Silver Lining

Today I was lucky enough to watch the second half of the nordic combined team event at the Vancouver Olympics, a 4x5km relay race in which the teams are seeded according to their ski jumps earlier in the day. The American team came in as one of the favorites, along with the 2006 Olympic champions, Austria, and last year’s World Champions, Japan.

The four Americans – Brett Camerota, Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane, and Bill Demong – didn’t disappoint, generating a spectacular race that ended with a silver medal. The medal was the second American silver of the Games (after Spillane’s silver in an individual event earlier in the Games), the second medal in all of American nordic combined history, and just the third in modern American nordic skiing history.

I won’t recap the actual race here except to say that each leg of the relay was more incredible to watch than the last, and that each American racer buried himself in chasing the gold medal that ultimately rode away down the last downhill on the Austrian anchorman’s faster skis. But goddamn, what a great race! It goes down in my personal list of great sporting events I’ve seen: the final stage of the 1989 Tour de France, the Packers’ win in Super Bowl XXXI, the 50km mass-start marathon at the 2005 Nordic Ski World Championships… With one more nordic combined race to go, I still have reason to hope the NC boys will add another item to the list.

And Now a Word from Our Ski Sponsors

The other day, Laura Valaas, an e-friend who happens to be one of the best cross-country skiers in North America, emailed me to ask if I would be willing to try out a new product she’d developed: the “BootBuddy,” a little plastic doodad that snaps into the front of your ski boot to protect the metal bar there, to keep snow from building up under the toe of your boot (a huge annoyance, especially when the snow’s wet or when you’re in a hurry), and to give you a bit of traction while walking in your ski boots.

Not only am I not the kind of person to turn down free stuff*, but I’m also a guy who hates to see the wear and tear on the bottom on expensive ski boots caused by walking on pavement from the car to the trail. As a teenaged skier in Upper Michigan, I walked from my house to the trailhead when I wanted to go skiing**, and the 1.2 mile round trip was hell on my boots.

In short, I wish I’d had BootBuddies back then, because – here’s the takeaway – these things are awesome. Like any stroke of genius, they’re deceptively simple: a little wedge of plastic with a notch in the middle and a few grooves for traction on the bottom. You simply press the notch against the bar on the bottom of your boot, and theBootBuddy snaps in, staying put quite well even as it protrudes an inch or so from the front of the boot. See?

I really appreciate the traction created by the underside grooves and that bit off the front, especially on the sheets of ice that are pretty much standard in any ski trail parking lot. And the way the BootBuddy keeps snow from compacting in your boot is pretty sweet, too – especially in “spring skiing” conditions like we’re having in Northfield, with wet, grainy snow that just loves to get mashed into and frozen onto things like boots, sunglasses, skis.

According to SkiTraxx’s website, the BootBuddies are available for most of the major binding systems: SNS Pilot, Salomon, Atomic, and NNN (mine). They’re $15 for the pair, which is enough of a deal that I’m going to order (and pay for) a second pair so that I can keep BootBuddy both pairs of my boots.

Looking around Laura’s website, I see some other cool stuff, too, like a boot carrier and a wall rack for skis and poles. This means that Laura is a hellaciously fast skier and awfully clever, too. One hopes she can add “rich” to the list of adjectives.

* A partial list of free ski stuff I’ve won or received: a pair of sweet Rudy Project ski glasses (by winning a ski trivia contest), a cool racing hat from a Norwegian racing team (by writing and asking if I could buy one; it turns out I couldn’t buy one but that they’d send me on for nothin’), and a great racing suit from a now-defunct pro racing team (by winning an XC skiing fantasy contest).

** True story! And it was (partly) uphill both ways! Needless to say, in the snow!


The Vancouver Games are turning out to be pretty engaging, which means I’m writing a lot of stuff about the nordic skiing events, like this look at the unexpected results of today’s sprint races or yesterday’s assessment of just how bad Norway is doing. Perhaps you’ll enjoy reading them – or perhaps you’ll be appalled at the way I waste my evenings.

(Credit to my writer friend Mary for the title!)

