The Tour de Ski took its first rest day today, in advance of two more days of racing at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. Yesterday brought the tour to Prague for freestyle sprints which offered huge time bonuses for the highest places. This turned out to matter enormously on the men's side, not too much on the women's.
Going in to the sprints, the top of the men's general classification was dominated by distance racers who were unlikely to make the finals of the sprints. One of the few all-rounders in the top ten, Simen Oestensen of Norway, took advantage, finishing second in the men's final and taking sufficient bonus time to vault from fifth into the overall lead, 12 seconds up on former leader Lukas Bauer. Fellow Norwegians Tor Arne Hetland and Petter Northug, buried in the overall standings before the sprint, jumped up to third and fifth overall. The best-named racer in the field, Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin, maintained his fourth-place spot in the overall. On the whole, the sprint compressed the men's standings, shrinking from 25 to 14 the number of racers within 60 seconds of the lead and putting five within 30 seconds of the top.
The women's overall exhibited quite a bit more stability. Overall leader Marit Bjorgen enlarged her gap over the second-place racer from 2/10s of a second to more than nine, and that second spot was taken over by the rising Italian racer Arianna Follis, who jumped up from eighth by winning the final ahead of a low-placed Finn and Bjorgen. Pole Justyna Kowalczyk and Finn Virpi Kuitunen kept their respective third and fourth places in the overall, just over 20 seconds behind Bjorgen. As on the men's side, the top of the field was dramatically compressed by the sprint event, with the number of racers inside a minute of the lead falling from 23 to just 9.
All of this tightening makes stage four on New Year's Day all the more interesting. A freestyle pursuit, stage four duplicates Sunday's stage two races right down to the courses at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, where Bjorgen and Bauer just won on Sunday. (Stages 4 and 5 were to be held at Oberstdorf, Germany, but television-rights problems prevented the organizers there from staging the races.) Bjorgen and Bauer must be considered the favorites, though in the men's 15km, it is likely that the Norwegians Oestensen, Hetland, and Northug will try to put time into Bauer - perhaps with some team racing. Pretty much everyone will be hard pressed to close Bjorgen's 10-second head start in the women's 10km, so the real tactical racing may occur behind her as the pack assembles and its members vie with one another to break away and put time into each other. My picks: