermediate points in the mass start competitions. 15, 10 and 5 seconds go to the first three athletes at a designated intermediate point.

In both mass start competitions and the prologue the top three finishers will also get bonus seconds (15, 10 and 5 seconds).

The idea is that bonus seconds are awarded for sprinting prowess – be it in a sprint race or the end of a mass start event.  The skier who accrues the most bonus seconds throughout the tour will be crowned the Tour de Ski Sprint Champion.

As is the norm in stage races, athletes must complete every stage to remain in the Tour and must finish within a specific percent of the winner in every race.  Athletes will be disqualified if they fail to finish within 18% (women) or 15% (men) of the winner in interval start events greater than 5km.  For interval starts less than 5km, the percentages are 23% (women) and 20% (men).

It is difficult to predict overall winners of the Tour.  Last year, the women’s event featured an exciting finish when the young Swede, Charlotte Kalla, overtook overall World Cup Champion Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) on the final climb to claim a surprising victory.  On the men’s side, Lukas Bauer (CZE) dominated the distance races, building enough of a cushion to absorb his relatively poor sprint results (he failed to qualify in the top 30 in any of the sprint competitions).

As mentioned above, this year appears to favor strong classic skiers, and as Bauer proved last year, top sprint results are not a prerequisite for victory.

At this point, the favorite in the women’s event is Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN).  Saarinen currently leads the overall World Cup and is a consistent top 10 World Cup finisher in both disciplines.  She is a strong sprinter, though her best results have come in distance events and she appears to be a bit stronger in the classic technique.  With four podium finishes already this season (including one victory), Saarinen looks to be in fine form.

She will be challenged by last year’s runner up and two time defending World Cup Champion, Kuitunen. The Finnish star currently sits in fourth place overall on the World Cup.  She has yet to show the consistent form of the past two years, but has been on the podium twice, including one victory.  She is equally strong in both technical disciplines and shows no preference for sprints or distance.

Petra Majdic (SLO) has won the last three World Cup sprint events, including her first career victory in the freestyle technique.  This bodes well for the tall Slovenian, given that all the short distance events are skating.  She is also a strong distance skier, capable of top-10 results – especially in classic.  She is currently second in the overall World Cup.

Finally, we cannot count out Marit Bjoergen.  The Norwegian leader is often overlooked after her performance has slipped somewhat since she completely dominated the circuit in both 2005 and 2006.  But it is all relative, and Bjoergen continues to be a very dangerous competitor.  She is strong in all disciplines and distances and has shown good form this season with four podium finishes.

Other names to watch include Arianna Follis (ITA) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).  Kowalczyk’s preference for skate events keeps her from being a favorite, but her consistent results this year demonstrate she has the fitness to compete.

Last year’s winner Charlotte Kalla (SWE) is sick and has withdrawn from the event.

It is even more difficult to pick the favorites on the men’s side.  Overall World Cup leader, Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR) is a sprint specialist and is not even starting the event.  Last year’s winner, Lukas Bauer, has been inconsistent in the early season and does not appear to be at the top of his game (though he has not raced since December 13th, so has had several weeks off from competition to prepare for the Tour).

There is only one man ranked in the top-10 on both the World Cup distance list and the World Cup sprint list.  The consistent performance of Dario Cologna (SUI) make him the top pick, but the field is wide open. 

Watch out for the always dangerous Axel Teichmann (GER), a former World Cup champion, Teichmann is strong in both classic and freestyle, and while not a consistent top finisher in the sprints, he is more than capable of qualifying for the heats.

Norweigan Petter Northug started the season strong, and may have been the early favorite.  But has classic results have been weaker this season.  Still, he is a formidable in both sprints and distance, and shouldn’t be counted out.

His teammates Eldar Roenning, John Kristian Dahl, and Martin Johnsrud Sundby are all potential top finishers as well.

Swedish skier Johan Olsson, who leads the distance World Cup, is focusing on the World Championships and is not racing in the Tour.

Any number of other skiers will be in contention for the top spot, including several on the Russian team (Legkov, Morilov), Italians (Piller-Cottrer), Finns, Germans, etc…

No Americans will race the Tour de Ski for the third consecutive year.  This is disappointing, yet understandable.  As ski fans, it would be great to be able to root for American athletes.  The Tour de Ski is a major part of the World Cup circuit, and it is a bit embarrassing the US fails to field a team year after year.  That said, it makes no sense to expend the energy and resources if the athletes aren’t in position to compete for a top spot.  On the men’s side, the US currently has only one skier who has ever scored points in a World Cup distance race on the team – Kris Freeman.  But Freeman has struggled with illness the past few years and while he has turned in some very impressive results (a fifth last year, 16th this season) it has been some time since he has been able to string together a number of top performances in a row.   There is no question he could potentially post excellent results in the distance events, but he rarely enters sprint competitions (though he has always fared well domestically in those events), and the overall toll on his body could jeopardize the chance for top finishes at the World Championships. 

The US team appears focused on winning medals at World Championships and the Olympic Games.  Racing the Tour does not directly build toward that goal.  Freeman and the US sprinters (who would not be competitive in the distance races at this point) are not the only World Cup athletes skipping the Tour in order to prepare for the later part of the season.

On the women’s side, Kikkan Randall could some day be a strong candidate for success in the Tour de Ski. She is already a top sprinter, and her 23rd place finish in a 10km event demonstrated that her distance racing has improved markedly.  But despite that result, Randall’s early season has been a bit of a struggle. Her sprint results have been less than expected, and she would have to ratchet her distance skiing up one more notch to compete for a top finish on the Tour.  Given the fact that she has podium potential at World Championships, and the significant health problems she has overcome over the last year, there is not point in skiing the Tour.

The good news is that the Canadians are fielding a full team, including several skiers who could be dark horses in the battle for the top-10.  Devon Kershaw’s Tour was off to a great start last year when he came down with illness and was forced to withdraw.  He stood in 16th, 12 seconds out of the top-10 after three stages.  A fifth place finish already this season for Kershaw shows he can compete at the front of the pack, and he has traditionally been strong in both distance and sprinting.   

Kershaw will be joined by teammates Ivan Babikov and George Grey.  Babikov, in his first season competing internationally for Canada, is certainly a threat in the distance races, but his lack of sprinting prowess will limit his overall standing.  Grey is more well rounded than Babikov, but has not reached the same level historically.  Grey is coming off a career best 16th place finish two weeks ago in Davos.

The Canadian women will be represented by Sara Renner, who has been skiing very well of late, placing 9thin a recent World Cup race.  She failed to qualify in her only World Cup sprint of the season. 

Overall there are 51 women and 66 men entered in the event.

World Cup points are awarded to for the Tour.  The top 30 in each race score points, though the winner gets only 50, compared to the 100 for a normal World Cup race.  The points descend to 1 for 30th. Athletes must complete the Tour for the points to be scored.

The big points go for the overall standings – four times the normal World Cup point scale is awarded.  400 points for the winner, down to 4 points for 30th.

In addition to points, significant prize money is up for grabs – 131,250 CHF for the overall winners.  Prize money is awarded down to 10th place and to the top five in the sprint rankings and to daily leaders.

The final attraction is the Team Cup – the top two men and women from a country score.  The fastest total time wins.

Universal Sports will be showing the entire Tour de Ski on both the web and cable television with same day delay.  This means you will be able to watch every event the same day it happens!  Use the links below to access Universal Sports coverage.

FIS Cross Country Tour de Ski Women’s Prologue (from Oberhof, GER)

FIS Cross Country Tour de Ski Men’s Prologue (from Oberhof, GER)>

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Topher Sabot

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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