Seven Olympic Nordic Skiing Questions

(Cross-posted to Nordic Commentary Project)

So excited am I about the nordic skiing Olympics that I’d happily watch coverage of the teams’ wax techs prepping skis for the racers. Just the same, here are seven competition-related questions that I’m especially eager to see answered.

How many golds will be won by Norway’s Petter Northug and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk?
Northug and Kowalczyk are the dominant racers on the cross-country World Cup this year. Each has substantial leads over the rest of the fields in the overall WC standings, and each can win over any distance or technique. Moreover, each racer is practically foreordained to win several medals at Vancouver, with the main issue being whether either or both can do the superhuman and win golds in all the events they event – all four individual races for Kowalczyk, possibly (but not probably) the four individual races and the two team races for Northug.

My own guess is that Kowalczyk will win two golds, in the 10km skate and the classic sprint, and medal in the pursuit and the classic mass start. I think Northug will do even better: golds in the 15km skate, the pursuit, and the relay and lesser medals in the classic mass start and the team sprint. I don’t think he’ll medal in the individual classic sprint – but then again, Petter’s a wily and ultracompetitive racer. Then again, everyone is trying to peak for these races, and both Northug and Kowalczyk could be shut out – especially if they are victimized by the notoriously variable and difficult conditions at the cross-country skiing venue.

Has any other racer or team figured out a way to beat Northug?
Speaking of notoriety, Northug is infamous for his tactics and his antics: conserving energy by closely trailing other racers for as long as possible, then unleashing his unparalleled finishing sprint to surge past and take the win – at which point he loves to gesticulate, trash-talk, wave, point, and of course, collapse in a heap. The Norwegians love it – and him; pretty much everyone else hates it – and him. But like a sage once said, it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

Then again, Northug’s main rivals would love to beat him, and I hope for some tricks and outright hard efforts to accomplish that goal. From a couple races last season and from the Tour de Ski earlier this season, it’s clear that savvy racers can use repeated attacks on young Petter to tire him out and destroy his vaunted end-of-race kick. The trouble is, there are precious few racers who have the strength enough to do it, with Lukas Bauer – the Tour de Ski champ this year – being perhaps the only single skier who can. On the other hand, if the Russians, Finns, or Germans use some team tactics, they might be able to organize a series of attacks to wear Northug out and put one of their own in position to win. Or they might do all that, get counterattacked by the Norwegians – not a team of slackers – and see Northug sprint to the win anyhow. Still, it’s better to do and die…

How many medals will be won by the American nordic combined skiers?
Over the last two World Cup seasons, Americans Bill Demong, Todd Lodwick, and Johnny Spillane have emerged as some of the strongest individual racers in nordic combined, the sport which mixes ski jumping and cross-country skiing, and certainly the best team in NC. At last year’s world championships, for instance, Lodwick won two golds, Demong a gold and a bronze. The US has never won a nordic combined medal at the Olympics, but that will almost certainly change at Vancouver. The only question is whether the Americans’ performance will be so-so, with a bronze or two, or dominant, with golds and silvers in the two individual events – and even a win in the team event.

Will American cross-country skiers win any medals?
Many in the US – myself included – are on the verge of expecting to see a medal around one of our XC racers’ necks at Vancouver. On paper, and probably on snow, our best hopes are Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall in the sprints; both have reached the podiums at World Cup races and Randall even won the silver at last year’s World Champs. Kris Freeman can be a force in the distance races, and if he finally puts things together juuuuuuust right, “Bird” can win a medal – his stated goal for the games. A few other members of the US team could contend, but apart from Torin Koos, who is rounding back into sprinting form, mostly lack the big-race experience that might translate into medals in 2014. I will be surprised but enormously pleased to see an American win a medal at Vancouver.

Will Canadian cross-country skiers win any medals?
Expectations are even higher for the Canadian team, which is racing on home snow and, more importantly, includes a number of racers who have reached World Cup podiums, including two who medaled at the Torino games: Sara Renner (silver in the team sprint) and Chandra Crawford (gold in the individual sprint). Crawford’s off her best form right now, but Renner is conversely rounding into world-class shape and has an outside shot at a medal in virtually any of the races. On the men’s side, Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey, and Ivan Babikov are all excellent racers who could vie for medals in any number of events – even, on a great day, the relay. I won’t be surprised if a Canadian wins a medal at Vancouver.

