GeneralNewsRacingWorld CupTDS Preview: Bauer Looks to Defend Title, North America Starts Five

Avatar Kieran JonesDecember 30, 20101

The 2010/2011 Veissmann Tour de Ski is nothing if not draining. Consisting of eight events in ten days in two countries, the fifth edition begins December 31st and runs until January 9th.

The Tour begins with a freestyle prologue in Oberhof, Germany, on December 31st, followed by a classic pursuit start on January 1st. The Tour then moves to Oberstorf, Germany, for a sprint on January 2nd, and a pursuit on the 3rd.

After a two day break, the Tour resumes in Toblach, Italy, for a sprint on January 5th and a point-to-point pursuit start from Cortina to Toblach on the 6th.

The Tour de Ski wraps up in Val di Fiemme, Italy, as the Italians host a 10/15 k on January 8th, and then the final climb up Alpe Cermis on the 9th.

The Favorites

In the fifth edition of the event, all three top male finishers from last season are expected to contend. Lukas Bauer (CZE), Petter Northug Jr. (NOR) and Dario Cologna (SUI) are all registered, and while two have started the season quickly, the third – Northug – has only four World Cup starts to the season, having fallen ill just before the opener.

The Czech Republic's Lukas Bauer racing at the 2010 Olympic Games.

Bauer has come out swinging – the aging Czech distance specialist sits in seventh in the overall rankings, and has already collected two podium finishes, including a stage win in Kuusamo, Finland. He has finished in the top 30 in every distance race he has started (his one sprint wasn’t great, as he finished 104th, a full ten seconds away from qualifying).

Given his hot start, the fact that he is the defending and two-time Tour de Ski champion (2007/2008 and 2009/2010), Bauer is undeniably the favorite.  While his utter lack of sprint skill is disconcerting, he has shown in the past that it is irrelevant, as in the two sprints on the Tour last year, he finished 54th and 60th. But Bauer recognizes that sprinting is still important – he has put extra time into improving his speed over the summer, and should be aiming to limit the damage during the two sprint stages.

After Bauer, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna is a must-watch. In his short four year World Cup career, Cologna has already won the World Cup overall, the Tour de Ski (2008/2009), and currently sits in second in the overall standings, a mere 22 points from the lead.

Cologna is dangerous because he is a true all-around skier, and more importantly, is extremely consistent. The last time Cologna finished outside of the top 30 on the World Cup was over a year ago, on December 12, 2009, in Davos. He has already stood on the World Cup podium three times this season, including a second place finish in the Kuusamo mini-tour, and a third place in the freestyle sprint in his hometown of Davos.

Despite finishing runner-up to Bauer in last years’ Tour, winning the 2009/2010 Crystal Globe, and being the most recognizable cross country ski name on the planet, Petter Northug has to be considered a bit of a dark horse. The dynamic Norwegian is just bouncing back from illness, and his absence from the early World Cup has put him in a large hole in the overall standings, as he sits in 18th.

Dario Cologna celebrating a victory at the Olympics

While Bauer is the distance workhorse, and Cologna is the all-around consistent performer, Northug is the sparkplug. Love him or hate him, the Norwegian is without a doubt one of the most talented and entertaining skiers on the circuit.

The question will be his health, and whether he has returned to his world-beating form. Over the last two World Cup weekends, Northug has done well, but not outstanding. The real concern should be with his famed sprint speed – his failure to win a sprint finish in the 30 k freestyle at the La Clusaz World Cup combined with his 28th place sprint in Davos the weekend before shows that his sprint is not where it has been in the past.

Northug may need a few extra races to get back to where he needs to be, as it is inconceivable that a skier of his talent will be held down for long. Expect him to speed up over the course of the Tour, and a podium finish is completely realistic.

The Chasers

While most of the buzz is about the top three finishers from last year, both the Russians and the Swedes also have strong contingents hitting the start line.

The Russians have nine men starting, headlined by Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin. Legkov currently sits atop the World Cup overall, and much like Bauer he is a sub-par sprinter, but an excellent stage racer.

