2011 marks just the second time that the US has fielded a team in the Tour de Ski. Last year, Andy Newell was the first, and only representative for the Americans, and with a focus on sprinting, he never planned to complete the multi-stage event.
This year was different. Three athletes took to the line for the prologue in Obertsdorf, Germany just before the New Year, and all three planned to see the Tour through.
They didn’t come to merely participate however, and strong results, both in individual stages, and in the overall were prime goals.
Newell will not make it to the base of the Alpe Cermis for the final climb. He withdrew after beginning to feel fatigue setting in, and a series of disappointing distance races. He is now looking ahead to the post-Tour World Cup sprint in Liberec, with a focus on preparations for World Championships.
Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall continue to soldier on, and both struggled today in the 10/20km classic mass start races.
Freeman, who placed 38th in the 40-man field, ahead of skiers from Australia and Andorra, was undone by his skis.
“It can all be blamed on skis,” US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier in an interview. “We made a mistake with the skis…he [Freeman] was out of it from the get-go.”
While many of the top skiers appeared to be struggling with kick on a warm and rainy day in Italy, strong contrast to the cold weather of previous days, Freeman actually had slow skis, and had no chance.
“We’re bummed out and Kris is bummed out, and we are really feeling for him,” Grover said. “But it happens, and unfortunately it happened to us today.”
Grover described the day as a “transforming day,” due to the change from below freezing temperatures to the warm wet weather. The snow was in the process of changing throughout the day, but klister was the wax of choice.
“It was moving to klister, and we were in klister, but we made a mistake at the last minute, and his skis were not competitive,” said Grover.
Randall had better skis, but according to Grover, “we didn’t hit a homerun.”
The American fell off the pace at the end of the first lap, and did admit her skis were not great, but didn’t pin her performance solely on that.
“I did have a lot of girls go past me on the downhills,” Randall wrote in an email. “Losing touch with the pack at the end of the first lap mostly off the downhill was a tough blow, but only part of the problem.”
Randall felt good over the first 2k, but by the time the second lap rolled around, she was off her top game.
“I definitely didn’t feel nearly as sparky as I did in the skate race,” she said. “I almost wonder if the rest day let my body down too much.”
Randall was referring to just the second off day of the Tour, which came on Friday, the day before the 10k.
Grover was impressed with her effort, saying, “she never stopped fighting. You could tell that she was struggling but she kept her head down and was just going as hard as she could.”
“Tomorrow is a whole new day and race, and so I tried to minimize the damage to give myself the best chance [in the final climb],” Randall said. “It was really hard to know that group I had skied with two days ago was pulling away – that is where I wanted to be.”
Both Freeman and Randall will start the final climb on Sunday, and with World Cup points and prize money awarded for the fastest skiers of the day, there will be plenty to race for.
“It is a great opportunity for them both to have a great race,” said Grover.
Both will start in a wave, as all women outside the top-15, and all men outside the top-20 will be grouped together for the handicap start. This means there will be plenty of other skiers to work with and fight against.
Additionally Randall is in the top-30 in the overall standings, meaning she is in line for more World Cup points if she can maintain that position.
She is currently 22nd, and the top-20 is within reach. Freeman took a big hit today, and is now 33rd. He is over a minute and a half outside the top-30, but things can change quickly on the Alpe Cermis.
“It has been a real learning experience for these guys,” Grover said. “In this race series it is possible to learn a lot about how to compete in this type of event. I think next year we will be in a position to make a step up.”
He added that with the exception of today’s waxing debacle, the Tour has gone quite well. Freeman, Randall and Newell have all had strong results in various stages, and the team has stayed healthy – no mean feat given the major attrition within the field due to illness.
Highlights include Newell’s 14th in the prologue, and a 12th and 8th in the sprints. Freeman qualified for his first two World Cup sprint heats, placed 11th in the 20km pursuit and has been in the top-30 in every race but the prologue and today’s mass start.
Despite an off day today, Randall has been in the points in every race, a Tour performance highlighted by her 5th in the freestyle sprint.
And with the Alpe Cermis looming, Randall is ready.
“I know it’s going to be really tough but I am anxious to tackle the challenge and redeem myself for today…I will be focused on laying down my best tomorrow regardless of today or the overall. I want to cross that finish line and fall over knowing I gave it everything. Then I will be satisfied.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.