Can Tim Burke medal in the biathlon?
American Tim Burke has this season moved into the uppermost echelon of biathlon, the skiing-shooting sport that is colossally important in Europe. Earlier this season, Burke even wore the yellow bib of the overall leader of the biathlon world cup. Though his form has declined a bit since that peak, he could well recapture it at Vancouver, and must be considered to have a decent shot (pun!) at a medal in 2010, which would be America’s first-ever biathlon medal and which would go a long way toward breaking the Norwegian-German-Russian stranglehold on the sport.

Who will be caught for doping at the Olympics?
I hope to hell that no nordic athletes will be caught with EPO, CERA, S107, or any other banned substances in their bodily wastes, but the odds don’t favor my hope. Not only were Austrian racers caught at Torino, and Russian skiers caught at Salt Lake City, but the past year has seen a number of high-level racers – including many Russians – fail their drug tests. It’s almost certain that someone will get nailed at Vancouver. If I had to guess, I would expect a Russian or even (sadly) Justyna Kowalczyk, who simply performs at too high a level too often. But god, I hope it’s a clean games.

Olympian Conditions

I welcomed the Olympic Winter Games by knocking off early and going out for a long ski in Carleton’s Lower Arb. Conditions were magnificent: 20°F, no wind, cloudless blue sky, brilliant sunshine, and brand-new classic tracks everywhere. Fantastic. I love running on these same trails in the summer, but there’s nothing better than skiing on them.

Arb Oak


One Last Ski-Race Post

Over the couple days since the City of Lakes race, the event photos have filtered onto the internet, and, not unrelatedly, I’ve mused up fifteen observations about the race:

  1. I could look photos of ski-race starting lines all day. Something about all those skis in tidy, multicolored rows…
    City of Lakes Loppet Classic Start (by David Owen)
  2. City of Lakes Loppet Classic Start (by David Owen)

  3. A lot of people in my race were wearing the high-cuffed boots that are usually used for skating, the other XC ski technique. Given the soreness of my ankles and shins on Monday, I might see the point…
  4. I will certainly ski faster next year if I can master the ability to run uphill on my skis. The one guy whom I really wanted to catch (besides all the other people who finished ahead of me, I mean) got away mostly because he ran all the uphills, which gave him just enough of a gap that I couldn’t catch him by the finish line. In short, running > striding > herringboning
  5. I will probably ski faster next year if I have a big old beard.
  6. I might ski faster next year if I have an uglier ski suit, like the classic U of M team suit or this thing. Maybe Carleton’s nordic ski club would let me wear their colors.
  7. Gaudy suit or no, my form didn’t look horrendous, either at the start or here, very late in the race.

    On the Lake
    On the Lake
  8. As you come up behind another skier, it can be quite hard to tell if it’s a man or a woman: most lycra-clad asses look the same. I stopped guessing after a few minutes of trying and being 180° wrong more than a few times.
  9. Next year, I have to stick my gels into the zippered pocket on my drinkbelt to avoid having them fall off again.
  10. Next year, I should invest in some cork grips for my pole. The plastic grips get awfully slick when your glove is wet or snowy.
  11. Cowbells being run by spectators are a great, great sound, especially at the top of a hill.
  12. Flat, cold Coca-Cola is a great, great taste, especially when you’re depleted.
  13. The City of Lakes Loppet events must be one of the very few ski races in North America (or the world) during which you can see a downtown skyline.
  14. Interval workouts kinda suck, but in a good way, especially when they pay off in the race.
  15. Among all the reasons that I like skiing, I think that the uppermost is the ease with which it allows me to slip into “the Zone” or a “flow” state – that blessed but rare condition of being totally, satisfyingly, untiringly focused on The Thing You’re Doing. I can occasionally get into this state while running or cycling, and very, very rarely at other times (writing proposals at work, playing with the girls), but skiing is the king’s highway into it. Twenty minutes of skiing (not coincidentally, the period of time needed for my fingers to warm back up from the initial chill) drops me right into the mental and physical place where I am just doing it: thinking about how to ski a little better, enjoying the feeling of gliding along (or of working up a hill), looking for a better line through the next corner… All the usual clutter-thought disappears for the duration of the ski. And racing – at least, the few times I can do it each year – accelerates all of this in the best ways. I don’t think I thought about anything except skiing faster during the entire time between the starting gun (a little black powder cannon!) and crossing the finishing line.
  16. Speaking of crossing the line, next year I’ll have to take more care to notice where the finishing line actually is – I thought it was further than it was, and skied right into some young volunteer who was just trying to take my timing chip. Sorry, kid!

