Note: Alaska Pacific University skier Skyler Kenna, 21, will also be racing the 2017 China Tour de Ski. FasterSkier learned of Kenna’s participation after publication.
Be a ski racer, see the world. That’s the approach of a pair of Alaska Pacific University (APU) skiers Jack Novak and Lauren Fritz, who leave for Asia later this week to race in the China Tour de Ski, set to begin in Changbaishan on Sunday, Jan. 1.
Novak has never been to Asia before, and has yet to ride a camel on any continent. Fritz competed in the race series for the first time last year, and has skied on five continents. Both athletes are at a point in their ski career where they are seeking experiences more than SuperTour points or championship team selection. Some prize money wouldn’t hurt, either.
The China Tour de Ski marks its 10th anniversary this year, which makes it only one year younger than the “other” Tour de Ski that begins in Val Müstair, Switzerland, this Saturday, Dec. 31. Prior versions of the Chinese Tour have featured a sprint on trucked-in snow inside the Bird’s Nest stadium built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, stage races across China and inner Mongolia, long bus rides, and a lot of photogenic camels.
American skiers who have previously participated include Fritz, Peter Kling and Holly Brooks, all currently or formerly of APU; Ryan Scott, formerly of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown; and former U.S. Ski Team member Torin Koos. They have consistently reported genuinely warm welcomes and intriguing cultural experiences.
This year’s Tour takes racers through six stages over nine days across a wide swath of the country. (Changbaishan to Beijing is a 13-hour drive.) It’s heavy on the skate sprints: a full four out of six stages (Stages 1, 2, 5, and 6) are freestyle sprints. In the middle, Stage 4 is a prologue to short distance skate mass start race, 3.8 kilometers for the women and 5.7 k for the men.
And Stage 3 is the Chinese Vasaloppet, a classic marathon now in its 15th year. Last year, the Tour de Ski racers covered the whole 50 k distance, with Brooks and Fritz on course for 2:44 and 2:51, respectively. This year’s Tour racers will participate in “a modified course and a shorter total distance,” though precisely how much shorter is not immediately apparent. The 2017 full-distance Chinese Vasaloppet also marks the third event of the 2016/2017 Visma Ski Classics series.
While many multi-stage tours – the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, the original Tour de Ski – operate on a principle of lowest combined time wins, perhaps augmented by time bonuses for top positions, the China Tour de Ski instead applies World Cup scoring based on finishing position. Among other things, this avoids making the person who performs best in the Chinese Vasaloppet (which is much longer than all the other races combined) the de facto champion based on combined time.
Last year’s overall winners were a pair of Swedes, Emil Johansson and Lisa Svensson. Johansson has a World Cup top-30 sprint finish to his name and won the 2013 SuperTour skate sprint in West Yellowstone, Mont., while studying at the University of Colorado-Boulder during the 2013/2014 season. Svensson, who will be competing in her fifth consecutive China Tour de Ski, has never had a podium finish in an International Ski Federation (FIS) race on European soil… but has 17 of them in China.
One American has cracked the overall podium in the first nine years of the China Tour de Ski: Kling was second in 2015. Chinese skiers make up a minority of historic podium finishers in the event, likely reflecting both the nascency of Chinese cross-country skiing (the Chinese National Team was established in 2006) and race organizers’ willingness to attract non-Chinese skiers to their event.
When it comes to convincing European skiers to fly across Asia, or Alaskan skiers to fly across the Pacific Ocean, money talks.
To start with, virtually all of the racers’ expenses, including transportation, are covered by the race organizers. As Scott wrote to FasterSkier during the 2015 Tour, the race paid for all of his travel, lodging, and food. “My only expense is $500 Euros to the organizers and paying for bags,” Scott wrote.
On top of that, there’s real money to be made. In this year’s Tour, first through fourth in four of the stages is good for 2,000 to 10,000 renminbi (yuan) per race. (At current exchange rates, 10,000 yuan is equal to approximately $1,400 – or more than the $1,200 prize for first place in any race at next month’s U.S. nationals.) For the Stage 2 sprint, it’s up to 20,000 yuan for the men ($2,800), 15,000 yuan ($2,200) for the women. For the Chinese Vasaloppet, Stage 3, first place takes home 5,000 euros, or $5,200. Plus there are additional prizes for top four in the overall Tour standings, starting with 20,000 yuan for first. (With the exception of Stage 2, all other stages and overall standings feature the same prize amounts between the genders.)
The total prize purse for Stages 1-2 and 4-6, not counting the Chinese Vasaloppet, is 251,000 yuan, or over $36,000. That’s slightly less than the $39,000 purse for the American Birkebeiner, but it’s in the ballpark. Within the world of cross-country ski racing, this is a princely sum. It is roughly to skiing as Russia’s $1.5 million for Diana Taurasi is to women’s basketball, or China’s 60 to 70 million euros for Oscar is to international soccer – eye-opening sums of money paid to entice athletes to a part of the world they might not otherwise consider visiting.
In related news, the Qaniq Challenge will once again pay out a total purse of $10,000 in Valdez, Alaska, next month. Fritz earned $500 for her third-place finish in last year’s race, behind fellow China veteran Brooks in second.
