Less than 24 hours remain until the start of the 2012 Tour de Ski. The FasterSkier team (that’s right – team!) has arrived in Germany to cover the ultimate test of all-around skiing prowess for the first time in our history.
It feels like the entire world of cross-country skiing has converged upon the small town of Oberhof, in the eastern part of Germany, for the first two stages of the Tour. While winter sports enthusiasts are quite familiar with Oberhof, it is not on the radar for many in the country: The town boasts a population of just over 1,500 residents. (Fortunately, the standard UNESCO metric of “bakeries-per-capita” boosts the village well up the charts.)
The weather is blustery, with strong winds, damp air, and not much snow on the ground. Opening ceremonies and official press conferences have come and gone, along with the requisite tasty fruit juices and Kowalczyks.
We are excited to be here, and look forward to bringing the full Tour experience to ski fans around the globe.
Below, we’ve managed to cram every single piece of Tour-related noteworthy information, past records, and interesting trivia into 26 digestible chunks. Racing gets underway tomorrow with a 3.1/4km skate prologue.
A – Add-a-day. As if the Tour wasn’t hard enough, organizers opted to add one more day of racing in 2012, making for nine races in eleven days. Petter Northug (NOR) wasn’t too concerned, though, telling us that he didn’t think the extra few kilometers would make much of a difference as far as recovery.
B – Big-time Bus. The Canadians are again riding in style at Tour de Ski. Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, and Ivan Babikov will be rolling on their “rock-star” tour bus, a model that is said to be even swankier than last year’s.
C – Charlotte Kalla – The winner of the second-ever Tour de Ski, way back in 2008, when she was a mere babe at 21 years old, the Swedish star has decided to race this year. Kalla made the call this morning, after battling illness over the last several weeks, and was en route to Oberhof as the opening ceremonies proceeded.
D – Dancers. Nine bold dancers performed two numbers at the opening ceremonies between team introductions. Scantily clad, especially given the season, they braved the howling wind and generally raw weather to entertain an equally intrepid crowd. The fans gamely cheered every skier as they were announced, and stayed until the bitter end in order to support the home team.
E – Estonia. They are bringing a large team, though heavy on sprinters and unproven folk. The Estonians would love nothing more than to anoint a new king or queen of skiing, what with the retirement and the outing of doping by hero Andrus Veerpalu. While some good individual results are a possibility, there’s no one to fill Veerpalu’s big shoes at the moment.
F – Final Climb. Interestingly, the last stage of the Tour did not factor in the win last year, though the rest of the podium did come down to the last day. Petter Northug is the first to admit that he needs significant time on some of his
top rivals to take the win on the Alpe Cermis. Marit Bjoergen (NOR) should be strong, but if her teammate Therese Johaug is close, things could get interesting. Last year Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) was not pushed on the big hill, so it will be interesting to see how the race plays out if she has ground to make up.
G – Grooming, which U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said didn’t happen last night as warm temperatures and high winds have led to a rapidly deteriorating course. The decision was made to minimize impact by not grooming on Tuesday. One athlete described the current snow conditions as “12 inches of mush,” and organizers may salt the track to firm it up. Training and ski testing were limited to a single two-hour block on Wednesday.
H – Hemoglobin. No information has been released on hemoglobin tests, but it is not uncommon for several athletes to be above the FIS mandated limit, and thus prevented from starting. Last year, Russia’s Maxim Vyleghzhanin was forced to miss the whole race.
I – Illness. Vibeke Skofterud (NOR), whose season was off to a great start, has been sick, and will not race the Tour. She is joined on the sidelines by her male teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby. The rest of the athletes already in Oberhof will be taking extreme precautions to keep from getting sick all the way to the final stage on Alpe Cermis, as poor health usually keeps many skiers from finishing the race.
J – Justyna Kowalczyk. The Pole has won the last two Tours de Ski, but she is not the favorite in many books this year, as Marit Bjoergen races the event for the first time since 2009. Bjoergen has been dominant this season, while Kowalczyk, despite showing flashes of her past brilliance with a victory in Rogla (an event sans Bjoergen), has not been on top of her game.