A Classic Race, or, Far Too Many Words on One Ski Race

That was fun. Apart from a little transportation glitch* that led to the relatively minor problem of missing my start by a minute, the City of Lakes Loppet classic race could not have gone better. Okay, I might have skied faster – and will try, next year.

In brief, I started pretty well, maintained a solid pace throughout the race, did well on the uphills (thanks to a good wax job), and saved enough to be able to chase down a bunch of racers in the last 5k, which is mostly fast, flat skiing over a couple of lakes. I finished, officially, in 1:47:10, which is well under the guesstimate I extrapolated from training times and the previous two years’ races in the longer freestyle event. My finish was good for 74th out of the 233 male skiers – upper third, baby, and almost a half hour ahead of the average.

More than those particulars, I felt good through the whole race: decently strong, under control, and most importantly able to accelerate as needed. All those uphill double-pole interval workouts paid off! In addition to making me feel like I did a halfway good job training for the race, this good experience inclines me to think that with more and better training next year (and the luck to avoid getting sick the week before the race), I should be able to cut quite a bit of time off in next year’s race – only 360-some days away!

So, the race itself…

The transportation problems meant that I arrived at the race late, which in turn meant I had to skip any warmup except running up to the start pen. (I also didn’t have time to find and say “hi” to my e-friends. Bah!) I threw my bag into the pile that would be carried to the finish, found a way into the pen, slapped on my skis, fastened my pole straps, hit my stopwatch, and started skiing. If I’d made it into my assigned second wave, I’d have had roughly a third less traffic ahead of me, but the course was such that passing was easy, whether on the infrequent flats in the first half of the race or, better, on either the uphills or the downhills. I probably passed fifty people, altogether, simply because I descended in a tuck while they stood up, and half that many because I stepped through turns instead of snowplowing.

My wax job helped, too. The conditions were hardly sketchy – day-old but fine snow, air temps ranging from about 15° to 20°F – but I still had the right glide and kick waxes on my skis, and it was immensely heartening, especially in the first third of the race, on a hilly golf course, to kick better than a lot of people going uphill and to outglide almost everyone going downhill. Visual proof (as shot by a guy who skied the race with a camera mounted on his head!): that’s me on the left, bib #138:

City of Lakes Loppet Action Shot (by Rich Hoeg)
City of Lakes Loppet Action Shot (by Rich Hoeg)

Anyhow, I picked off people like crazy over the first 5k, and more slowly but steadily over the next 5k. All that’s not to say there weren’t a couple unfortunate moments. Back-of-the-pack racers tend to be terrible descenders, and while I avoided several actual spills, I ended up crashing hard on my shoulder after a woman did a funky little 270° thingy – but didn’t actually fall! – ahead of me. I bounced back up and used the adrenaline to catch and drop her right away (the better to prevent another such mishap).

A little bit later, the course flattened and the traffic thinned out, and I got into a nice groove of just skiing along, mostly in a steady double-pole that I swapped every now and then for a few minutes of striding. There were still enough people in front that I could pick out particular racers to chase, which helped immensely with motivation and keeping my speed up. I don’t think anyone caught me from behind, except for one guy whom I passed but who caught me back a k or so later and wound up finishing just ahead of me.

The emptier trails also gave me a chance to refuel with a few hits from my water bottle and a delicious espresso energy gel. Gel? What gel? Where the hell were my gels? They weren’t dangling carbohydratally from my drink belt when I reached for them, about an hour into the race, so I can only assume that they fell off when I crashed. Oh well. I took some water at the aid stations and, with about twenty minutes to go, downed a few ounces of sweet, sweet Coca-Cola.

