The 2010 Tour de Ski is now half over, and the record field is rapidly dwindling in size. This is the result of the confluence of two specific factors – the rule changes allowing skiers to keep World Cup points and prize money even if they withdraw, and the fact that it is an Olympic year.
This is the 4th Tour de Ski, and the first to coincide with the Olympic Games. A handful of top skiers did not even start the Tour because of a desire to focus on the Games, including Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Charlotte Kalla (SWE). So now we are seeing athletes withdrawing because they are not in top form, and it is counterproductive for Olympic goals to push through regardless, or because they planned to drop out all along.
The German women’s team falls into the former category. As reported eralier today on the FasterSKier World Cup blog, the entire team, with the exception of Katrin Zeller, has pulled out. Even the women’s coach is headed off – to oversee the training of the rest of the team.
Head coach Jochen Behle explained that the decision was due to poor results, and a desire to turn things around for the Olympics.
Norwegian Astrid Oyre Slind withdrew as well, ranked toward the back of the overall standings. Slind got off to a poor start in the Tour and fell victim to illness.
Her teammate Celine Brun-Lie is out as well. She was 14th overall after finishing 2nd in the skate sprint.
It would be fun to race again, but I would like to race the two classic races in Otepää, so it is best not to participate further,” said the 21-year-old. Despite her strong perfomance, she has not made the Norwegian Olympic team, and her performance yesterday won’t help her according to coach Egil Kristiansen. As the Vancouver sprint is classic, Otepaa will be key.
Therese Johaug (NOR) has struggled all season to find the form that made her a consistent top-10 threat last season. The Tour has been no exception, and langrenn.com has called for her to withdraw. She is currently ranked 21st, and barring a mjor reversal, is out of the hunt for the overall title. The top-10 is within striking distance, but langrenn.com makes the point that the Olympics are much more important.
The biggest name to head home has to be Virpi Kuitunen (FIN). Kuitunen is the defending Tour de Ski Champion, and also won in 2007. She was second in 2008, and has had more success in this event than any other skier – male or female. But this year she has been unable to ski at a level to challenge for the overall podium – she was 15th in the prologue and the classic sprint, and had a strong racein the 10km classic – posting the 4th fastest time of the day.
But with the Olympics on the horizon, those are not good enough results to justify continuing.
“I prefer to play it. The remainder of the season is very important and I’ll make use of the time I have left before the next races,” Kuitunen said.
She is currently planning on racing the World Cups in Otepaa on January 16th and 17th.
Otepaa the New Goal
Otepaa is a major target for many racers withdrawing from the Tour. Eldar Roenning, winner of the classic sprint, and ranked 7th overall, less than a minute back, is out of the Tour. He will be looking to Otepaa, because he has yet to qualify for the Norwegian Olympic team.
The plan has been for Roenning to head hom after the Prague sprint all along.
Otepää is very important to him. He is going to have to race the sprint to qualify for the Olympics. It has been planned for a long time, ” said Norwegian coach Morten Aa Djupvik.
Joensson Concedes Lead
Emil Joensson (SWE) winner of yesterday’s skate sprint in Prague, and the overall leader in the Tour de Ski, has also withdrawn.
“After consulting with doctors and my coaches, I decided to stop,” said Joensson, who wanted to continue racing. “After my injury, it would be too hard to do eight races in ten days.”
Joensson injured his leg, straining a muscle in an early World Cup sprint. Historically a sprint specialist, he skied very well in both the prologue and the 15km classic, and was holding a 43 second lead over teammate Marcus Hellner.
Russians Out, Rumors Fly
Two of the top Russian men have also withdrawn – Maxim Vylegzhanin and Alexander Legkov will head home. Vylegzhaninwas 4th overall and Legkov 23rd.
The reported reason for withdrawal is illness, but langd.se claims that this is suspicious.
“They are sick. Legkov got sick in Prague and was tight in the chest and coughing. Vylegzhanin I knew nothing about his illness, I found out this morning. They are both already on their way back to Russia,” said Russia’s Team Leaders Yuri Tcharkovski.
Land.se reports that coaches from other countries saw both skiers training in Italy (the site of tomorrow’s Tour race) today.
Vylegzhanin was held out of a World Cup in Davos in December due to high hematocrit.
Natalia Korosteleva (RUS), 2nd in the prologue, winner of the skate sprint, and 5th overall, has also withdrawn. She is healthy, but has planned on dropping out to focus on the Olympics.
All About the Olympics
In any other year, many of the dropouts would most likely continue to race, regardless of ranking. With double World Cup points available for the overall Tour standings, and significant prize money on the line, even a subpar finsih could be beneficial.
But this year it is all about the Olympics.
The rule changes have resulted in more sprinters starting, and therefore more sprinters withdrawing. But again, if it weren’t for the Olympics, we might see more of these skiers stick it out. Though the schedule was clearly designed ot give sprinters an opportunity to start and not finish, with the two sprints and the relatively short prologue making up three of the first four races.
It is likely that we will continue to see skiers pull out of the Tour if they struggle over the next days. The event is grueling, and it it only gets harder from here. Recovery is key, as is maintaining fitness for Vancouver.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.