RacingTour de SkiWorld CupKlæbo Wins Second Tour de Ski; Røthe Reigns on Alpe Cermis, Ketterson 48th

Benjamin TheyerlJanuary 4, 2022

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We began this year’s coverage of the Men’s Tour de Ski with a prelude from 5 time Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault. So let us begin this coda with him as well.

On the cycling classic Paris-Roubaix, “the hell of the north” – famous for its cobblestones, and the mud, blood, sweat, and tears they bring – Hinault said in 1981, “[It’s] bulls**t.” He had just won the race.

Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) may feel the same about a certain climb in Val di Fiemme, Italy he continues to find himself on year-after-year at the end of the Tour de Ski.

The profile of the point-to-point hill climb up the Alpe Cermis, the capstone of the Tour de Ski. (Photo: Screenshot 2022 FIS Broadcast)

Even among cross-country skiers and ski fans (admittedly, a Venn diagram that is nearly a singular circle), the final 10-kilometer stage of the Tour de Ski, and its roughly 3-kilometer, 28% gradient pitch-including climb up the Alpe Cermis, seems like a stupid proposition. We love skiing because it juxtaposes the brilliance and pure white benevolence of winter with the brutality, the pure push, the goddamn slog that fighting through it on a pair of skis can be. The Alpe – well – it piles onto the latter without balancing it with the former. We watch and look and say to ourselves why? But in piling on the pain, and the pure difficulty, the Alpe enters an uncanny valley as deep and awe-inspiring as its climb is high and mighty.

In short, why the Alpe? It’s masochistic, and it’s the most beautiful race in the world.

Johannes Høsflot Klæbo finished 5th in the Alpe Cermis hill climb to solidify his overall win in the 2021/22 Tour de Ski. (Photo: NordicFocus)

You don’t have to look any further than Klæbo’s history on the climb to tell you so. The Norwegian, with an opportunity to surpass none other than Bjørn Dæhlie himself for career Individual World Cup wins with a win in today’s stage (as it stood before the start, the two were tied at 46 apiece), has had both triumph and tribulation on the Alpe in previous editions of the Tour. In his first climb up the Alpe 2018/19, he came across the line in first after a pursuit start, becoming the youngest ever winner of the Tour de Ski. In his last climb up the Alpe in 2019/2020, he lost a one second advantage he carried into the day, consequently losing the Tour to Alexander Bolshunov (RUS).

This time around, his task was simpler. Instead of the 1 second advantage he had on Bolshunov in 19/20, he carried exactly two minutes over the Russian going into a mass start today. No need to be first to the top; all he would have to do was stick to the red suits of Alexander Bolshunov and his Russian teammates.

When the field, which remained compact throughout the approach, hit the bottom of the Alpe Cermis, Klæbo was doing exactly that. Alexey Chervotkin (RUS) had led the pack through most of the first six k, which followed the flow of the river valley, with his fellow countrymen Bolshunov, Ivan Yakimushkin (RUS), and Denis Spitsov (RUS) close behind. Also slotted within the field was the only American left to start today’s race, Zak Ketterson.

The animating move as the terrain kicked up, however, came from Iivo Niskanen (FIN), who went into the day in third place (+2:49) in the Tour standings, and was looking to maintain his place on the podium. 

At the 7.5k checkpoint, Niskanen led a pack that resembled a cell in mitosis – stretched, but not yet split into packs with lives of their own. Less than a second behind him was a familiar sight, Sjur Røthe (NOR), who had previously won on the Alpe during his last ascent in 2019. Klæbo crossed the checkpoint in fifth place, with Bolshunov in sixth. Ketterson, meanwhile, was in the pack that followed – coming across in 26th place (+15.9).

Sjur Røthe takes the win in Stage 6 of the 2021/22 Tour de Ski. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The decisive pitch came shortly after the checkpoint. At a 26% section, Sjur Røthe’s attack was less a thrilling burst of energy than a confident crawl away from the pack. He created a gap, and looked to be set to face the last 1.6k of the climb alone.

That was, of course, until another face familiar to the Alpe slowly crawled out of the pack too. Last year’s hill climb winner, Denis Spitsov (RUS), skied up to Røthe , setting up a two-way battle that had, as Røthe didn’t race the Tour last year, been two years in the making.

