Kikkan Randall leads around a corner in last year's Tour de Ski stage in Toblach, Italy. (Getty Images)
OBERHOF, Germany (Dec. 28) – Thursday starts a new experience for a squad of six U.S. Cross Country Ski Team athletes with the opening of the 11-day, nine-stage Tour de Ski – now in its fifth year. It's the largest contingent ever from the USA, just a year after Kikkan Randall (Anchorage), Kris Freeman (Andover, NH) and Andy Newell (Shaftsbury, VT) blazed new territory. On the eve of the Tour, World Cup sprint leader Kikkan Randall talked about this year's tour, after her positive experience a season ago.
KIKKAN RANDALL You have a year's experience in doing the full Tour de Ski. How do you anticipate that helping you this year? Knowing the courses and the logistics of the tour is definitely going to help going into this year's event. Last year, each day was a new surprise and I just had to learn as I went. This year I know a little bit more of how it might feel and what the effect of each race will be. I've got some new tricks I'm excited to try.
Your entire group has really gelled as team in the opening period of the World Cup. What impact will that have on you in this year's Tour knowing that the USA is coming in with a strong presence? We still feel like the underdogs as one of the smallest teams but everyone has put together a really strong first period of racing and we're all carrying that momentum into the tour. The best part is how much fun we have together and how much we support each other.
Are there any key stages you're looking at as being pivotal or particularly challenging for you? Obviously the two sprints are important, but what about the other legs? Last year the skate events were strong for me and the classic events a little more challenging, so I'm focusing on improving my consistency in every stage. I'm definitely excited for both sprints, especially the classic sprint in Oberstdorf. I really like racing in mass-start formats and it will be fun to get to go head-to-head several times over the Tour.
The Tour de Ski has become a marquee event for your sport. Talk about its impact on the sport and how it has become a focal point for World Cup athletes. The concept behind the Tour is intriguing for spectators and athletes alike because of how challenging it is to be strong in every different type of event as well as strong through the whole 11 days. Because of it's so similar to the 'Tour de France' I think people can easily understand the format and it's always good to have lots of exciting action in a condensed period. As cross country skiers, we like to pride ourselves on being able to handle ultimate endurance challenges and so I think for many of us, to do well in the Tour, is like a badge of toughness that we all want to achieve.
USA ATHLETES Men Kris Freeman (Andover, NH) Simi Hamilton (Aspen, CO) Andy Newell (Shaftsbury, VT)
Women Holly Brooks (Anchorage) Kikkan Randall (Anchorage) Liz Stephen (E. Montpelier, VT)