By Teemu Virtanen
The Visma Ski Classics Season X started with a bang in Livigno, Italy, with the prologue races that offered a lot of action, some drama and fresh blood in the field. Everyone seemed to be happy with the concept of these two events; Pro Team Tempo and Livigno Prologue. The former works as a great platform for Pro Teams, their athletes and sponsors to show what has been done over the dry-land season, and the latter gives our Pro Skiers an opportunity to start their racing season early on and ease their way into the long winter.
Pro Team Tempo showed again that racing a short 15 km distance can be extremely grueling even for seasoned athletes. Team Ragde Eiendom’s Andreas Nygaard, the current Champion, had to give up after two laps and let his teammates do the job while Team Koteng’s Torleif Syrstad admitted that the last lap totally killed him. And these two skiers were not the only ones who felt the beauty of pain on the tracks. Even Astrid Øyre Slind, Team Koteng, said that Pro Team Tempo is often the hardest race of the season.
Besides being demanding, Pro Team Tempo also proved that our athletes are serious about performing well even if the race is not right up their alley. Team Ragde Eiendom really wanted to shake off the curse and do well in this particular form of racing, and that they indeed did. Their male team clocked the fastest time, but both Team Lager 157 Ski Team and Team Kaffebryggeriet gave a storm warning by being only a few seconds behind the Aukland brothers’ gang. The coffee boys didn’t even have a female skier to seal the deal, but they still wanted to push as hard as they could, much like they did last year.
It was also great to see how well Team Ragde Eiendom’s new female recruits, Thea Krokan Murud and Emilie Fleten, were able to focus on their team work and come up with a great performance in Pro Team Tempo. Britta Johansson Norgren, Lager 157 Ski Team, and Øyre Slind once again had their neck-and-neck fight showing us that they are the two favorites in the Hertz Champion competition in Season X.
Or are they really? Sunday’s Livigno Prologue didn’t turn out to be just a fight between those two great female skiers. Johansson Norgren had no problems on the course, except for a temporary glimpse of snow blindness, and she started off her season in the same vein as the year before. But it was a different story behind her as Øyre Slind couldn’t be on the podium as expected – she finished 4th. Her new teammate Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes had a much better day yesterday than on Friday, and she took the last place on the podium. Katerina Smutná, ED System Bauer Team, was certainly more than satisfied with her second place as it was her first podium place since last year’s Vasaloppet (3rd). These two skiers are going to fight tooth and nail for more podium places in the months to come.
The aforementioned four women are certainly familiar names in the Pro Tour, but the fifth best skier Emilie Fleten is not. She pulled off a strong performance, and this young skier certainly has her eye on the podium this winter. The question is, will she be able to sustain her performance level throughout the long season? She was not the only surprise in yesterday’s race. It was great to see Laila Kveli, Team Engcon, returning to form after many years of hiding in the shadows (7th). And Roxaine Lacroux, ED System Bauer Team, and Anastasia Rygalina, Russian Winter Team, marched into the top 10; 8th and 9th respectively. Fleten’s teammate Krokan Murud’s 10th place was also a very promising debut from this young skier who now has a stranglehold on the Youth bib.
If the women’s race was exciting and full of suspense, so was the men’s one. There were some crashes, broken skis, a yellow card and a photo finish. Kristoffer Nielsen, Team XPND, broke his ski, actually his binding, after a few kilometers of racing. But he didn’t give up. He got a replacement ski after walking back to the start area, and he continued bravely against all odds. For his extraordinary fighting spirit, he received the Visma Skier of the Day award. Chris Andre Jespersen had to change his ski as well, but he was assisted by his serviceman, which caused him to get a yellow card.
Emil Persson’s, Lager 157 Ski Team, victory was quite sensational and something that cross-country ski fans in Sweden have been waiting for. In 2014, Rickard Tynell and Daniel Rickardsson managed to win a stage, but since then it has been quiet in the Swedish male front. This young skier is now taking home both the yellow and pink bibs. His teammates really rocked the house as Marcus Johansson was 4th, Andreas Holmberg 7th, and Øyvind Moen Fjeld 10th. This is definitely a team that is shooting for the stars in Season X. Holmberg was extremely strong in the climb competition and he has the lumberjack bib now.
If Lager 157 Ski Team hit the jackpot yesterday, Team Kaffebryggeriet wasn’t far behind. Morten Eide Pedersen was second, and he was strong throughout the race. He said afterwards that the yellow bib is his primary goal this season. His teammate Vetle Thyli pushed really hard at the end, and for a while it looked like he was going to take home the victory trophy, but he ran out of juice and finished 5th. But he is in great shape and we better watch out for him when Kaiser Maximilian Lauf takes place as that is a race that suits him best. Stian Hoelgaard’s, Team Koteng, third place proved that his Vasaloppet podium place from last winter, 2nd, wasn’t just the luck of draw. He has achieved many podium places in his skiing career, but the number one spot still seems to elude him.
Other notable names in the list of great performers are Tord Asle Gjerdalen, 6th, Team Ragde Eiendom, who showed us that he is back in the game, Ari Luusua, 8th, Vltava Fund Team, who is now solely focusing on Visma Ski Classics, and Alexandr Grebenko, 13th, Russian Winter Team, who aims to achieve greater things. Additionally, there were many other new names both in the men’s and women’s races who fought for sprint points such as Stian Berg, Team Kaffebryggeriet, Max Novak, Team Ramudden, Alexander Panzhinskiy, Team Robinson Trentino, Ingebor Dahl, Team XPND, and Jenny Larsson, Team Ramudden.
Finally, there were some disappointments as always, which comes with the territory when dealing with the world of sports. Many expected Lina Korsgren, Team Ramudden, Andreas Nygaard, Team Ragde Eiendom, and his teammate Petter Eliassen to be on the podium, but this time around they didn’t find the needed mojo. However, Korsgren was 7th and not that far behind the winner, and both Nygaard, 9th, and Eliassen, 11th, were within 11 seconds from the winner. Nygaard is no friend of high altitude, and Livigno, for some reason, is not Eliassen’s favorite playground. These three skiers will be back with a vengeance come the next event.