Most will have heard of the Tour de France, its gruelling long-distance rides, its punishing mountain climbs. It's a feat of human endurance. Now imagine doing that in the snow. OK, so you're not cycling. Still, the Tour de Ski takes the same idea: cross-country skiers from some 30 nations come together to tackle one of the toughest sporting events in the world. Competing across various disciplines—sprints, pursuits and simple long slogs of up to 15km—for the lowest times and the privilege of wearing the blue bib, this is skiing's answer to the Tour de France's famed yellow jersey.

The idea, it's said, was dreamt up 15 years ago by Olympian Vegard Ulvang and the International Ski Federation's chief executive Jurg Capol, during a meeting in a sauna. Perhaps the comfort of the heat and the steam went to their heads because the competition they imagined would be an extreme one. When the final stage was proposed—a 9km race on the alpine ski course on Alpe Cermis in Cavalese, the last 3.5km being up said alpine ski course, at times at a gradient of 28%—even world-class athletes expressed misgivings. Others were divided too: was this a renaissance for cross-country skiing, or, as the Wiedbadener Kurier put it, some kind of skiing circus? 

Questions aside, 2006 saw the first event, seven days of crisscrossing the Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland and Germany, the country which, in the super-fit form of Tobia Angerer, provided the first men's champion. Since then, it's been the Swiss and the Norwegians who have dominated the rankings. No wonder too that those who finish high in this competition also tend to be Olympic or World Champion gold medallists. This is not a competition for those skiers for whom it's all about the scenery and the apres-ski gluhwein. As Norway's Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, and the 2018/19 women's champion, has put it—and she said this while enjoying a commanding lead—this is an event that is all "about preparing for pain, and dealing with the pain."

The ability to deal with that pain is generating a group of superstars and growing numbers of spectators. Remember, this is not about the grace required for downhill racing or the agility and accuracy needed for slalom; it is about the sheer, brutal, seemingly endless grind of driving over snow, propelled by lungs the
size of a blizzard and thighs as hard as ice. Last year the rather modelish Norwegian Johannes Hoesfolt Klaebo became, at 22, the youngest skier to win overall victory at the Tour de Ski, and he's the bookies' favourite to take the crown this year as well. Indeed, some are saying he has the potential to surpass the
achievements of the now-retired Petter Northug, undoubtedly Norway's greatest skier, boasting 13 World Championship medals, 20 Winter Olympic medals and 2015's Tour de Ski win under his belt.

The snow may be retreating, thanks to climate change, but the fans keep coming to see these hardy men and women face off against one of the biggest challenges in sport. Viewing their efforts, gravity and a lack of friction has never looked so welcome.


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