December 28, 2011 (Oberhof, Germany) – The Viessmann FIS Tour de Ski looks destined to live up to what many have predicted is the most-anticipated event of the FIS cross-country race season. Now in its sixth year the TdS kicks off in Oberhof, Germany on December 29th and concludes on January 8th in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
With no World Championships or Winter Olympics this year, the gruelling multi-stage ski event, styled after the Tour de France has attracted most of the top cross-country skiers in the world.
This year’s instalment of the Tour de Ski features a total of nine stages conducted over 11 days at five different venues in two countries – Germany and Italy. The women will race a total of 60km, with the men doing 110km. The event begins in Oberhof on December 29th with a prologue in free technique, followed the next day with a handicap start race in classic technique – 10km for the women and 15km for the men. The Tour then moves to Oberstdorf for a classic sprint race on December 31st and short pursuit races on New Year’s Day.
After a rest and travel day the athletes will spend three days competing in and around Toblach, Italy, beginning with a short distance interval race on January 3rd, followed by skate sprints on January 4th. The final day in Toblach will see the athletes compete in a long distance free technique race, with the men racing on a 35km point-to-point course between Cortina d’Ampezzo and Toblach, while the women will race three laps of a 5km course starting in the stadium in Toblach.
After a second rest day on January 6th, the Tour will conclude in Val of Fiemme, Italy, with a classic mass start race over 10km (women) and 20km (men) on the 7th, and the gruelling final stage on the 8th, featuring the infamous final 3.7km climb up Alpe Cermis, during which competitors gain almost 1,500ft in elevation.
In addition to bragging rights as the world’s best overall skier, the participants in this year’s tour will be battling for World Cup points and prize money. Up for grabs will be 50 points for the winner of each stage, along with a rich prize of 400 points for the overall victory, meaning that whoever wins the TdS overall stands a very good chance of winning the overall World Cup title as well. Participants will compete over a purse of cash prizes worth a total of 720,000 Swiss francs as well!
Teams from a total of 21 countries will contest this year’s Tour de Ski, ranging from Great Britain’s one-man team of Andrew Musgrave to the large German and Russian teams of 19 and 22 members respectively. The Swedes, Finns and Norwegians will also be there in force. A total of 186 athletes are officially registered, but like its namesake event, the Tour de France, we can expect a fair amount of attrition due to exhaustion and illness by the time the Tour ends on the slopes of Alpe Cermis.
While the Norwegian duo of Marit Bjoergen and Petter Northug have dominated the World Cup for the last few seasons, neither has ever won the Tour de Ski. Northug has finished second for the last three years in a row. In fact, a Norwegian has yet to stand on the top step of the Tour de Ski podium, so both national as well as individual pride are on the line.
Both Bjoergen and Northug have set their sights firmly on overall Tour de Ski victories this year. Bjoergen has stayed away from the Tour in recent years in order to prepare for other events like the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and last year’s Nordic World Championships in Oslo, but this year that her main goal is a victory in the Tour de Ski, just about the only prize she has yet to win in the sport. “It inspires me that this is what’s missing from my victory list, and that no Norwegians have won the Tour de Ski before,” Bjoergen told FIS XC in an interview yesterday.
Switzerland’s Dario Cologna will be aiming for a third overall victory in the men’s race, but will be chased by Northug and former winner Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic, along with Canada’s Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey, both of whom finished in the top ten last year.
Three-time runner-up Northug admits to frustration with his previous results but feels in a better position to win this year than in the past: “I know what has happened in recent years. Everything has been my own fault. It was miserable to be number two last year when I felt so vigorous at the end but I think I’m stronger in the final stage now,” he told FIS Cross Country.
Meanwhile, according to Czech Head Coach, Miroslav Petrasek, Bauer “…will be fighting for top results. He will be personally unhappy to miss the podium; I would be disappointed if he is outside the top five,” Petrasek was quoted in the press earlier this week.
Meanwhile, illness continues to take its toll on athletes as three more have recently dropped out of the Tour, including Norway’s Vibeke Skofterud and Martin Johnsrud-Sunby and Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson.
The North Americans Teams
A total of nine athletes from North America will contest this year’s Tour, the most ever. Canada will field a trio of strong men – Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Ivan Babikov – while the USA will send a squad of six athletes consisting of Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephen, Holly Brooks, Andy Newell, Kris Freeman and Simi Hamilton. SkiTrax caught up to the Canadian and US Head Coaches by phone yesterday to talk about their teams’ hopes and expectations for the Tour this year.
Justin Wadsworth – Canada
On the Canadian side, all three team members are capable of stage wins and top ten overall finishes. Kershaw and Babikov already have Tour stage wins to their credit, in 2011 and 2009 respectively, and all three have placed in the top ten overall at least once in previous years.
