The 4th annual FIS Tour de Ski will be held this season, and for the first time an American will compete. Andy Newell will start the eight-stage event that is modeled on the Tour de France. In the past it hasn’t made much sense for US athletes to take part. Contesting the Tour requires not only a high level of fitness, but the ability to excel at every distance and technique.
Rule changes for the 2010 Tour have altered the landscape of the Tour somewhat, and it is now more attractive for sprint specialists like Newell to participate.
In the past athletes would only keep World Cup points and prize money earned during the Tour if they completed the entire event. This is no longer the case, and now, if a skier drops our midway through, they will keep both points and cash. This, combined with scheduling a short prologue (2.5km for women and 3.75km for men) and two sprints as three of the first four races of the Tour combine to make a Tour start appealing for the sprinters.
US Ski Team Sprint Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier that these changes “absolutely” had an impact on Newell’s decision to compete. Newell agreed, noting how tight the World Cup field is, and how important it is to get points whenever possible.
The decision to start was also a byproduct of Newell’s travel schedule and how he wanted to setup for the Olympics. He decided he only wanted to travel to Europe once prior to the Games. With his girlfriend (US Ski Jumper Jessica Jerome) also in Europe, he decided to spend the Christmas break overseas, and race the World Cup through Otepaa, then skipping the Russian races and heading back home.
“The original plan was just to find a good place to train and hangout with Jess, who was going to be over in Europe jumping.,” Newell explained. “But then once we heard that you could keep your World Cup points from the individual stages [of the Tour] we started seriously looking into the Tour.”
Since the Tour was not on the original US schedule, some budget reshuffling was required to cover the costs of bringing Grover and serviceman Peter Johansson. Newell will have to cover the costs of remaining in Europe until the Tour.
Both Grover and USSA Nordic Director John Farra don’t necessarily see this historic first as a an indication of more Americans racing in the future. As Farra noted, “The decision to be in the Tour de Ski is not a program wide strategy, rather it was deemed a good plan for one athlete. For Andy it seems like a good fit and we are of course psyched to have him in the Tour this year.”
Added Grover, “We choose to race in World Cup events when they make sense for a given athlete. In the future we will have a presence in the Tour, but it depends on when we as a nation develop the kind of all-around cross-country skiers that might have the skills to do well in the Tour.”
Over the past decade, only one US athlete would have had a reasonable chance to produce a solid result – Kris Freeman. But Freeman has often struggled to stay healthy throughout the season, and he appears to be more focused on producing top performances at the biggest events – the World Championships and the Olympics, as opposed to maximizing season-long results. Additionally, the US is currently highly focused on winning medals, and participation in the Tour does not necessarily support that goal.
Kikkan Randall, as her distance skiing has developed, now seems a viable candidate to complete the Tour, but again, focus appears to be on winning medals at the Olympics.
Newell is scheduled to start the first four races before withdrawing from the Tour. But he isn’t going to settle in the distance races, and in fact, is looking to discard the “sprint specialist” label as his career progresses. Participation in this Tour seems to be an early step.
“I’ve never wanted to just be a sprint specialist,” Newell told FasterSkier. “I want to race everything and especially get my distance skiing up to a level where I can compete in events like the Tour. For me sprinting has taken the top priority over the past few years, but I think you will see a pretty big shift from me, especially after this Olympic season, in the direction of more distance racing. ”
Farra also points out that racing the Tour is a huge commitment for a North American athlete as they would have to be in Europe from early November well into January at the least.
And the Tour presents its own set of challenges. The tight race schedule makes for significant logistics, and an extra burden on coaches and support staff. Despite this, Grover is looking forward to the event, and will draw upon experience from last year’s World Cup Final in Sweden – a mini Tour of four events. It also helps that the US Team will only consist of a single athlete – fewer skis to wax and plans to manage.
Newell is appreciative of the sacrifices being made on his behalf – “The hardest thing was probably having get in touch with Peter, my tech, and be like…’dude, how do you feel about traveling some more and waxing some more skis?’ Those guys don’t get much time off and it’s right during their Christmas break so I’ll have to race extra hard for him to make up for taking him away from his family.”
Since Newell will not be completing the entire Tour, success will be determined by his performances in the individual races. Grover hopes to see solid performances in the two distance races, and a battle for A-final spots in the sprints.
Half the normal World Cup points are awarded for individual Tour races, but a strong early season and Tour could put Newell in position for his best overall World Cup finish ever. Focus, however is still on the Olympics. Said Newell, “the Olympic are far and away the top goal for the season so if the Tour interferes with that in any way you’ll see me pulling the plug.”
In fact it was the Olympics that setup the possibility of a Tour start. According to Grover, Newell and teammate Torin Koos both felt that the break between the Rogla World Cup (December 19) and Canmore (February 6) was too long if they were to be fresh for Vancouver. So Newell opted for the Tour and the Otepaa World Cups, while Koos will race Otepaa and the following weekend in Rybinsk, Russia.
Other US Ski Team athletes will follow a different strategy, remaining in the US to focus on training. Explained Grover, “We are trying to help our key Vancouver athletes individualize their pre-Game programs based on what they know has worked for them in the past.”
Regardless of the reasons, and even the outcome, the prospect of having an American join the fray at the 2010 Tour de Ski is an exciting one for US ski fans. If the Canadians opt to send a full team, as they did last year, there will be plenty for North Americans to root for in the January.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.