Norwegian superstar Marit Bjoergen is sticking to her guns, and will not be racing the 2011 edition of the Tour de Ski.
The winner of every single World Cup race this year, Bjoergen announced at the beginning of the season that she would follow the same plan that resulted in five medals at the 2010 Olympics.
And that plan means no Tour de Ski.
Since coming back from several down years thought to be caused by overtraining, Bjoergen has carefully picked her spots, resulting in impressive results. With the World Championships in Oslo this year, she won’t be taking any chances, good news for the rest of the women competing in the Tour.
The women’s World Cup field features a very strong group at the head, with a handful of athletes usually dominating the top of the results sheet. This has been somewhat less so in the early part of the 2011 season as several of the big guns have struggled with their form, either due to injury or illness.
Still, a quick scan of the start list reveals only a few names that have a legitimate chance at winning the overall Tour title.
The obvious favorite at this point is indefatigable Polish World Cup overall defending champion, and last year’s Tour winner, Justyna Kowalczyk.
Kowalczyk skied away from arch-rival Petra Majdic (SLO) on the final climb of the 2010 Tour, and with Bjoergen out, this year’s event is hers to lose.
Despite being overshadowed by Bjoergen so far, Kowalczyk is actually off to a better start this season compared to last, with four podium appearances to three, and all but once placing in the top-7.
She can win in any distance and any discipline. Her only weakness is raw speed, but she makes up for that with an engine that few can rival.
Like Kowalczyk, Majdic has not been dominating, but that is nothing new for the early season. She is coming back from serious injuries suffered at the Olympics, and appears to be still searching for top form.
As always the key for her is her distance racing, even more so in the distance-heavy Tour. She will be hard-pressed to challenge Kowalczyk again this year, but should be in the battle for the podium.
Arianna Follis (ITA) is an all-rounder of the type that has become common on the top of the women’s World Cup rankings. Third in last year’s Tour, Follis currently leads the Sprint Cup standings, and is third in the overall.
She can sprint, she can ski distance, and she can do both in either technique. Off to a great start with four top-4 finishes, split evenly between sprint and distance, Follis may have the best chance of taking down Kowalczyk.
The big question mark is Finland’s Aino Kaisa Saarinen. Consistently one of the bestskiers in the world, Saarinen suffered a shoulder injury early in the season, and missed significant time. Fourth last year in the Tour, and second in 2009 after a thrilling battle with teammate Virpi Kuitunen, Saarinen has only three World Cup starts under her belt this season, with two finishes well below her usual standards.
Charlotte Kalla (SWE), thrilled the crowd and cemented her place in the hearts and minds of the Swedish public when she sprinted away from Kuitunen in the 2008 Tour as a 21-year-old.
But mainly due to illness Kalla has not completed a Tour since. Off to a good start in 2011, Kalla certainly has what it takes to battle for the podium, and a repeat of her stunning victory is not out of the question.
And the Rest…
After the top group, there are any number of women who will battle for the top-10, and could join the fight for the podium if all goes well.
Norwegians Therese Johaug and Kristin Stoermer Steira are both skiing strong. Neither is a sprinter, but as Lukas Bauer has proven on the men’s side, sprint results are not necessary in the Tour.
But Stoermer Steira is not on the entry list for Norway, so will not be defending her fifth place result from the 2010 Tour.
Johaug, however, is a brilliant skater and if she can make it to the final climb, will be a force on the Alpe de Cermis.
Their teammate, former World Cup overall runner-up, Astrid Jacobsen appears to have finally returned to the top level. A better sprinter, she is also capable of top-10 distance results, and could surprise over the ten day Tour.
And don’t count out yet another Norwegian – Marthe Kristoffersen placed a quiet 10th in the Tour last season, but has not shown much in her few World Cup starts this year.
Sticking with the Scandinavians, Anna Haag (SWE) will join Kalla at the head of the Swedish team. Haag is not a sprinter, but has had success at the prologue distance, and when skiing well, can compete with the best, as her silver medal in Vancouver proved.
German Nicole Fessel and Italian Marianna Longa are currently ranked fifth and sixth respectively in the overall World Cup. Both are experienced veterans, and both can handle the sprint and distance events, with Longa holding the edge in the longer races. A podium appearance is a stretch, though not an impossibility, and the two women should be in the thick of things for the duration of the Tour.
Another German, Katrin Zeller placed ninth in the 2010 Tour, but has not shown great form this year. Fessel will likely lead the team.
Despite embarrassing results in relays, the Russian women can never be counted out. Yulia Tchekaleva is currently 8th in the overall World Cup, and placed 12th in last year’s Tour. With veterans Olga Saviaolova and Evgenia Medvedeva out of the picture, it is up to Tchekaleva to lead a young Russian squad.
A top-10 finish would be an excellent result for the 26-year-old.
Finally, Finland’s Riitta Liisa Roponen, always consistent, will look to improve on her sixth in the 2010 Tour.
The Tour format leaves plenty of room for surprises. With eight races in ten days, health is a major factor and withdrawals are common. And unique distances, including the prologue, the final climb and short pursuits make for interesting competition.
There are plenty of other women who could make their way into the top-10, including German veteran Evi Sachenbacher Stehle, Slovakian Alena Prochazkova – who has shown stronger distance skiing of late, and Valentina Schehchenko (UKR) – a former final climb victor.
And for the first time, an American woman will take part in the Tour de Ski. Kikkan Randall won’t just be showing up either. With top-20 distance skiing chops, and sprint speed that ranks her among the best, Randall will be a strong contender for a top-20 overall result.
With the retirement of Sara Renner, Canada will not start any women this year.
Competition gets started on the 31st with a 2.5km freestyle prologue in Oberhof, followed the day after by a 10km classic handicap start..
The Tour then heads south to Oberstdorf for a classic sprint, and a 10km pursuit on consecutive days.
Following the first rest day, action continues in Toblach, Italy with the second sprint and then another handicap – this time a 15km freestyle affair.
The final rest day falls on the seventh before the final push with a 10km classic mass start and the famous final climb up the Alpe de Cermis.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.