I love to discover new sports and sporting spectacles to become engrossed in. This past weekend an event that thoroughly captivated me reached its conclusion: cross country skiing’s “Tour de Ski.”
I’ve always been a fan of cycling’s big tours: the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. I love the tactics, the unbelievable stamina and willpower displayed by the competitors. I love seeing the huge number of fans lining the routes, the countryside they traverse and the differing terrain they cross.
Well, the Tour de Ski is a winter equivalent. Nine cross country races in 11 days at five different venues in Germany and Italy. Like the Tour de France, the winners are the man and woman (there are races for both) with the lowest total time. So, it’s not necessarily about winning the individual events but conserving strength, choosing your battles and getting the strategy just right to be the overall champion.
It’s superbly gritty, competitive stuff and, like cycling, there’s so much more to it than meets the eye. Each of the nine races demands something different. Some are sprints, and there are specialists who focus on these contests (much like Mark Cavendish does on his bike,) some are distance events (up to 35km for the men,) some are completed in classic technique (with straight skis and a sort or running style,) others in free technique (more like skating.)
The athletes are supremely fit and they give it absolutely everything over the 11 days of competition. There are few events where you’ll see such exhaustion at the end – bodies strewn over the snow in a tangled, heaving mess of skis and poles.
There were great rivalries in both men’s and women’s events that added to the spice this year. In the men’s competition it was between Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and Petter Northug of Norway. For the women, the battle was between Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland and Norway’s Marit Bjoergen.
In both contests the key protagonists attempted to steal a march on their adversary through the early stages in order to have the best possible chance on the last, killer, stage.
After eight races, the leader goes off first on that closing stage with those closest behind setting off at the relevant time intervals. That means the man and woman over the line first on the final stage win.
The last stage, held at Val di Fiemme in Italy, starts off relatively innocuously on the flats leading to the base of the Alpe Cermis, but then it turns up the hill and the competitors must ascend for some 3km straight up a downhill ski run. It’s pretty brutal and truly sorts the wheat from the chaff.
There’s a great thrill as the pursuers attempt to chase down the leader and that leader has to judge his/her efforts precisely so they don’t blow out on the final climb. In the end it was Cologna and Kowalczyk who came out on top – both for the third time in their careers.
It’s a fantastic event and one I will certainly be tuning into again next year. If you like endurance sport with skill and tactics thrown into the mix then you’ll love this.
As a sport lover in the UK, it’s very easy to have a narrow focus on the few sports that the media obsess about – in the main it’s football with a bit of tennis, cricket, rugby, motor racing and golf thrown in. But there are so many other great sports to become interested in and a great number can be seen on Eurosport – All the cycling, the Monte Carlo rally, the Dakar rally, triathlons, alpine skiing, cross country skiing, freestyle skiing, ski-jumping – the latter is another fantastically skilled and highly tactical sport that just gets more and more exciting the more you understand it.
I must confess I’ve become a little bored of the commercialisation and childishness of football, also of the repetitive nature of tennis (the same men/women playing each other for ludicrous sums of money in different cities that could be anywhere because all you see are the painted white lines and a net,) I even find golf a bit of a yawn sometimes when it’s not one of the more significant tournaments and you can tell the top players are just in it for the cash. So, I often go to Eurosport as my first port of call when looking for a sporting fix. Invariably, there you’ll find an event where the participants are involved, not just for money, but for the sheer love of what they’re doing and a burning passion to win… That’s what sport used to, and should still, be all about.