Winner of the Kuusamo mini-tour and runner-up in 2006/2007 Tour de Ski, Legkov has the potential to gut out a victory, as he has the tools to distance ski as well as almost anyone, and won’t lose much time in the sprints. The only area for concern is his Tour de Ski record in the past three years, as he has finished 20th, 33rd and failed to complete the event since his second place in 2006/2007.

Legkov and Bauer.

Maxim Vylegzhanin is ranked third in the overall behind Cologna and Legkov, and as one would expect, has had great start to the season. He has finished in the top 15 six times, including fifth in the Kuusamo mini-tour, and besting Northug in the 30 k freestyle in La Clusaz, which certainly bodes well. He has a decent record on the Tour (21, 15, DNF), but just can’t seem to make the breakthrough to finish in the top 10.

The only surprise for the Russians is that 20 year old phenom Petr Sedov, who is currently 8th overall, will not be starting.

The Swedes are bringing seven men to the party, and  could easily capture at the very least a couple of stage victories.

Emil Joensson is the current world cup sprint leader, and is currently fifth in the overall. He is practically a lock to make the podium in both sprints, and he can ski a mean 10 or 15 k, especially classic. Unfortunately for Joensson, as the Tour goes on, his distance racing will be sorely tested, and he simply lacks the ability to compete in the longer events, so it is unlikely he will be able to contend for a podium spot in the final races.

However, his team mate Marcus Hellner, who is fourth overall in the World Cup ranking has a much better shot. Often billed as Northug’s biggest rival, but not quite at the same level, Hellner started out the season strong with a home town win in Gallivaere, Sweden, but has been inconsistent since then, finishing fourth in Kuusamo, 33rd in the 15 k classic in Davos, seventh in the sprint, and finally 29th in the 30 k freestyle in La Clusaz.

In the 2009/2010 Tour de Ski, Hellner was saddled with the wooden medal despite having a very strong final climb. To stay in contention for the podium, Hellner will have to avoid the inconsistent distance days, and if he is close going into Alpe Cermis, his strong skate climbing means he can pick up a few spots.

Other strong Swedes include Daniel Rickardsson, a very good all around skier who will be in a position to crack the top 10, Johan Olsson, who hasn’t raced a World Cup since finishing 7th overall in Kuusamo, and the tough-as-nails Anders Soedergren.

Sweden’s Scandinavian counterparts, Finland, lack a real shot at the Tour overall. Sami Jauhojaervi is their best hope, as he is ranked 19th overall, and has had success on the Tour previously, but his horrendously inconsistent skiing (think two top 10’s, and three races 50’s or higher) will prevent him from being a true challenger. Matti Heikkinen gets the nod as well, but like Jauhojaervi lacks the staying power required for the lengthy event.

While the event is on home turf for both the Germans and the Italians, neither country has a skier competitive enough at the moment to challenge the top group.

Seven Italians are pegged to start, including Giorgio di Centa, and on-form sprinters Fulvio Scola and Renato Pasini.

Meanwhile, the Germans have only two men currently in the top 40 in the overall World Cup standings, but 13 men will start. Surprisingly Jens Filbrich and Tim Tscharnke are the two highest ranked German skiers, while stalwarts Axel Teichmann and Tobias Angerer are 46th and 58th respectively, and both will have to demonstrate a lot better form than they have thus far on the World Cup.

North American Contenders

This edition of the Tour will see five North American men fighting for position – and all five men bring their own unique set of skills to the event.

American’s Andy Newell and Kris Freeman will both take to the start line, and will hope to continue the good early-season World Cup results with top results, regardless of stage. Freeman has jumped out to the best start of his World Cup career, and sits in 13th place Overall, as a result of collecting points in each of his World Cup starts thus far.

Newell has had a decent start as he sits in 31st in overall on the back of his strong sprinting, in which he has earned points in all three of the sprints thus far on the circuit.

