Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tour de Ski Final Climb Liveblogs

Val di Fiemme is graced by glowing sun and brilliant blue skies today as the women prepare for the last stage of the 2008-2009 Tour de Ski, the 9000 meter race to the top of Alpe Cermis. The men's and women's races both start in the stadium at Lago de Tesero, site of the 2003 World Championships, then cover trails used for the famous Marcialonga ski marathon to reach the foot of the Alpe Cermis, which covers 3500 meters of race course and 425 vertical meters. The purity of the race is its core appeal: you have to climb well, and you have to avoid being caught.

Women's 9km
On the women's side, Tour de Ski overall leader Virpi Kuitunen goes first for the women, 32s ahead of Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, 49s ahead of Majdic, and 1:36 ahead of Marit Bjorgen. Unless someone further down the field can pull a staggeringly great skate race out of her cap, those four are likely to vie for the podium.

At the start, Kuitunen powers away in a fast but not outrageous V2, exiting the stadium just as Saarinen begins her pursuit. With much of the field still starting, Kuitunen comes back through the stadium and through the first, 1.7k checkpoint at 4:18. Saarinen comes through at 34.8, Majdic at 50.3, and Bjorgen at an amazing 1:52.0 - having already given up 16s to Kuitunen! If this early split is any indication, the Norwegian won't be able to wrest the third podium place from Majdic.

At the 3.5km time check, a lovely little spot of trail in the the forest, Kuitunen has extended her lead to 43.4s over Saarinen and 54.0s over Majdic. The Slovenian has taken almost half of Saarinen's gap away from her. Bjorgen comes through at 2:06.8, giving up even more time. She's cooked, and looks it, skiing even more stiff-legged than usual. Justyna Kowalczyk has already caught up to Marianna Longa, and the two are now skiing together, about 2:57 behind Kuitunen. Kowalczyk's is the biggest move of the day so far, and that's not saying much. Just a bit further down, Therese Johaug has moved ahead of Riita-Liisa Roponen; the two are traveling together with Canadian Sara Renner.

At about 13:56, Kuitunen has hit the climb near the 5.7km mark, and is now passing between the downhill-racing flags used - ironically - to mark the climb itself. Both Saarinen and Majdic have given up more time, running 49.1s and 56.0s down, respectively. A great snowmobille shot shows Kuitunen using a V1 that is easy, if not as elegant as some of best skate technicians. Of course, they're not leading the Tour de Ski on the last day, either. Bjorgen has slid further behind and now, as the climb steepens, is in some danger of actually letting Longa and Kowalczyk catch up. The two are still 40s down, but with the big steeps still to come, anything could happen.

Kuitunen hits the 6.9km mark at 18:33, but Saarinen and Majdic seem to be closing, and can at least see the leader, 42.4s up on Saarinen, 46.4s on Majdic. The next group is barely visible on the dappled snow: Bjorgen maintaining a labored stroke ahead of Longa and Kowalcyzk. The Norwegian comes through the check at 2:39.0, just about eight seconds ahead of the next two. They seem certain to catch her.

Up the mountain, Kuitunen has hit a 26% ramp that is the steepest of the day. A good crowd lines the course there, as Kuitunen essentially walks up the hill, getting very little glide. Behind, Majdic has caught Saarinen, and is using a herringbone skate to pull away! Amazing: the Slovenian is for real!

Now Kuitunen has hit a section of switchbacks, where the race seems to compress as racers pass within a few up-and-down meters of one another but remain separated by some distance of parcours. Saarinen is hanging with Majdic, who seems to use the traverses to actually accelerate a bit.

Out of the switchbacks, Kuitunen continues to use a light but strong left-side V1 to move up. Saarinen and Majdic are side by side behind her, visibly tiring but in visual contact. The Slovenian looks to be working at the limit, while the Finn is still relatively fresh, taking back Majdic's momentary lead. As they hit the 7.4km time check, they've closed the gap by half: Saarinen is 17.7s down, Majdic 19.8s. Behind them, Kowalczyk has led Longa past Bjorgen and now hits the check in fourth, 1:56.1. Where is Bjorgen?