Fritz: Rekindling her love of skiing
But for Fritz, it’s not all about the money. The native of Chugiak, Alaska, and longtime APU skier has been a competitive racer for many years, with career highlights that include SuperTour podiums, top-10 national championship finishes, and World Cup starts in Canada in 2012. But in 2015, she wrote, she suffered through “a rough season prior, a summer of illness, injury and just general low-quality training,” and was getting ready to call it a career.
“I decided I was going to move away from SuperTour racing and do some ski marathons and probably retire [following the 2015/2016 season],” Fritz, 28, wrote to FasterSkier earlier this week during a break from packing. “I was fed up with racing SuperTour, racing poorly and not getting anywhere (figuratively, with my ski career). And I wasn’t having fun anymore. I was so used to being around skiers who are very focused on high level goals and incredibly (unspokenly) competitive that you can lose sight of why you do what you do beyond just a number on a result sheet, especially if you aren’t achieving those results (and I most certainly wasn’t).”
Her inaugural trip to China changed all that.
“Being with the group in China, it was just all about how we got this amazing opportunity and it was simply because we skied,” she wrote. “It reminded me that skiing has taken me so many places and connected me with so many people, and I get to be outside so much, and that was why I love it so much. I came home with a fresh attitude and it really helped boost me mentally and physically.”
Fritz’s enthusiasm is immediately apparent in her answer to a reporter’s question about why she is going back to China.
“Last year’s Tour de Ski China was one of the most fun, unique, and craziest ski trips I’ve ever been on,” she wrote. “So it’s more a question of ‘Why not?’ than ‘Why?’ am I going back, which probably makes it obvious why I’m going again. It was low-stress, low-pressure, with high energy, excitement and general enjoyment.”
“Everyone on the trip was there primarily for the experience of being in China and seeing cool new places with the added bonus that we got to do some ski races,” Fritz enthused. “I mean, how many ski races have you been to where you have to squat over a board over an open pit in a communal poop shack, and get handed a can of random Chinese ‘RedBull’ and a personal size bottle of Chinese spirits, cross a finish after skiing through a literal snow castle city, and be treated afterwards to a show and a table full of food you don’t recognize but eat anyways… Oh, and get to go for a hike on a Great Wonder of the World [the Great Wall of China] after the last race?”
Fritz continued, “Everyone’s attitude was more geared towards having a great time and experiencing what China had to offer than doing well in the races, and that gave it a more relaxed feeling. Not that people didn’t take the races seriously, they/we certainly did because there was money on the line! But once the bib came off, it was about having fun. The group we had was amazing, everyone was fun to hang out with and easy to get along with, and we had a great time. Not often is two straight weeks of living and traveling with a big group like that so easy and enjoyable.”
“Last year’s Tour de Ski China was one of the most fun, unique, and craziest ski trips I’ve ever been on. … It was low-stress, low-pressure, with high energy, excitement and general enjoyment.” — Lauren Fritz, APU skier
While she is largely going back for the experience, Fritz is not above hoping that, in a virtuous cycle, the improved training she was inspired to do following her trip to China last year will translate to better results this year.
“This year I definitely want to get some podiums,” Fritz wrote. “I had two 4th places last year, so I’d like to improve on that! I think it’s possible to be on the podium a few times if I ski the way I know I can right now with my fitness level. (Read: Fitness level waaaay better than last year, ha!)”
“Pretty much, the TDS China is my season,” she concluded. “As I said, I was going to retire after last year, but I kind of felt rejuvenated and wanted to keep training pretty much just so I could go back to China this year! I will still do some races later in the season, but China is definitely top of the priority list.”
Novak: Looking for adventure and an inaugural camel ride
Novak, 23, from Anchorage and also a longtime APU racer, finds himself in much the same boat as Fritz – underwhelmed by his recent performances, and looking for a low-stress adventure to mix things up.
“I decided to go on the Tour de Ski China because I was looking for a change of pace after the past couple of years of injuries,” Novak wrote to FasterSkier. “I am not in a place where I am racing for a World Champs start spot, so for me racing at nationals didn’t have a huge draw this year. I heard about this race from my teammates over the years and thought this is a good year to race this series. It should be quite an adventure and that is what I am looking for right now, having fun racing and doing what I love.
“I also have never ridden a camel but I hope this trip affords me the opportunity,” he added.
In less Bactrian goals, Novak wrote, “My goals for this series are to really see how I stack up. I would love to be in the mix hopefully fighting for the win every once in a while. Also I already am going to get to travel to China and Inner Mongolia seeing part of the world I have never seen which is a goal achieved as soon as I leave. Being able to travel around the world to ski race is a real pleasure and an opportunity that not many get to experience so I feel very lucky.”
Back in this country, Novak wrote that the China trip meshes well with the rest of his season goals, as he plans to enter some local races in Alaska in January before heading to the Midwest in February for SuperTour races and the Birkie.
“Finally,” Novak wrote, “we will finish up the season in Fairbanks [for Spring Series] which should be a hoot and a half. We race so infrequently in Alaska on a national stage that it is fun to race at ‘home’ or at least the same state.”
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Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.