The North American elite racing season may be over, but there is still plenty of action to be found in Europe, including the second annual Tour de Barents, a four-stage mini-tour in the Barents region of northern Europe.
While fields are not large – just 11 women and 35 men are contesting this year’s event – there is plenty of firepower. Petra Majdic (SLO) leads the women as she wraps up her farewell tour. Majdic is joined by young Finnish star Krista Lahteenmaki and her World Cup teammate Kerttu Niskanen.
World Cup standouts Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) and Alena Prochazcova (SVK) are also competing.
On the men’s side, 2010 Tour de Barents champion, Sami Jauhojärvi (FIN) will attempt to defend his title. He will be challenged by the French duo of Maurice Manificat and Jean Marc Gaillard as well as Lukas Bauer (CZE), John Kristian Dahl (NOR), World Champion Matti Heikkinen (FIN), Tobias Angerer (GER) and Estonian veteran Jaak Mae.
The mini-tour kicked off this morning with a 6/12km individual start event in Tana, Norway.
Majdic skied to a 12.8 second victory over Niskanen. Lahteenmaki was just another .8 seconds back in third.
Prochazkova was fourth, and Italian Virginia De Martin Topranin, 24th in the 2011 Tour de Ski took fifth.
Stoermer Steira who has not been in top form in classic events this season, struggled to a seventh place finish, over a minute back of Majdic.
“The race was perfect for me,” Majdic said, noting she hasn’t classic skied in two weeks. “The course was great for me, because the uphills were not steep and the track was fast.”
Manificat served notice that this year’s Tour de Barents would be no cakewalk for Jauhojärvi, who ran away with the overall title last year.
The 25-year-old Frenchman skied to an eight second victory over Jauhojärvi. Teammate Gaillard was third +9.9 seconds, with Bauer and Heikkinen rounding out the top five.
“I heard intermediate times well, and my finish was really good today,” Manificat said referring to on-course splits. He led at every official time check, and surprised many given that he has been known as something of a skate specialist.
“I have worked a lot on classic during the season, and it shows,” Manificat said.
Racing continues on Thursday with a 10/15km freestyle mass start in Inari, Finland. Following an off day on Friday, the Tour picks up with a classic sprint in Rovaniemi, Finland, before concluding with a hill climb at the same location.
Majdic is realistic about her chances in the hill climb, so is looking to build a substantial lead in the next two stages. The sprint, especially, with bonus seconds will be critical.
“Tomorrow’s mass start and Saturday’s sprint with bonus seconds are important for me, because I think I will not be the best on the Ounasvaara Climb on the final day,” Majdic said.
The final climb is a new take on the format popularized in the Tour de Ski. Instead of the standard mellow terrain into wall of a hill to the finish, the Tour de Barents version features a repeated 4.4km loop.
The women will ski the circuit twice and the men three times. The hill is 109 meters of vertical over just a 900-meter stretch. The course then drops precipitously back to the stadium, where the fun starts all over again.
Skiers may race any of the races individually and compete for prize money, but obviously must complete all stages to be eligible for the overall title.
There is also a junior competition – both in the individual races and for the overall Tour.
The Barents region consists of land bordering the Barents sea, and was established following the fall of the Soviet Union with the goal of creating international cooperation for promotion and development of the area.
Tana is a municipality in Norway consisting of numerous small townships. It is the fifth largest municipality in the country based on area but is home to only 3,000 people. Bordering Finland, official languages include Sami and Bokmål.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.