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth expects even more from them at this year’s Tour. “Even though none of them have had a final podium yet I think that we’re in a better overall position than we were last year. I think all the guys are in better shape, they’ve all had at least one very good race under their belts this year that shows their fitness and it’s all been pretty recent, so I’m pretty excited. I think our goals as a team are still three in the top ten, and we’d really like to have guys get on the podium.”
Wadsworth made no secret of the fact that much of their past dryland season training was geared to preparation for the Tour de Ski, particularly the latter stages like the Alpe Cermis, where athletes like Alex Harvey have lost ground in the past. “The Tour is kind of our World Championships this year and so during a lot of the camps this year we really focussed on a lot of offset and working on steep uphill technique, with that in the back of our minds,” Wadsworth explained.
Wadsworth said the hours of gruelling uphill work helped both with the mental as well as physical dimension of the Tour: “We did a lot of those long uphill rollerski sessions up the volcano in Hawaii from sea level to 10,000ft and when we did those we had the Tour in mind. With both the mental as well as physical challenge that the TdS poses it really helps their confidence to know they’ve done that in training.”
Wadsworth expects Kershaw and Harvey to challenge for podium positions on any given day of the Tour that they feeling good, but the biggest prize is to grab a piece of the final podium pie in the overall standings, something he feels is well within reach for both skiers.
“For guys like Devon and Alex, they can do well in any stage, and if like last year we can just keep getting lots of top fives then they can just keep chipping away at the overall that way. They have the possibility to score sprint or distance podiums in either technique and for those guys it’s just about picking those days when they feel good and trying to capitalize on those and trying to avoid having a bad day where you lose lots of time.”
While great things are expected of Kershaw and Harvey at this year’s Tour given their top ten results last year, Wadsworth is equally excited about Babikov’s chances, despite coming off a poor season last year. “Ivan’s been in the top ten before in the Tour de Ski and he’s in better shape now than I’ve ever seen. I think he’s in a better position now with his classic skiing being much better. He just had a great classic race in Rogla where he was up in the lead group a lot of the race, and even led for a while.”
“Last year in the Tour he struggled a bit in the classic races so I’m really excited to see what he can do this year. If he can be a little closer coming into the final stage and the climb up Alpe Cermis he can be a major threat because he’s had the fastest time on the climb before.” Babikov’s one and only World Cup victory was won on this final stage of the Tour de Ski, back in 2009.
Wadsworth also addressed the fact that no Canadian women will be racing in this year’s TdS, despite that fact that his American counterpart was sending three women to the Tour. Referring to Chandra Crawford, Dasha Gaiazova and Perianne Jones, Wadsworth said, “Their distance results just haven’t matched their sprint results, and the Tour de Ski is not a place to come and just dabble in a few sprints, it’s a lot of work.”
Wadsworth added that missing the Tour de Ski was the best way to set the three women up for greater success in the 2nd World Cup period, which features a number of back-to-back sprint events. “Even though there are two sprint races in the Tour,” he said, “they’re only half point races, and if you look at the races right after the Tour, those are very good races for our women’s team – the sprints in Milano, Moscow and Otepaa.”
“A lot of the athletes they’re going to compete against in those races are going to be pretty fatigued from the Tour,” Wadsworth pointed out, “and they can hopefully garner some more podiums from those races. So that’s the decision we made and I think in the long run it will prove to be a smart one.”
With a mix of both distance specialists and sprinters capable of producing distance results, U.S. Head Coach Chris Grover has been planning all along to send a squad of men and women to the Tour. “Our initial thought all along this year was to race Kris, Andy, Kikkan, Liz and Simi,” Grover told SkiTtrax. “Since last spring they were the skiers in particular that we had planned to race, as we felt like they would be ready for the Tour if their training went well.”
Grover said the decision to commit to a larger team was based on a number of factors, mostly to do with how the U.S. athletes were developing as more all around skiers: “The difference between this year and last year, where we only had three athletes, is that this year we feel we have athletes that are skiing at an all-round better level in terms of their fitness, strength and experience, and who can do well in multiple types of events.”
Holly Brooks, meanwhile, was a late addition to the Tour de Ski team after a series of breakthrough performances on the World Cup: “Having Holly here is totally based on the fantastic skiing that she’s delivered during the first World cup period,” continued Grover.
When asked about his performance expectations of the US athletes on the Tour, Grover dwells less on specific results targets and more on encouraging the team to continue building on the momentum established so far this season, one in which almost every member of the team has achieved a personal best.
Having said that, Grover is certainly not ruling out the possibility of a podium finish or two: “This is also a year in which we have a few different athletes with the potential to score a podium – and since we’ve never had a Tour de Ski podium that would be exciting for us as well.”
The fireworks begin on Dec. 29 so stay tuned to skitrax.com for complete coverage of the 6th annual Tour de Ski.