That elixir did wonders. I had started feeling just a little peaked around then – maybe 1:20 into the race – and found I didn’t have the oomph to close down the gaps to a couple guys who were maybe 30 seconds up the trail and visibly skiing no faster than I was. But within a couple minutes of sucking down the Coke, I felt good enough that I could pretend to hammered my double-pole for two minutes, bringing me up to and then past both of those guys. As I went through, rather enjoying the slippery lake ice underneath me, I realized that we were already approaching the finish line. Herringboning up the rise off the lake, I saw that two other guys whom I’d written off were right there, just starting the straightaway to the finish, which is a gentle but long uphill. The snow here is always deep, sugary goop, but my DP continued to work, and I passed both of them well before the line – satisfyingly capping off a pretty decent race.

What’ll be even more satisfying next year is going ten or fifteen minutes faster, which would put me in the top fifty or so. It’s pretty obvious how do do that – more long skis of 2:30 or more, more longer intervals of 4 minutes or more, and better classic technique. It’ll be fun trying to improve on my time and place next year!

* The transportation glitch was simple, but annoying: too few shuttle buses running between the remote parking lot and the race start (which is too compact a place to have enough parking). The last two years, I’ve parked and walked right onto a bus. This year, I waited for a good twenty minutes, and finally boarded about 25 minutes before my race was supposed to start. This meant I had no time to spare for a warmup – or to stop at the Porta Potties – and that I even missed my wave, and thus started a minute later than my assigned time. Thank god I’d waxed the night before…


I wish I could do a race every two or three months. Everything about the experience – choosing an event, training for it, anticipating the race as it approaches, doing the race-eve prep, enjoying the race-day atmosphere, and of course actually racing – is fun, so much fun that I would like to do it four or six times a year.

Alas, right now I cannot, so I am especially savoring the run-up to the City of Lakes Loppet classic race tomorrow. Not only will I probably get to meet two skiers I only know through social media, but everything should be just about perfect for the race: we’ve had new snow on an excellent base, the race organizer have done their usual superlative work, and it appears that we’re going to get good weather – or even some racetime snow, just to mix things up.

The classic race has its largest-ever field, so the organizers are going to start us in three waves of about 120 people each. Somehow (clearly not knowing I’d never kickwaxed a classic ski before December), they seeded me in the second wave, a perfect position since it means the fastest racers will be long gone before I even start and since it will put me in with a lot of skiers whose speed and skills should be a decent match to my own. Skiing in a group is a lot more fun, and a lot faster, than skiing alone.

Anyhow, I’m bouncing off the walls with expectation, and looking forward to skiing a solid race and enjoying the time on the course.


As I looked over my workout log the other day, I realized that the ski sessions I really enjoyed this winter – the ones that I noted with superlatives in the log or remember very clearly – almost all occurred in some sort of precipitation. The best of them, for instance, was a long ski after dark on Christmas Eve, just as the Christmas Blizzard of Ought-Nine hit Northfield. I skied (on very, very familar trails) in a near white-out, got drenched from the outside in and the inside out, and loved it. It’s one of the very few times I’ve skied in Northfield after which I had to scrape off the car before driving home.

Tonight’s ski, my last semi-lengthy one before Sunday’s race, wasn’t quite that good, but thanks to the weird sleet-snow-rain falling from the sky, it was pretty good – relaxing, fun, just slightly tough in a couple key spots. And the best part was seeing all that precipitation in the beam of my headlamp. The glistening little spots of light make everything seem so much faster – like the scene in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon accelerates and all the stars blur.

(Almost) Ready to Race

It’s early February, so I am getting psyched up for the City of Lakes Loppet, which will be run in Minneapolis on Sunday the 8th. This year – after some waffling – I decided to do the “Hoigaard’s Classic” race, which is run over a 24km (15 mile) course and uses the slower but (I think) more elegant and tougher “classic” ski technique, versus the regular Loppet, which I skied in 2008 and 2009 and is run in the the faster freestyle or skating style.

