One of the intentions of the tour format introduced to elite-level cross-country ski racing in the past few years is to allow sprinters and distance specialists to compete on a level playing field.
That balance hasn’t been achieved yet at the World Cup level: None of the winners of the four editions of the Tour de Ski, men’s or women’s, have been pure sprinters.
But in this weekend’s three-stage mini-tour held in Rossland, BC, organizers couldn’t have scripted the finish any better, at least on the men’s side.
In Sunday’s 15 k classic race in Rossland, BC—the last of the stages—the whole event came down to a duel in the final meters between two Canadian national team members: speedster Stefan Kuhn and slow-twitch stalwart George Grey. After following Grey’s path through fresh powder for much of the race, Kuhn had just enough gas in the tank to come around and snag the victory on the homestretch. Score one for the sprinters.
“Stef came on hard, managed to ski right up behind [Grey[, pop out, and get by him in the last few meters to the line,” said Drew Goldsack (AWCA/Canadian National B-team), who, as the third-place finisher, probably had the best perspective of the battle for the top spot.
As a stronger sprinter, Kuhn wasn’t supposed to have a chance in Sunday’s race, which was handicapped based on the results of the two previous stages—a sprint and an interval-start
Sunday’s seed list had Grey heading out first, with an advantage of a half-second over Goldsack, and an extra 3.5 seconds over APU’s Lars Flora.
Grey was fresh off a top-35 finish on the World Cup in Switzerland last weekend, and Flora has been skiing the lights out on the domestic circuit. Kuhn started fourth, nearly 15 seconds behind the lead pack, which should have put him out of contention.
But the weather had other plans. A few inches of fresh powder had filled the tracks between the women’s race and the men’s race, which Grey said ruined his plans to push the pace from the gun.
“Due to the snowy conditions, it was next to impossible to make any time off the front,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Instead, plowing the snow allowed others to gain time and the leaders to suffer.”
Goldsack said that he was “hammering” for the first two or three kilometers of the race to keep any chasers from catching up. But his efforts were for naught, as Kuhn, Jesse Cockney (AWCA) and Mikey Sinnott (SVSEF) all came gliding up to the lead group from around a corner.
“It felt like you were going crazy hard at the front, and then just zone three behind,” Goldsack said.
Grey made a hard effort to try to break things open in the closing kilometers, creating a gap of nearly 10 seconds over Kuhn and Goldsack. But according to Grey, Kuhn caught up on the final downhill into the finish, where he took the win with a lunge.
Flora was fourth, ten seconds behind, while fifth- and sixth-placed Cockney and Sinnott ended up a little farther back—23 and 45 seconds behind, respectively.
For his overall win, Kuhn received $700, plus an extra $175 for posting the fastest elapsed time in Sunday’s stage.
Add Kuhn’s victory to that of Andy Newell’s last spring in the SuperTour Finals in northern Maine, and sprinters now hold a two-nothing advantage over the distance skiers in stage races on North American soil.
Kieran Jones and Inge Scheve contributed reporting.
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.