Friday, January 2, 2009

Closing Time (Updated)

Heading into the last two stages of the 2008-2009 Tour de Ski, it might be worth looking back at the last two Tours in the hopes of speculating about this year's winners. My thinking is prompted by a post today on an official Tour blog by Pierre Mignerey, the French team's head coach (the Norwegian "sportssjef" sounds so much better, no? why not adopt it for all of cross-country skiing, just like "directeur sportif" is the norm in cycling?):
As planned, the situation has cleared up after the two Nove Mesto stages. The gaps have widened and we can now see a bit more clearly into the fight for the final victory for the men as well as for the women. The main front-runners are now well in control of this Tour de Ski. Indeed, 5 men and 5 women appear to be breaking away from the pack. Since the beginning of the Tour, they’ve appeared so dominating and, for most of them, steady, that on paper, it’s hard to see what could keep them from fighting for a podium place.
Looking at the last two Tours offers some ways to test these - admittedly loose - hypotheses. (I've compiled some data on a publicly-available spreadsheet.) It is true that some separation now exists between the top five athletes and the rest of the fields. On the men's side, only 55.9 seconds separate the top quintet, but the gap between five (Teichmann) and six (Dahl) is 20.1 seconds. On the women's side, only 52.8 seconds separate the top quintet, but the gap between five (Follis) and six (Kowalczyk) is 41 seconds.

The question, thus, is how big a gap can be overcome? Or, put differently, how hard is it now to get or stay on the general classification podium on Sunday afternoon? Looking at the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 Tour results starts to provide some answers.

First and foremost (and, admittedly, with a small body of evidence), nobody's who's been leading the Tour before the two Val di Fiemme stages has failed to make the podium, and in fact the leader after the last sprint has won the Tour three out of four times - Kuitunen's inability to hold off Kalla last year being the exception. This bodes well for Cologna and Saarinen. Barring something terrible in Saturday's mass start or Sunday's final climb, these two racers should be on their respective podiums.

Second and however, being in the top three after the second sprint is no guarantee of being on the podium at the end of the Tour. Each year, someone has slipped off: Gjerdalen from 2nd to 4th and Rotcheva from 3rd to 5th in 2008; Northug from 3rd to 4th and (gulp) Saarinen from 2nd to 4th in 2007. (Concomitantly, a top-1o position after the second sprint is no guarantee of a top-10 overall finish. Among several examples [see the "big losers" info beneath each top-10 grid], the worst offender is Natalia Korosteleva, who in 2008 slid from 6th to 22nd after a horrible final climb - the 42nd slowest of the 45 completed.)

Third, and more positively, it is possible to move up within the top five, and even within the top 10, to the podium. Last year, Follis moved up one spot, displacing Rotcheva for third even while letting the winner put 16 seconds into her, and both Sommerfeldt and di Centa - by staging their now-famous private race up Alpe Cermis - reached the podium after starting the day in 9th and 6th spots, respectively (victimizing Piller Cottrer and Gjerdalen, among others, in the process). Neither man took much time out of Lukas Bauer, however.

The inaugural Tour in 2007 saw even bigger jumps. Shevchenko and Legkov roared up the mountain to climb from 7th to 3rd (moving from 3:27 down to 0:54 down) and 10th to 2nd (moving from 2:13 down to 0:46 down), respectively. Legkov's ascent of Alpe Cermis was the second fastest Final Climb that year, behind only Sergeij Shiraev. No comment on the fact that Shiraev is now suspended for doping.

So what does this mean for the GC this year?

I'd bravely hazard a guess that the top three women today - Saarinen, Kuitunen, Bjorgen, with a mere 37s between them today - will constitute the podium on Sunday. I'd further wager that Kuitunen will be on the top step. She's won the Val di Fiemme mass starts in each of the last two years, and - after her New Year's Eve performance in Nove Mesto - seems on form to do so again, accumulating bonus seconds that will cushion her on the last day.

The men's competition is tougher to call, since the top three (Cologna, Rotchev, Ronning) are separated by 32s and the top five (Northug and Teichmann) by 56s. But I'm going to go ahead and, echoing Vegard Ulvang, make the trendy call that Cologna will take the title, ahead of Teichmann and Northug. Ronning might do well in Saturday's classical mass start, but he is too big and too much a classical specialist to do especially well on the final climb. Rotchev simply doesn't have the long-distance legs for the climb. Of course, I hope that Kershaw will go nuts on Saturday and move up from seventh (+1:26) into the top five or at least inside the 60-second bubble. But I don't think anyone can challenge Cologna's form this year.

Then again, Saturday's mass start will probably shake things out quite a bit. The races-within-the-races for bonus seconds (15, 10, and 5 seconds at one intermediate point and again at the finish) will be almost as gripping as the race itself.