Everyone’s excited about the three-day mini-tour at the 2010 SuperTour Finals, and why not?
Featuring a mass start classic race, a classic sprint, and an uphill climb, the event has something for everyone: sprinters and distance specialists, climbers and all-rounders, fans, and the media.
The only ones who might have reservations are the coaches, since they have to wax all the skis and tackle the logistics. But a survey of those here in Fort Kent found unanimous approval.
“We’re fired up about it,” said Travis Jones, the coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Olympic Development Team. “It’s a really interesting format….For us to get some experience in skiing those kind of events, for our best athletes—totally valuable.”
While it’s the first time the Finals have taken this form, tour-style competitions—where athletes race multiple events and aim for the lowest combined time—have been catching on in Europe.
Now in its fourth year, the Tour de Ski took place in February and included eight races over eleven days. The final World Cup weekend has been a mini-tour for the past two seasons. And one step down, on the OPA Cup, the 2010 finale in Slovenia was also a three-race mini-tour much like the one being held in Maine.
According to Will Sweetser, one of the event organizers at Maine Winter Sports Center, it’s about time the U.S. caught up.
“It’s going to get more important if you look down the road…I think it’s an event that’s proven its worth and that it’s going to continue to be here,” he said. “It’s pretty sad that no Americans have taken part until now, so I think we should prep the next generation to get it done.”
Last spring, Sweetser pushed U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Nordic Director John Farra to let him host a big tour-style event for juniors and under-23 racers in northern Maine. Farra countered by suggesting that the event serve as the SuperTour Finals, and preparations began in earnest.
The first two races—the classic sprint and mass start—will be held at the Four Seasons Trails in Madawaska, where a new, 3,600 square foot lodge was built two years ago entirely by volunteers.
Madawaska has coalesced around cross country skiing, and before a recent storm dropped seven inches of new snow on the trails, the town had gone to extraordinary measures to make sure that its trails were ready for their first major races, hauling 18 dump truck loads of snow onto the sprint course on Monday.
The final race of the tour, the uphill climb, is in Fort Kent, and it includes a section just over one kilometer long that sends athletes straight up the side of the local alpine slope. The lifts will be open on Sunday during the race, Sweetser said, and a portion of the trail adjoining the race course will be open to spectators.
The array of distances and formats in the mini-tour “forces skiers who are typically good in one event to practice everything,” according to Andy Newell, the only American who has competed in the Tour de Ski.
“You can be good at either distance or sprint, or skate or classic, but in order to succeed in a tour, you really have to be an all-around skier,” he said.
Each event makes its own unique demands on athletes, but so also does the tour in its entirety—especially for anyone who raced the 30/50 k championships on Wednesday.
“Very rarely do our athletes race four times in five days… It’s certainly the way things are going on the world scene, I think, at least during some parts of the season, so we need to learn how to do it. But it is challenging, make no mistake,” said Jones. “I think we’re definitely going to see some people throw down big in the 50 and 30 [k] and be absolutely blown out by the end of the series.”
SVSEF’s Mike Sinnott, who skied well in the OPA Cup mini-tour, said that the key to success is a good start, which sets you up for success in the later races. On the flip side, a single bad race can take you out of contention for the entire event.
For athletes who aren’t contending for the overall, though, there’s still a whole set of competitions within the tour.
Each day has its own cash prizes for podium finishers. Winners of intermediate sprints in the mass start and hill climb get more money, as well as special climbers’ and sprinters’ bibs. Top finishers in each of the first two events get time bonuses.
Some have criticized the new event formats as gimmicky, but athletes and coaches here seem enlivened by the changes to an event that can sometimes drag on at the end of a long season.
“I think we should for sure, in the cross country world, stick to classics like 30 k’s and 50 k’s, individual starts, and things like that,” said Newell. “We don’t want to change everything, but also having mini-tours, I think, is just a fun way to mix it up, keep it different, and also show who the best all-around skier is.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.