Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tour de Whee!

I love the Tour de Ski - always have (even when it was just a twinkle in Vegard Ulvang's eye), always will (even after Northug reels off five straight wins starting this year). I'm especially jazzed for the 2011-2012 edition, since it's the only major event of the season and is thus getting all the focus of the big-name racers. Before getting to my picks for the prologue in Oberhof and for the overall TdS standings, I want to hit on a few themes that have emerged so far this year and that will matter to the Tour:
  1. The lack of snow. With one exception - ironically, the city sprints in Dusseldorf - every World Cup venue has had to deal with a lack of snow. At least a few of the Tour sites are facing similar problems, though apparently the crucial last few stages in Italy have good snow already. Day-to-day worries about low snow are one thing, best left to the FIS and the event organizers (and to me, suffering through a no-snow winter in southern Minnesota), but skiers and ski fans should worry about the long-term outlook for our favorite season, as pointed out in Audrey Mangan's excellent interview with Bill McKibben on
  2. Norwegian dominance. This isn't so much a new trend as the exaggeration of a fact of life. Bjørgen and Northug are of course far and away the best skiers on the circuit right now; each is leading both the overall and the distance standings - Marit over Skofterud by 103 and 2 points respectively, Petter by 52 points to Cologna and 138 points to Manificat, respectively.  Amazingly, no other Norwegian men are in the top ten of either the overall or distance standings; four (but not Northug) are in the sprint top 10. On the other hand, Norwegian women are dominating all three categories: five in both the overall and the distance standings and three in the sprint standings. Guess who's winning the Nation's Cup?
  3. Kikkan Randall. We at NCP have already waxed rhapsodic over Kikkanimal's racing this winter, which we would call a "breakout season" if she hadn't already broken out last year. This year, Kikkan is in the top ten of every ranking: 10th in distance, 4th in overall, and - wonderfully - 1st in sprint. I think that she's going to have a fantastic Tour de Ski. She is exactly the right kind of athlete to capitalize on the Tour's mix of sprint and distance races - especially the relatively short distance races  such as the 2.5k freestyle prologue in Oberhof, the 5k+5k pursuit in Oberstdorf, and the 3k classic in Toblach. With her skating prowess, Randall is also poised to do well in the 15k point-to-point race to Toblach and of course the 9k Final Climb. In short: go, Kikkan, go!
Beyond all that, this year is going to be interesting because both Bjørgen and Northug are in good shape and are gunning to win the Tour. It's astounding that neither of the two racers, certainly the best skiers in the world right now and probably the best racers of the last decade, have won the Tour, but those are the facts. Northug comes into this season's edition with three straight second-places (behind Cologna in 2009 and 2011 and Bauer in 2010 - plus a third-place finish in 2008), while Bjørgen has managed to finish the Tour only once, taking second behind Kuitunen in the inaugural Tour in 2007. I see them performing well in every stage, and winning the overalls:

Oberhof classic technique prologue (2.5k women, 3.75k men)

Tour de Ski overall