Now on the final stretches of the hill, only Saarinen has any snap to her skate, using a forceful right-side V1 to close on Kuitunen! Majdic is well back now, and probably out of the contest for the win As Kuitunen hits the half-hour mark, Saarinen swings wide on a left-hand corner and moves around her teammate. A grueling 28% ramp - what a spot to attack! Can Saarinen hold on, much less extend her lead? Will Kuitunen give away a second straight Tour title in the last 2000 meters of racing?

As the two Finns approach the summit, Kuitunen moves back into the lead and somehow finds the energy to actually accelerate into a V2 around another switchback and then up the ensuing incline. Within a few meters of steep, Kuitunen puts ten seconds into her teammate! Saarinen's attack was clearly mistimed, and even though she is herself digging deep, she is only giving up more time. Majdic is out of sight. With 200 meters to the finish, Kuitunen has a solid lead. Saarinen is visibly working harder now, even using a V2 while Kuitunen relaxes into a V1 and works her way over the finish line for the win! Two Tour de Ski championships, bookending a second place. Amazing.

Saarinen crosses 7.2s behind and falls into the snow next to Kuitunen. As they embrace, Majdic pushes over the line, 34.5s down. What a great race for the Slovenian! Kowalczyk crosses next, having moved up two spots to finish 1:21.1 down, 15 seconds ahead of Marianna Longa, the first Italian, in fifth (advancing one spot). Therese Johaug crosses at 2:20, jumping from 11th to 6th, then Anna Haag at 2:26, Arianna Follis at 2:35. Steira comes in at 2:51, and then finally Bjorgen at 3:12 - a terrible performance. After a few more racers cross, Valentina Shevchenko comes through at 4:06, presumably not winning the stage with the fastest Final Climb today, presumably. It's likely that the little Johaug won that prize, moving up five spots.

Men's 10km
With the women now atop the hill, the men begin queuing up at the stadium. Cologna will start with advantages of 34 seconds to Teichmann, 65s to Ronning, 1:19 to Rotchev, and 1:23 to Northug. It's easy to imagine Teichmann catching Cologna, and to imagine Northug catching both Ronning, a better classical skier than freestyler, and Rotchev, a better sprinter than distance man. Will it be a tight race for all three podium spots?

While Cologna leaps off the start line and zooms away, Teichmann uses his characteristically upright and light-seeming stroke to give chase. Ronning jump-skates away from the line, and then Rotchev starts, followed closely by Northug, who clearly makes an effort to immediately catch to the Russian, perhaps for some companionship, perhaps out of sheer competitiveness. Even further down the field, the racers cluster at one- and two-second intervals, lending a mass-start aspect to the race.

At the head of the race, Cologna moves quickly up a slight incline, switching into a V2 as soon as possible. Teichmann passes a convenient sponsor's sign about 41 seconds back, and then Ronning, Rotchev, and Northug move past as a group, roughly 1:10 behind Cologna.

Cologna makes the hairpin turn back through the stadium soon after the big group of late starters leaves the line, and then passes the first, 2.7km check at 6:41. Teichmann follows at 45.6s, having let the Swiss put 11 seconds into him in just about a quarter of the race distance. Not a good sign. The trio of Rotchev, Ronning, and Northug follow at about 1:16 - a marginal gain for Rotchev and Northug but nothing that will put them onto the ski-tails of the two leaders. On the other hand, this cluster seems likely to fight it out for the third podium spot, which should make things interesting on the hill.

Back in the stadium, Lukas Bauer - last year's Tour champion - gestures impatiently to John Kristian Dahl, demanding that the Norwegian pull their small four-man group for a while. Dahl refuses, and Bauer has to lead out of the stadium.

At the 4.5km check, Cologna - still flowing over the snow with an easy high-hand technique - maintains a 50-second advantage over Teichmann. Behind, the Rotchev-Ronning-Northug group is trading the lead, but gaining no real time. If they really pushed, they might be able to get up to Teichmann, but that would be a huge effort.