I figure that the classic-style race will be a nice challenge since I really haven’t done much classic skiing over the past couple years. Thanks to our early and reliable snow and fantastic grooming in Carleton’s Arb, I’ve now done plenty of technique drills, quite a few long classic-technique sessions, and hours and hours of workouts in the third main ski technique, double poling. I hope that all this training will combine with the full field (about 360 racers – a fraction of the Freestyle Loppet, but a big race nonetheless) and what might be the best weather and course conditions in years to make the race on Sunday less than the straight-up sufferfest of last year. I mean, it will hurt, for sure, but I hope I can enjoy the event too, and even race it. Passing people is fun.

Wimpy Skiers vs. Not-Wimpy Skiers

Friday night, I wussed out of my ski workout because I was too tired; Saturday afternoon, I traded my ski for a gym workout because it was raining. It’s true that I am a wimp, but I’m especially a wimp compared to two Canadian skiers just named to their Olympic team.

Brian McKeever suffers from Stargard’s disease, an irreversible and degenerative eye disorder that’s made him essentially blind. Nonetheless, he did very well in several key races in Canada this winter to qualify for the team, and will probably race in all of the distance races. He’ll be the first athlete to compete in the Winter Games and in the Paralympic Winter Games.

Undersized for a skier (5’7″ and 150 pounds), Ivan Babikov is had little luck as a racer in his native Russia (which is stocked with top-notch skiers) and faced poor job prospects there, so he moved to Canada to start a new life for himself and his wife and child (who stayed back in Canada). But he kept skiing as a Canadian citizen, winning everything there is to win in North America and even winning a World Cup race last year. Now he too is on the Canadian Olympic team, and will race in all the distance races.

I have to remember all this next time it’s less than ideal outside.

Ski Racing! (This Race Report Is as Long as the Race on Which It Reports)

Today, the Northfield High School’s nordic ski team held their annual fundraising race in the Upper Arb over their 5 kilometer course. It’s a fun event, despite usually attracting a pretty small field of competitors as well as more people who are just skiing for fun. The course, which covers most of the Upper Arb, is varied, the track was very well prepared today, and the high school team members cheer madly at several crucial spots on the course. Beyond just enjoying the day, I was looking to ski under control and turn in a good time. Mission accomplished.

After a little warmup under blue skies and bright sunshine, I lined up with the half-dozen or so people who were going to skate the course. It appeared that about twice as many people were going to ski the event in the classic technique, which was tempting because the course was beautifully set with two sets of classic tracks – unheard of, and beautiful. At the gun, two Carleton skiers zoomed off. I got caught behind another skater who looked to be ready to go, but was actually just cruising. After making my way around him at the foot of the first and longest hill, I pretty easily caught and dropped the second Carl skier, who had let a substantial gap open to the other kid, now already cresting the hill. I put in a bit of a push to try to catch on, but he was just too damn fast on the downhill, and I didn’t see him again until the finish line.

Nor did I see anyone come up behind me, so I basically just time-trialed the rest of the course, focusing on trying to smoothly handle the transitions between flats, uphills, and downhills and on cornering well, having discovered this winter that I often bobble as I try to skate through corners. I didn’t have too much trouble in either area, though my uphill V2 skate left something to be desired. I had my heart rate pegged up around 170 the whole time, which for me is about 90% of maximum, but didn’t feel too heavy until confronting the last little uphill – five meters long, but unexpected. I was surely helped by the ski-team cheering sections, especially the girls who were all wearing Batman stuff and the boys who were atop “The Wall,” a short but very steep little ramp at just about a mile into the course, and bellowed the way adolescent boys can.

I came over the line at 19:32, and according to my watch the course was 3.7 miles, or 6 kilometers. That’s not world-record pace by any means, but it’s the fastest sustained skiing I’ve done so far this year, and puts me on pace I think to ski well at the City of Lakes Loppet in three weeks. Between now and then, I definitely have to work on my uphill skating and on flat-terrain speed, and to put in more overdistance time, but with conditions like those we enjoyed today, I should be able to do all three of those things before February 7.

And even if I can’t, the roughest ski race is still a pretty nice experience.

