The 2011 Tour de Ski is half way complete, and with the first rest day just about over, it is a good time to check in.
On the women’s side, favorite Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) has not disappointed. She won the first two evens before finishing seconds to Petra Majdic (SLO) in the classic sprint, and fifth in the 10km pursuit.
Despite being unable to break the field as she has often done in the pursuit, Kowalczyk has shown few signs of weakness.
Had it not been for her poor downhill abilities, she could have had a shot at victories in both the last two races, and headed to Italy with a robust 1:19.8 lead over Charlotte Kalla (SWE).
Kowalczyk, respectful of her competition, has repeatedly stated that the Tour is far from over, but realistically, it will be extremely difficult for anyone to catch her.
Kalla is a very strong skater, but while Kowalczyk claims freestyle is her weakness, she has had plenty of success in the discipline. But Kalla, Arianna Follis, or the surprising Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) need to do more than just beat Kowalczyk – they have to take back significant time.
It would not be a surprise to see Kowalczyk finish the Tour on top without winning another race.
Majdic, despite her sprint victory, does not appear to have the form to challenge Kowalczyk, and at this point even the overall podium is in question – despite her current fourth place ranking.
Majdic did not look good in the pursuit, and while she does an amazing job of hanging tough, battling for every second, the long skate races may be too much for her. The classic sprint has always been her best event, and that has no come and gone.
Marianna Longa (ITA), sitting in the third spot, is having a great Tour. She is also a better classic skier. Longa has the fitness right now to finish the Tour strongly, but she will be hard pressed to stay in the top-3.
Follis got off to a rough start, but rode a strong pursuit back into contention. An excellent sprinter, and a good skater, Follis will have her work cut out for her, and needs to be on the podium in the skate sprint.
She is in sixth, just under two minutes down on Kowalczyk, but just 40 seconds back of Kalla.
Another favorite, Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN), bombed out in the pursuit, placing 33rd. That rough day dropped her to 13th overall, nearly three minutes down. She could still battle back to the top-5, but has no room left for error. The biggest issue is less the actual time she lost in the pursuit, and more what the performance means for her form.
Astrid Jacobsen (NOR) is back in 9th, but has two podium appearances so far. The podium is a reach, but if she can place in the top three in the skate sprint, she could jump up to that level.
Lahteenmaki is an interesting case, and despite her stunning Tour so far, it is impossible to predict if she can maintain her current level. She remains a dark horse for the podium, but her performance thus far is reminiscent of Kalla’s Tour win at age 21.
There are several other skiers who could make a jump. Therese Johaug (NOR) Riitta Liisa Roponen (FIN), and Marthe Kristofferssen (NOR) are still within range of the podium.
Roponen fell in the standings after surprisingly failing to qualify for the heats in the classic sprint, but should be back on track after a solid pursuit. Both Johaug and Kristofferssen looked strong in the pursuit. Both can qualify in the sprint, but will need to rely on their distance skiing to move up the standings.
American Kikkan Randall is currently 24th, and has been within the top-30 in every race. Her best event is the skate event, and a finals appearance will jump her up in the overall. Her ability to stay there is another story.
Entering the Tour, a top-20 overall appeared to be a good target, and she is poised to do just that.
Devon Kershaw (CAN) told FasterSkier after his classic sprint podium, that the Tour started in earnest with the pursuit. This was because of the massive number of bonus seconds available, and what that could mean for the overall standings.
But Kershaw maintained his second place overall, despite earning just five of those seconds. He did lose ground to overall leader Dario Cologna (SUI) who finished second in the pursuit along with 40 bonus seconds.
Kershaw is skiing his brains out, but is a better classic skier. He has also been unlucky in every Tour, usually felled by illness. There is no reason he can’t stay in the top-three, but he will have his work cut out for him.
Cologna’s lead is 45.9 seconds – a margin that can be easily overcome. But he has looked very strong and controlled throughout. He has skied smart, picking his spots, staying out of trouble. He has not won a single stage, but leads the Tour sprint standings.
Lukas Bauer (CZE) is on the hunt, but he did not make up as much ground in the pursuit as he would have liked. He will need to be very aggressive to close a gap that will certainly widen after Wednesday’s sprint.
Petter Northug (NOR) showed some spark in the pursuit, battling for bonus seconds, but he was hurt by an early exit in the classic sprint, and is just not quite himself yet. If anyone can come back from 1:42 down, it is Northug, but he may have to wait for Oslo for his 2011 glory.
Cologna’s biggest competition may be Marcus Hellner (SWE). Hellner was taken out in a crash in the pursuit, breaking a pole, and dropping him back in the pack.
He battled back to finish tenth, but should have been fighting for the win. He easily could have been much closer than the 1:06 he is down now.
He does not qualify well in sprints, but is very dangerous in the heats. With a depleted field, chances are good he will make the top-30 in the skate sprint, the remaining freestyle events suit him well.
The other man who should have Cologna looking over his shoulder is Alexander Legkov (RUS). Legkov led the overall World Cup through the first period, and has been very strong all season.
He has been in the top-eight in every Tour race, and is a very good skater.
Alex Harvey (CAN) joins teammate Kershaw in the top-five overall, and has the chops to excel in any format. While the odds may be in the favor of the likes of Cologna, Hellner, and Legkov, Harvey, at just 22, has shown he can compete with anyone and will not be intimidated. A top-ten overall would be a great success, but you can bet he won’t be settling for that.
American Andy Newell’s Tour is winding down. He will have another opportunity to excel in the skate sprint, but he is way back in the overall after several tough distance races. Given the long skating races to come, Newell will hae trouble moving up the standings if he stays in the event.
Kris Freeman, on the other hand, could go the other way. Freeman skied very well in the pursuit, and even managed to qualify for the heats in the sprint. Individual starts are his forte, and there are no more of those to be had – but the 20km classic race should be a very strong event for the veteran.
Racing continues on Wednesday with the freestyle sprint in Toblach, Italy.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.