Newell

Both men have been typecast as specialists – Newell in sprinting, and Freeman in distance racing. However, both skiers have been working hard on diversifying their skiing, and have a bet running over who will score World Cup points first – Freeman in a sprint, or Newell in a distance race.

The biggest question mark surrounding Newell is whether he will be able to distance race well enough to stay in contention.

“I’m pretty excited to have a bunch of opportunities to do some distance races,” he said, “because I know I’m in good shape and I can distance race really fast — I just haven’t had the chance to show it.”

Newell knows he has strengths and weakness in distance racing; “I know I’m a good mass start skier for sure,” he said.

“I can ski well in packs but at the same time it’s like any time in a mass start race – you run the risk of blowing up,” he said, “It can be sometimes easier for sprinters like myself [to blow up] as you can build up so much lactic acid.”

Both Freeman and Newell are relatively new to the Tour de Ski. Freeman has never competed in the event before, and Newell he completed three races last year before bowing out, and he felt that he has not gotten “a true Tour experience.”

Regardless, Newell is going in confident; “I feel like I can be good at back to back to back races,” he said, “I think I’ve trained enough over the year that’s something I’ve gotten a lot better at.”

Like many other racers on the Tour, Newell is targeting consistency, and is thinking about having good races each stage, rather than focusing on finishing as his end goal.

While both Americans are working on their weaker race types, the best bet for top performances are their bread and butter events – the skate sprint for Newell, and something 15 k or longer for Freeman. It is difficult to imagine either skier truly contending for a place on the overall podium, but top 30 finish is a completely reasonable expectation.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to hang in there for some distance races and score some distance races,” said Newell, “I’m going to need to score some bonus seconds in sprints [to have a chance in the overall standing].”

The Canadian contingent showcases an all-around skier just coming into his prime, a young gun with loads of potential, and one of the best climbers on the circuit. Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Ivan Babikov are all world class talent who had excellent results on the Tour de Ski last season, and look to build on that success. In charge of the three skiers is Head Coach Justin Wadsworth – a rookie on the Tour de Ski.

“I think I’m pretty well organized,” said Wadsworth in an interview with FasterSkier, “and that’s key for keeping the nerves down.”

While he has never been involved with the Tour before, Wadsworth is confident – he has been to all the World Cup venues before, and the three skiers he is in charge of will be well served. The Canadians have a large staff of five wax technicians as well as a massage therapist, the legendary ‘Wolfman’.

Wadsworth is confident in his athletes ability to make the most of the Tour, and emphasized that Kershaw and Harvey have a shot in every stage, while Babikov will be able to take advantage of the difficulty of the last three stages, as he will be getting fitter every race.

Kershaw going "freaking hard" at the 2010 Olympics
Kershaw

After one of the hottest starts of his career, in which he has consistently skied in the top 30 while hitting a few top 10 finishes, Kershaw is hitting his stride as an all-around skier.

While he appears to be in form, and he is happy with how things went, Kershaw is still cautious about the event.

“The Tour de Ski is completely different [from the rest of the World Cup season],” said Kershaw in a recent interview with FasterSkier, “a whole lot of things have to go right.”

For Kershaw, having one or two really good days would make for a successful Tour, but his real ambition for the Tour de Ski is unrelated to results.

“To be honest, the only big goal is to stay healthy,” he said, “Over the different Tours, we’ve had a lot of illness on the team, and I’ve been lucky to avoid it for the most part.”

If he stays healthy, Kershaw has proven that he can race well in the Tour format. Last year he finished 16th in the event, benefitting from good sprinting, as well as six top 30 finishes.

While he has traditionally had strong results in Tour de Ski sprints, including a podium, this year Kershaw isn’t so focused on the sprint.

“The sprints are long days, and I don’t know how important they are in the overall,” he said. “[Lukas] Bauer won the Tour last year without ever qualifying for a sprint

Unfortunately for Kershaw, his favorite and best event, the 10 k classic, has been eliminated from the Tour this year. As a result, he’s keeping his eye out for the 20 k pursuit in Oberhof, Germany in Stage 4.