The Season for Ski Racing

January is a good time to enjoy nordic ski racing. On the “doing” side of things, I found out today that the Northfield High School nordic ski team is holding their annual fundraising race on Saturday, so I’m going to ski in that event, a little 5km around the Upper Arb. And yesterday I switched from competing in the 25km classic-technique race in the City of Lakes Loppet festival next month to the 32km freestyle-technique race, which should be an easier and better race for me, though longer. One of these years – maybe next year, when Vivi’s four and Julia’s six – I can actually do more than one long race in a season. There’s certainly no shortage of great events here in the Upper Midwest, whether a little north of the Twin Cities, a bit further away in the western end or the center of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or in the middle of Wisconsin.

On the “watching” side of things, I hope I can go to cheer at the NHS nordic ski team’s meet in the Arb on Thursday. I’m still enjoying the drama of the just-concluded Tour de Ski, and regular World Cup racing resumes this weekend in Estonia, proceeds to Russia, and then comes to this hemisphere for pre-Olympic races in Canada. The “Marathon Cup” race series, which parallels the World Cup and shares some of its top racers, is now underway as well, and includes its usual twin peaks: the 70km Marcialonga ski marathon in northern Italy on January 31 and the 90km Vasaloppet in southern Sweden on March 7 – just after the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, which open on February 12 – four weeks from today. Medal events in nordic skiing start on the second day, with ski jumping and a women’s biathlon race, and continue right through the last day (February 28), when the men’s 50km “marathon” race will be contested. I can’t wait.

Ski Whee

Today was the last day of the Tour de Ski, a multi-stage cross-country ski race that’s held in Europe just after the new year. Modelled to some degree on the Tour de France and shorter cycling stage races, the TdS has become a pretty big deal in the world of elite cross-country skiing – which isn’t saying much for most Americans (though a surprising number of people do follow elite skiing), but which means that in Europe, the Tour airs uninterrupted on many national TV channels and attracts thousands of spectators.

Up until today, this year’s Tour had been pretty good, with quite a few interesting and exciting races, a good dose of drama, and almost-daily changes on the men’s and women’s leaderboards. Today, though, the Tour had what might have been its best day ever. The Tour always ends – as it did today – with a “final climb” stage in which racers ski for about four miles through a scenic valley in northern Italy, then ski about two more miles up the slopes of a downhill ski resort. That’s it here, on the right edge of this course profile:

Course Profile of the Tour de Ski's "Final Climb" Up the Alpe Cermis
Course Profile of the Tour de Ski's "Final Climb" Up the Alpe Cermis

Yeah, the climb is brutal, regularly taking the best skiers in the world about twenty minutes to finish. (These are athletes who can ski 50km – 31 miles – of hilly terrain in about two hours.) And this year, this “final climb” stage saw excellent battles to see who would be the men’s and women’s Tour de Ski champions.

The women’s race was as good as any athletic contest I’ve seen in years, with a late attack by the second-placed skier, the young Polish skier Justyna Kowalcyzk, to pass the leader, the ebullient Slovenian Petra Majdic, and thereby win the TdS championship. But the men’s race was ten times better, pitting the brash young Norwegian Petter Northug – by consensus, the best skier in the world – against the older veteran, Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic. Northug is a great tactician and a deadly sprinter, so pretty much everyone – including me – thought that he would toy with Bauer and then accelerate away for the win, which would be the most prominent single accomplishment of his short but already great career. To say Bauer was an underdog would be an understatement.

Bauer had other ideas. He first caught up to Northug, who was skiing extremely hard through the initial flat sections, and then remorselessly attacked as they hit the climb. Bauer steadily expanded his narrow lead until, by the top of the mountain, he had crushed Northug by a minute and sixteen seconds – a gigantic gap. His come-from-behind victory and TdS championship was incredible enough to make me say – as I did on Twitter – that “Lukas Bauer is my hero,” but then, rather than celebrating in really any way at all, he stood at the finish line with his skis and poles and greeted other racers – including Northug – as they labored over the line.

Lukas Bauer
Lukas Bauer

The suspense of the race was great, of course, and it’s fun to see how really good skiers ski, but it was really Bauer’s behavior at the finish line that reminded me why I spend quite a bit of time following relatively obscure sports like cycling and really obscure sports like XC skiing. When the action is great, it’s as inspiring as anything else in life.

And on top of all that, I had a nice hard ski workout of my own today.