The cross-country ski season’s last stand begins on Tuesday, when the final domestic races of the year kick off in Sun Valley, ID.
The mini-tour known as the SuperTour Finals will start with a 3.3/2.8 k freestyle prologue on a stout course, followed by three more races in four more days. The winner of both the men’s and women’s overall will be the first competitor to arrive atop a ridge on Dollar Mountain, a local alpine ski area.
More than 220 athletes from all across the U.S. and Canada have arrived in Idaho, headlined by national team members from both countries.
They’ll be contesting a race format originally modeled on the Tour de France, and which was first adopted on the international level, in the form of the Tour de Ski, in 2007. Over the last few years, the concept has migrated to lower levels, with the first modern-style mini-tour in the U.S. held in northern Maine last March.
That race included three stages: a mass-start distance race, a sprint, and a hill climb. This year’s adds the prologue but preserves the order of the rest of the events: the mass-start 15/10 k classic race is on the second day, followed by the sprint and the 5 k hill climb.
Top finishers in the first three stages are awarded bonus seconds, which are subtracted from each athlete’s overall time. In the prologue and mass-start, those bonuses are 15, 10, and five seconds for the three podium places, while the 30 best sprinters can earn up to 60 seconds for first place, and one second for 30th.
In the hill climb, the racer with the lowest combined time from the previous races starts first, with the rest of the field following, one-by-one, with handicaps based on their own finishes.
The idea behind the varied distances and bonuses is to provide athletes with different strengths with a shot at the overall. Sprinters can rack up extra seconds in the shorter races, while those with slower-twitch muscles can make up time in the mass-start and hill climb.
That’s the idea. In practice, it has played out differently—at least at the international level. At the Tour de Ski, pure sprinters have never come close to an overall victory.
Domestically, the waters are a little muddier. In Maine last year, Kikkan Randall took a decisive victory, winning the final hill climb by more than a minute. But on the men’s side, the race came down to a single second between Andy Newell and Ivan Babikov—who are, respectively, the epitomes of a pure sprinter and a pure distance skier. Canada has held four tours this season, with the winners coming from all walks of physiological background.
In Sun Valley, one thing is clear: a Randall repeat is essentially a lock. She’s undoubtedly the best sprinter of all the women, and her win in Sunday’s 30 k classic shows that she’s the class of the field in longer distances as well.
If she has a bad day, it’s possible that Randall could be relegated to second or third in a single event—or even miss the top 10 if she crashes out of the sprint. But with four different stages, any isolated miscues or snafus should come out in the wash. Randall fans, you can start staking out your lawn chairs at the top of Dollar Mountain now.
On the men’s side, after last year’s mini-tour, it’s tempting to predict another battle between sprinters like Newell, Simi
Hamilton, and Stefan Kuhn, and those oriented towards longer races, like Kris Freeman.
But before prognosticating, it’s important to remember that in 2010 in Maine, Newell had a few advantages that may have allowed him keep pace with Babikov. First was a blunder by the Canadian in the mass-start race in Madawaska, in which Babikov missed a turn-off for the finish and went from first to fifth, losing about 30 seconds in the process.
Second, that mass-start was held on a course that was essentially an ice-luge—conditions were very fast. With a relatively flat profile there, the distance skiers didn’t get much of an opportunity to put time into the sprinters.
In Sun Valley, however, the mass-start is tougher, with some big climbs, and sprinters who falter early could lose time very quickly—especially with the altitude.
“That 15 k course is hard enough, and high enough, that there’s going to be some people cracking out there,” Freeman said. “I think that if someone skis away from the 15 k, they’re going to win the tour.”
The prologue is no cakewalk, either, with a massive, Idaho-sized climb halfway through. But it’s not a long race—at just 3.3 kilometers for the men, it’s unlikely that big gaps will form there. At the World Cup finals two weeks ago, Freeman put just 19 seconds into Newell on a course that was the same length, and at least as hard.
The hill climb is also tough, too, with one stretch that packs in 450 vertical feet of climbing in roughly 500 meters, according to Rick Kapala, who’s the chief of competition in Sun Valley. But again, at five kilometers, it’s short enough that a well-paced effort from a sprinter could be enough to preserve even a smaller gap.
The question seems to be whether the advantages that accrue to the sprinters in the third stage are enough to offset the damage that gets done in the other three races. Given that Freeman and other strong distance skiers like Lars Flora can often be competitive into the semis and even the finals of domestic sprints, it’s unlikely those advantages will be all that large.
There are a few sprinters entered, though, with the fitness to hang in the 15 k—namely, Canadians Kuhn and Drew Goldsack. Newell could, too, though he’s been far from consistent in his distance racing this season. And Hamilton raced well in a 10 k in Europe earlier this month.
“I’m feeling rested and recovered,” he said Monday, “but, I think this time of year, especially for me, can always kind of be hit or miss. My speed for the sprint is hopefully still right up there—we’ll see how the distance races go.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.