Friday, December 26, 2008

Tour de Whee

The third Tour de Ski starts on Saturday in Oberhof, Germany, with the traditional short-distance prologue event: 2500 meters for the 51 registered women and 3750 meters for the 66 registered men. (A wonderfully complete set of course maps and profiles is available on the Tour website.)

Since its inauguration in 2006-07, the Tour de Ski has emerged as the most interesting event of the World Cup season. The Tours use time bonuses, pursuit starts (in which racers are seeded by time gaps in the general classification), and straight-up gimmicks like the "final climb" stage to mix long and short distances and classical and freestyle techniques in a way that restricts the overall title to the best all-rounders while still allowing specialists to capture some glory. That final stage is justly famous, or infamous: a freestyle climb up Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy, covering about 3000 meters of parcours and 425 vertical meters.

While maintaining the framework of the first and second editions, this year's Tour uses a refined method for assigning World Cup points to the Tour finishers: racers accrue points according to their position in the final standings (with the overall Tour champion getting a whopping 400 points) as well as half of the usual WC points for placing in the individual races - but they only keep their points if they finish the overall Tour.

Beyond all that, this season's event is interesting in a couple of ways. First, the 2008-09 Tour tries to split the difference between the earlier two Tours. Seven stages long, this season's Tour is one race shorter than last year's affair but one race longer than the inaugural event. As important as the length of the tour is the structure of it: four freestyle stages (including the first and last) and three classic stages. A considerable amount of the race distances are being skied in classic this year - 68% of the women's and 76% of the men's. Last year the percentages were closer to 50%, giving freestyle skiers like Charlotte Kalla an advantage relative to the all-rounders. This year's balance might give racers who are credible freestylers but superlative classicists a shot at the overall. I'm looking toward Eldar Roenning here.

Second, and complementarily, the field is more wide open than in past years: no clear World Cup favorite has emerged on either the men's or the women's sides. When the 2006-07 Tour opened, Tobias Angerer and Virpi Kuitunen were the clearly the strongest skiers on the circuit, and both won the inaugural Tour. Similarly, in 2007-08, Lukas Bauer and Kuitunen were ahead of the rest of the field, though Kuitunen's lingering back injury ultimately prevented her from holding off the emergent Charlotte Kalla in the last few kilometers of the grueling climb up Alpe Cermis (as live-blogged last year). This year, nobody is yet standing out as a dominant skier. What's more, of the top 10 male and female racers in the World Cup overall rankings - the only real proxy for Tour success - just three are skipping the Tour: Ola Vigen Hattestad (a sprint specialist) and Johann Olsson (a classical technician) on the men's side, Kalla (who is ill) on the women's. In other words, everyone's in.

As such, predictions of the general classification on Sunday, January 4, are even more provisional than in past years. Still and all, here are my picks, along with rationales:

men's overall
1. Teichmann (the only all-rounder in good form right now, and well ahead of his teammates Sommerfeldt and Angerer)
2. Hetland (just too big to win on the final climb)
3. Cologna (too young to win it all this year, but good at all distances)
4. Northug (great at any freestyle distance, not good enough at any classical distance)
5. Ronning (not quite good enough in freestyle to win it all)
North Americans: No Americans are entered in the Tour, but I can see both Babikov and Kershaw in the top 15, with Kershaw's sprinting skills pushing him up into the top 10.

women's overall
1. Saarinen (the best all-round racer right now, with enough guts to power up the final climb)
2. Bjoergen (also a great all-rounder, but just slightly behind Saarinen right now, and gimpy)
3. Kowalczyk (great at all distances and both techniques, but prone to tactical errors that screw up her chances)
4. Kuitunen ('06-'07 Tour champion, but still on the upward arc toward World Championships form)
5. Shevchenko (because she loves the Tour, and the final climb - but lacks the classical chops to win)
North Americans: Sara Renner will finish in the top 15 (no Americans are entered).


Colin R said...

What about Petra Majdic? Too big to win at distance?

Christopher Tassava said...

Yeah, I just can't see Majdic winning the whole thing when several of the events, and certainly the Final Climb, are pretty much opposite to her strengths, being long and in freestyle. And while she is deadly on sprint-race uphills, I do think her size - 5'9", 145 pounds - will work against her on the Final Climb.