By Teemu Virtanen
Truly, it’s fair to say that the tables have been turned in the Visma Ski Classics pro tour, and more excitement and surprises are in store for the fans of long distance skiing. After the first two weekends in the Season IX, it seemed that Team BN Bank is unbeatable and Britta Johansson Norgren, Lager 157 Ski Team, and Astrid Øyre Slind, Team Koteng, will dominate the women’s races throughout the season. But La Diagonela turned out to be much more than some beautiful cold weather skiing in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Certainly, the day was beautiful and chilly, but the action on the tracks was somewhat unexpected.
The return of Katerina Smutná, ED System Bauer Team, was one of the most celebrated incidents this Saturday. The Czech pro skier beat both Britta and Astrid and took home her first victory since Ylläs-Levi in 2017. And she was not the only one who had her day in the sun as Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, Team Ragde Eiendom, finished second.
“I’m so happy to be back in the game again,” Smutná admitted after crossing the finish line in Zuoz. “It was cold and the snow was dry and slow, but I felt good today. I let Britta do most of the work, and I passed her a couple of kilometers before the finish when she took a moment to drink. She was able to catch me in the final climb, and after that I just decided to attack right before the finish. My tactic worked. Now, I’ll go back to Austria and get ready for Marcialonga.”
“It really feels good to be back on the podium,” Vikhagen Gjeitnes said with a smile on her face. “It was extremely chilly in the morning when we started. I’ve never been that cold, but once we got going, I felt ok. It was a good day for me, and I think I was tactically very savvy today. This performance gave me a lot of boost for the next race and the whole season.”
Johansson Norgren acknowledged that La Diagonela wasn’t her best performance. She tried to push hard in the final climb, but she was extremely tired and couldn’t fight back when both Smutná and Vikhagen Gjeitnes passed her only a couple of hundred meters before the finish. She also said that she felt like “chewing gum” throughout the race, which is certainly not a good feeling when skiing 65 km in cold conditions. If it was a tough day for her, she wasn’t alone as Astrid Øyre Slind struggled to find the usual power she possesses. Before the race, she stayed in Seefeld after Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, and she told us that she had been feeling tired the whole week.
In the men’s race, last year’s Champion Team Ragde Eiendom showed everyone that they are still the force to be reckoned with. Perhaps, everyone else expected the BN Bank skiers to take home the top places again, but Magnar Dalen’s gang had a different idea. In Seefeld, Øystein “Pølsa” Pettersen’s boys owned the podium and now Radge Eiendom guys achieved the same feat in La Diagonela. Petter Eliassen, the winner in Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, tried his best but had to let Andreas Nygaard, Tord Asle Gjerdalen and Oskar Kardin pass him only a few meters before the finish line. No one really expected him to beat these guys in the final sprint, and in the light of that fact, his fourth place was an honorable performance.
“To win again feels extremely great,” Nygaard stated enthusiastically. “It’s been a nerve-wrecking start of the season for all of us. But today, everything clicked, and we worked so well together, and we had good skis this time around. The pace was high all the way to St. Moritz, and it’s always challenging to race in cold weather. After that, I just kept focusing on saving my energy to the final kilometers. I was pretty confident of my sprinting abilities, and I made my move just before the finish. This race gave me confidence before Marcialonga, and I’m now ready to fight for the victory there as well.”
“Andreas showed his tactical skills again in this race,” Gjerdalen gave kudos to his teammate. “He is extremely strong in situations like this, and he is now so much more powerful than before. His endurance is much better than in the past. I don’t think I can beat him that easily any more. But this race was what we needed. This is a great course with flats, climbs and beautiful surroundings. That’s why we call this a mini-Marcialonga.”
Oskar Kardin was extremely happy to jump onto the podium again since Jizerska Padesatka in 2018. He said that he felt strong from the beginning, and it was quite clear to TV viewers as well since he took the lead several times during the race. One time he even waved his hand and smiled at the camera showing his confidence. This strong mental capacity may turn into a victory spirit next Sunday when the legendary Marcialonga takes place.
In addition to the main categories, there are now some really interesting battles taking shape in the youth, climb and sprint competitions. Team Kaffebryggeriet’s Magnus Vesterheim performed really well even if he totally ran out of energy at the end of the race. He is now leading the youth competition over Torfleif Syrstad, Team Koteng, and Emil Persson, Lager 157 Ski Team, while in the women’s youth race, Marie Renée Sørum Gangsø, Team Synnfjell managed to take the lead.
Anton Karlsson, Lager 157 Ski Team, was able to score more points in the sprint competition (Johansson Norgren took the winning points in the women’s sprint). In the climb competitions, Morten Eide Pedersen and Astrid Øyre Slind are still leading, but they need to put up a fight in order to claim the king of the hill title come the gala night in Levi. The pro team competition is also a tight one as Lager 157 Ski Team is only 90 points ahead of Team Koteng.
La Diagonela was also the second event of the Visma Alp Trophy tour, and Johansson Norgren and Eliassen are leading that game in their respective categories, and they are still wearing the yellow Champion bibs, but they need to watch out for the hungry wolves preying on them in the remaining two races.
The next event in the Visma Ski Classics Season IX is Marcialonga in Italy, and you can follow the action on our live stream on PLAY starting at 7:50 am CET on Sunday, January 27.