After Martin Johnsrud Sundby at 2:15, a big ten-man group with some heavy hitters comes through at about 2:30: Chebotko, Jauhojarvi, Mae, Piller Cotter, di Centa... Devon Kershaw comes through in 21st, 3:42.8 behind, having picked up one spot so far.

Cologna hits the 6.7km mark at the base of the climb at 15:41.6 , working a slightly tired-looking V1 through a small cluster of spectators. Teichmann comes through at just less than 60s, having pushed his glasses up onto his hat and looking rather tired himself. The Ronning/Northug/Rotchev group comes through at 1:15 - ten seconds closer to the German and to putting the silver-medal spot into play. Further down the field some big groups are traveling together, di Centa's black cap prominent in the lead.

But the leader is alone, navigating the 7.9km time check by himself. Within sight of him, Teichmann is ceding big chunks of time to the Swiss and to the trio behind. Teichmann comes through 7.9km at a staggering 1:23, the trio at 1:40, and then a big cluster of others at about 2:30. Di Centa is at the head of that group, seeking to replicate his great climb into second position from last year.

Cologna herringbone-skates through a 26.5% pitch, looking for the first time like he's working hard. As Teichmann reaches the base of that slope, Rotchev, finally leading his group just a little further down the hill, throws off his hat and goggles. Time to get to work! The trio hasn't gotten much closer to him, though now Ronning is falling off the back, slipping down toward the big group led by di Centa.

Cologna reaches the 8.4km timecheck at 25:38, doing a smooth if labored herringbone skate up a 24% slope, his red suit stark against the white snow. Teichmann is moving very slowly now, clearly depleted. Rotchev and Northug are closing fast, and putting more energy into their skating than the German, who hits the 8.7km check at 1:29. Bareheaded Rotchev comes over at 1:39, Northug less than a second behind in fourth. It seems likely that both will catch the German. The big di Centa group has disintegrated into two lines moving abreast up the hill; the Italian is in front, having passed Ronning. If di Centa has enough left to shake his pack mates and if Teichmann has too little to give, the Italian might move up as far as fourth - improving 10 spots.

Cologna, now clearly feeling that he has the race in hand, astoundingly uses a V1 to climb another steep ramp that's lined with fans leaning into the 28% slope. 200 meters down the hill, Teichmann continues to hold off Rotchev and Northug, even as he passes within a few meters of them in the switchbacks. All four of the leaders are inside the last kilometer now. Gut-check time...

Cologna V1's through a thickening crowd near the summit, working hard but still smooth. Teichmann is still ahead of Rotchev and Northug! He still has ten seconds, maybe more! Northug senses that Rotchev is blown, and finally makes the pass, decisively switching into full-on chase mode. And now di Centa is there within a few meters of Rotchev! The 36-year-old Italian is by himself now, having dropped his group. Ahead, Northug is tearing up the hill, using a phenomenally rapid turnover to close to within a few meters of Teichmann. Di Centa, similarly, is closing on Rotchev! What a battle for second and third and fourth!

There is now battle up the hill. Approaching the final slope, Cologna grabs a Swiss flag and thrusts into the air. The decisive win is entirely his.

Simultaneously, within sight of the finish-line kite, Teichmann senses Northug on his tails and switches back to a V2, trying to keep ahead! He does momentarily, but then Northug finds more and comes up as they reach the incline to the finish! Northug moves into his characteristic high-stepping V1 to complete the pass and pull away by three seconds, finishing 59 seconds down to Cologna. Teichmann comes over in third, 1:02, and then di Centa in fourth, 1:22. As the skiers cross the line, they all collapse into the snow. Race officials step over and remove their skis, clearing space for followers. Ronning finishes in 14th. Canadian Devon Kershaw is in 21st, at 3:55.

Wow. What a great win for Cologna. He only won one stage of the Tour, but he mastered the event with smart racing throughout, and then delivered on the Alpe Cermis. The sky seems to be the limit for this guy right now - though I half-suspect that his season will go the way of Kalla's last year, and he'll wind up with many fewer wins and points between now and March. Still, he seems to have all the tools to vie for medals at Liberec.