Every year cross-country skiers from around the world begin a gruelling few days of competition in order to be crowned champion of the Tour de Ski. Held annually since the 2006-7 season, the competition is a test of endurance that is modelled on cycling’s Tour de France. The skiers aim to finish each stage in the quickest time possible in order to gain the yellow bib and the overall winner is determined by the fastest time over all stages.
The Tour de Ski involves sprint and distance stages in both the freestyle and classic style of skiing. A red bib and prize money is available to the athlete who picks up the most points in the sprint stages of the contest and is occasionally won by the person who also holds the yellow bib. The final stage of the Tour de Ski is by far the greatest test. The world’s best can be reduced to penguin feet as they climb the 495 metre alpine downhill ski slope on the Alpe Cermis in Italy. Athletes who have previously made cross-country skiing look easy often end the final stage lying on their backs in agony after completing the hardest climb of the season.
The men and women’s 2019-20 competitions were won by the Russian Alexander Bolshunov and the Norwegian Therese Johaug respectively. The men’s was a close fought competition, with reigning champion Johannes Høsflot Klæbo going into the last stage wearing the yellow bib. However, he ultimately failed to make an impact on the Alpe Cermis, finishing in third place overall. On the other hand, the women’s competition was not so hard fought, with Therese Johaug being the clear favourite. The reigning champion Ingvild Flugstad Østberg failed to make up the time she had lost in the previous stage when her ski pole had snapped, making Johaug’s victory even easier.
Johaug’s win will be viewed by many fans of the sport as being controversial due to her recent 18 month drugs ban. The Norwegian’s famous Tour de Ski win in 2015-16, where she overturned compatriot Østberg’s large lead in the final stage to claim overall victory, came only a few months before her failed drugs test. Johaug’s doping history calls into question the credibility of her previous Tour results and made it difficult to support her in this year’s competition.
The sport faces another problem if it is to reach a larger audience. As is to be expected of a winter sport, the European countries dominate. It was only in the 2017-18 Tour de Ski that the American Jessica Diggins and Canadian Alex Harvey became the first non-European skiers to reach the podium with both finishing third overall. However, it was encouraging to see a few more participants from more unusual countries competing in the Tour de Ski this year, such as Jessica Yeaton of Australia.
The 2019-20 Tour de Ski was a disappointment for the British team. Andrew Young did not compete due to illness and James Clugnet, like many other athletes, did not complete the Tour. The British number one, Andrew Musgrave, also had a sub-standard competition as he only managed 32nd out of the 56 who completed the Tour, despite his impressive 17th place in 2019. It will be interesting to watch Musgrave for the rest of the season as his summer training is reported to have gone well, raising questions as to why he has not been up to his usual standard so far.
Cross-country skiing is a sport that deserves a wider audience as the Tour de Ski is an impressive showcase of human strength and stamina, often with exciting and unexpected finishes in the various stages. The Eurosport commentators’ chatter adds a further enjoyable dimension to an already interesting sport, bringing a bit of humour to cold winter days. Cross-country skiing is an appealing alternative to sports fans who are missing the variety of sports available in the summer months and want to see something unlike anything they have seen before.