The chase group that included Klæbo, Bolshunov, and Niskanen stayed together passed the 24% gradient. Niskanen, though, soon started to show signs that he was about to crack. When his V1 finally gave way to a coach’s skate, it was in one of the hairpins set-up to ease the gradient on the skiers. He brought, for a split second, the chase group to a complete pause. Bolshunov, who was the second skier behind Niskanen, was caught up for a moment, which allowed Klæbo to shoot to the outside and overtake both of them.

Niskanen faded, but Bolshunov now had to expend energy to stay up with Klæbo, who some 1.2k out from the finishing line was showing a resolve on the Alpe that he hadn’t in his previous ascents.

So it had broken into a race of sub-races. The lead group with Røthe and Spitsov, gunning for the stage win. The chase group, 20 seconds off, looking to decide the overall of this year’s Tour de Ski.

Sjur Røthe (NOR) leads in the final kilometer of the Stage 6 hill climb ahead of Denis Spitsov (RUS). (Photo: NordicFocus)

When the Alpe finally, impossibly, gave way to gradients that were in the single-digits, Røthe proved the Puncheur over Spitsov. His V1 gave way to a V2 that still somehow maintained some grace to it, and he came across the blue line painted in the snow at the top of the Alpe a champion again. Spitsov, not losing sight of the Røthe, crossed the line in second (+2.4).

The chase group meanwhile, was now being led by two skiers wearing suits not seen near the front of a Men’s World Cup so far this season. Indeed, it was two young Germans, Friedrich Moch and Lucas Bögl, who were pulling Klæbo and Bolshunov through the final moments of this year’s Tour. When the terrain gave way, Moch took it one step farther, gapping the field to claim his first individual World Cup podium in 3rd place (+18.9), and becoming the first German man to podium at a World Cup since Tim Tscharnke in 2015 (also in Val Di Fiemme).

Friedrich Moch (GER) climbs to third up the Alpe Cermis. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Then, 15 seconds later, the Tour was decided. Klæbo came in 5th place on the day (+34.9), gaining 3 seconds on Bolshunov who came in 8th (+38.1). Niskanen’s aggressive racing too, turned out to re-work the podium. He finished 12th on the stage (+1:00.4), maintaining his position for a third place overall finish in the Tour.

Iivo Niskanen (FIN) skiied his way to 3rd place overall in the Tour on the Hill Climb in Val Di Fiemme. (Photo: NordicFocus).

The final standings for this year’s Tour de Ski then: Johannes Høsflot Klæbo with the win (2:24:56.0), Alexander Bolshunov in second (+2:03.2), and Iivo Niskanen third (+3:14.5).

For Klæbo , it is his second overall Tour de Ski championship. He becomes only the 2nd Norwegian, after Martin Johnsrud Sundby, to win multiple Tours. He leaves tied with Bjørn Dæhlie on Individual World Cup stage wins. He also closes his most apparent weakness in the World Cup circuit, finishing 5th on the Alpe Cermis after previously never having breached the Top 10.

And yet, as he said in an interview with FIS media: Klæbo is “glad it’s over. It will be nice to get some days off now and rest for the Olympics.”

Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo (NOR) wins his 2nd Tour de Ski title (Photo: NordicFocus).

What lessons do we take from this year’s Tour de Ski then? While it has waxed and waned in importance and depth in championship seasons, it is a barometer by which we can see the history and the achievement of the sport’s greatest skiers. There are World Championships and World Cups, but the Tour is the Tour. As we head towards the sport’s biggest stage in Beijing next month, this edition reminds us that we are witnessing something one-of-a-kind in a Norwegian, still young at 25, that is poised to re-write any notion of what is possible in this sport: Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. Against the toughest and most glorious test in skiing on the Alpe Cermis, he has finally passed.

On his first climb up the Alpe, Zak Ketterson finished 48th (+3:01.3). He becomes the only American man to finish this year’s Tour de Ski, coming off the SuperTour in the U.S. to complete the sport’s most grueling test, and do so as his first World Cup starts no less. He finished 54th overall (+16:06.4).

Zak Ketterson finishes his first climb up the Alpe Cermis, rounding out his first World Cup starts at the 2021/22 Tour de Ski. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Results:
Stage 6

Tour de Ski Overall Standings: Cumulative Time | Points

Benjamin Theyerl

Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing, politics, and skiing (not necessarily all related) while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.

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