K – Kikkan Randall. The American has won two skate sprints this year, but it is her distance skiing and classic sprinting that puts her on the radar as a contender in the Tour.
L – Luck. In all athletics there is some element of luck, but in the Tour it is more about avoiding the bad – illness, inopportune equipment failures, weather, etc. With nine races, the lucky skier is not going to win, but the unlucky will definitely lose.
M – Music. At the opening ceremonies, each team was welcomed to the stage with a pop song native to their country. The Americans got the theme song from Rocky.
N – Newell, Andy. The American sprinter is not trying to peak for the Tour, instead focusing on building toward Rybinsk and Otepaa. However, Norwegian team director Vidar Lofshus, a former sprint coach for the U.S., pointed to Newell as the man who could be the Tour’s breakout skier.
O – One-hundred-and-seventy-three. The number of starters in this year’s edition of the Tour de Ski, up from 132 last year. With no Olympics or World Championships, the Tour is the big draw of the season.
P – Pairs. In the five years of the Tour de Ski, four skiers have won the event twice: Lukas Bauer (CZE) and Dario Cologna (SUI) on the men’s side, and Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) on the women’s. Kuitunen is retired, but the remaining three all have a shot at becoming the first to three Tour titles.
Q – Quickness, or the lack thereof. With intermediate bonus seconds running ten deep in this edition of the Tour, the fight for the all-important mid-race sprint preems will be even more hotly contested. To win the Tour, especially on the men’s side, a skier needs to acquire a good amount of extra seconds.
R – Recovery. Perhaps the key to Tour success, every coach and athlete mentions it. The Americans brought three suitcases of Clif Bars, Luna Bars, Gatorade, and other products to aid in the process.
S – Scaphoid fracture. The type of injury that American Holly Brooks hopes she doesn’t have. Brooks slipped and fell while running several days ago, and has been experiencing sharp pain in her wrist. After an examination by the Norwegian team doctor, she’s hoping that it’s a sprained ligament, and she’ll still be starting the Tour. “Petra Majdic won a bronze medal with a collapsed lung and a broken rib,” she said.
T – Thuringia, the German state in which Oberhof resides. The town, a high performance center for winter sports, is known as the St. Moritz of Thuringia, despite the oft-challenging weather conditions.
U – Ünderdog. Lukas Bauer. The two-time Tour winner can climb with anyone, but with more sprints and more bonus seconds, he is unlikely to be in position to challenge for the victory, with “unlikely” being the operative word.
V – Victories. Despite never having won the Tour, Petter Northug holds the most Tour stage victories of any man, with six. Lukas Bauer is just behind with five, but should also be satisfied with his two overall wins. Virpi Kuitunen holds the best mark overall with seven Tour stage wins, one more than Justyna Kowalczyk.
W – World Champs – The 1931 World Championships were held here in Oberhof, with Norway taking gold and silver, and Sweden bronze in both races. Johan Grøttumsbråten won the 18k, and Ole Stenen won the 50k.
X – X-Factor. Therese Johaug. The peppy Norwegian charged up to second place in the overall standings with a fantastic final climb in 2011, and she is skiing even better this year – notably in sprints. Bjoergen and Kowalczyk are getting all the attention, but Johaug, who beat that illustrious pair head-to-head in the 30 k at World Championships last year, should not be counted out.
Y – Yellow. Jackets. See photo, but turn down your screen brightness first.
Z – Zeller, Katrin. The veteran, along with a large German contingent, hopes to give the home fans something to cheer about. But the season is not off to a good start for the Germans. Zeller is a solid all-rounder and has generally skied quite well on the famed final climb of the Tour de Ski, twice placing in the top-seven for the day. German Tobias Angerer won the first Tour, but the hosts of the first two stops don’t have athletes who will challenge for the top spot this season, and even the podium is a stretch.
Nat Herz and Rob Whitney contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.