“The Tour really starts at the Pursuit in Oberstorf,” said Kershaw, “That’s the first place you’re really going to see some fireworks. Whether or not I’m looking forward to that, I have to be on my toes.”

Kershaw said he may have pushed his training a little bit too hard during the last week, and as a result is feeling a little flatter than he would like, but with some dedicated rest, is hoping to be back in top shape come December 31.

While Kershaw is still hoping to regain a little bit of energy, Alex Harvey is feeling well rested and ready to go, according to a recent interview with FasterSkier.

Harvey is still relatively new to the Tour – this will be his second time tackling the event. And he learned a lot from last year, and highlighted two major things that he is hoping to improve on – staying calm, and proper feeding.

The point-to-point race is something he is much more comfortable with the second time around. Last year Harvey described himself as “really nervous” prior to the start, as there was no opportunity to ski the course beforehand and he had a large gap he desperately wanted to close to the leaders. As a result, Harvey ended up with a severe diaphragm spasm, throwing off his rhythm. This time around, Harvey is a lot more comfortable, as he knows the course, and is aware that he needs to stay relaxed.

Second, he recognized the increased importance of feeding on an event like the Tour de Ski. In the long classic race last year, Harvey was skiing strong at the front of the chase group when he bonked hard with one kilometer to go.

“I didn’t feed enough during the day,” said Harvey, “you need to make sure your energy levels are always high, and it’s really hard to recover when you bonk that hard.”

If there was one area Harvey really targeted for improvement this year, it was his sprinting.

“On the sprinting side I was disappointed last year,” he said, “This year I wanted to make sure I can sprint well.” Last season Harvey managed to qualify just twice for a World Cup sprint. This season he has started just one, but finished ninth.

Harvey has been confident with his shape all fall, and his strong start on the World Cup has increased his confidence. “I knew I would be more consistent this year, and I know I usually improve as the season goes on,” he said.

And consistency is what Harvey is targeting for the Tour. While he has picked a few stages as key – the 20 k Pursuit in Oberstorf, the 36 k point-to-point, and the second last stage – he is confident in his shape regardless of the stage.

“If I have a good day, any of the stages I can do well,” he said.

As for the Final Climb, the 22 year old isn’t intimidated – he’s actually a little bit excited about it.

“It’s not complicated,” he said, “you have to ski well technically, but it’s all about the climbing. It’s just how your body is doing, even the skis only matter for the first part.”

While Harvey may not consider the Final Climb very complicated, that may be in part to being in close proximity with the man who is quite possibly the best at the event – team mate Ivan Babikov.

The first few stages don’t suit Babikov, as he has struggled in prologues and sprinting, but as the days get longer and the Tour gets tougher, Babikov, who is widely regarded as one of the toughest athletes on the circuit, will shine. His specialty is the last stage – in 2009 he won the quad-busting climb outright, and in 2010 he finished fourth. If Babikov can stay close during the opening stages, his climbing skill means he may threaten for a podium spot.

Both Canadians and Americans have spent the Christmas break in Davos, Switzerland, taking advantage of the high quality training location, and getting in large amounts of skiing and some good recovery as well.

The group has gone alpine skiing, and taken advantage of the many excellent coffee shops in the Swiss town, but the teams are now in Oberstorf preparing for the first stage – a 3.75 k prologue.

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Kieran Jones

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    shreddir

    December 30, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    For my money Dario Cologna has to be the odds leader because although I enjoy watching Northug the most and Bauer has the history, “super” Dario is the most versatile competitor right now in world racing and will recover during the jam packed tour better than Bauer because he is younger.

    It also seems really weird to see the Russian men being the big stars instead of their women especially in skating, what a switch from a few years ago. Legkov is saying that nobody else “can train as hard as I do” according to SPORT-expressen. As yellow bib wearer he’s coming to the TdS feeling “dissed”.

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