By Teemu Virtanen
The last year of the decade ends today, and tomorrow brings a new era as the year of 2020 begins with a promise of many splendid things to come. Visma Ski Classics is also a decade old, and the next 10-year period will certainly take the brand much further. The new initiative, Visma Ski Classics Challengers, has already started and expanded the brand beyond the realm of the existing Pro Tour. But before we embark on this new 10-year journey with many exciting experiences to witness, let’s take a look back on this year and recap some of the highlights of Season IX and the beginning of Season X.
2019 started in Seefeld, Austria, when a shortened Kaiser Maximilian Lauf took place on the second weekend of January. Team BN Bank, who had managed to get four best places in Livigno in December, was on a roll again as they took home a triple victory in the men’s race. The biggest news was the return of Petter Eliassen who won the race, and a surprise came in the form of Vetle Thyli, Team Kaffebryggeriet, who finished 4th.
In the women’s race, Britta Johansson Norgren, Lager 157 Ski Team, and Astrid Øyre Slind, Team Koteng, had their usual neck-and-neck play, and the former proved to be stronger at the end. Justyna Kowalczyk, Team Trentino Robinson Trainer, tried to keep up with these two athletes but eventually had to let them go and finished 3rd.
Triple victories continued at La Diagonela in Switzerland where Team Ragde Eiendom returned to form and dominated the field in the men’s race. It was also Andreas Nygaard’s first victory of the season paving the way for greater things. If the men’s race was somewhat surprising, the women’s one was even more so as Kateriná Smutna, ED System Bauer Team, came back with a vengeance and won the race followed by Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, Team Ragde Eiendom.
Then, the legendary Marcialonga in Italy set the scene for two legends to be back in power. Petter Eliassen was in a league of his own as he took the reins in the race early on and left everyone eating his dust on the final Cascata Hill. Johansson Norgren was as impressive and finished 1.20 min faster than Lina Korsgren, Team Ramudden.
Toblach-Cortina in Italy was supposed to be the next stage in the Visma Ski Classics Pro Tour, but Mother Nature had some other ideas and decided to wreak havoc in the form of a snowstorm increasing the risk of avalanches in the area. The race was canceled, and Pro Teams and their athletes returned home.
The Pro Tour resumed in the Czech Republic, where the final race in Central-Europe, Jizerska Padesatka, took place as planned. Before the race, everyone was expecting Team BN Bank’s three-time winner Morten Eide Pedersen to attack. That he did but couldn’t break away, and a tight sprint finish ensued. Nygaard was the strongest skier, and his teammate Tord Asle Gjerdalen was right behind. Ari Luusua, Team Mäenpää, was third and became the first Finn to be on the Visma Ski Classics podium.
In the women’s race, Korsgren took her first and only victory of the season while Smutna continued her good performances by being second before Johansson Norgren. The real surprise was Adéla Boudíková, Vltava Fund Team, who finished 4th.
Vasaloppet in Sweden was the next event in the calendar, and it will always be remembered by Team Koteng’s shrewd tactics in the men’s race that led them to have a triple victory. Tore Bjørseth Berdal was the king of the day while Johansson Norgren was the queen. Her performance was extremely strong as she left Korsgren almost four minutes behind and became the second best female skier in the overall results in the history of the race, 81st, Kowalczyk’s 71st from 2015 is the best result.
Speaking of the Polish athlete, she showed us that she is still a force to be reckoned with by taking her third consecutive victory at Birkebeinerrennet in Norway, but a new event, and a new technique, was introduced to the fans of Visma Ski Classics in-between these two Scandinavian classic races. Engadin Skimarathon in skating technique used partially the same course as La Diagonela earlier in the season, but new faces conquered the highest places on the podium; Natalie Von Siebenthal and Dario Cologna, both from Switzerland.
Kowalczyk’s amazing performance at “Birken” was not the only superior achievement in that race since Eliassen broke away before reaching the top of the mountain and skied solo all the way to the finish. Both Nygaard and Johansson Norgren scored high points with their second places, and the fights for the Hertz Champion titles continued.
After the Rena-Lillehammer escapade, another event in Norway took place, Reistadløpet. The race has the hardest course in the Pro Tour, and it presented some new faces on the podium. Mikael Gunnulfsen, Team Telemark, Johan Hoel, Erik Valnes, Team Koteng and Andrew Musgrave, Team Koteng, were the first four skiers respectively before Eliassen who double-poled his way through the race. In the women’s race, Masako Ishida, Team Koteng, had her second race of the season and finished 2nd while a new name Anna Svendsen finished 3rd. Once again, Øyre Slind succeeded in finding her peak performance at the end of the season and won the race.
Øyre Slind continued her winning streak at Ylläs-Levi while Nygaard did something quite unusual and broke away from the pack before the finish. He won the race and became the Hertz Champion of the Season IX. Eliassen, who had some amazing solo wins under his belt during the winter, didn’t have his best day and finished far behind. Johansson Norgren, on the other hand, finished 3rd and sealed the deal and took home the Hertz Champion title in the women’s competition. She managed to be on the podium in every race except Reistadløpet and she had four stage wins in Season IX.
Finally, the end of 2019 was the beginning of the anniversary season (Season X), and both individual races introduced us to new male winners as Emil Persson, Lager 157 Ski Team, won the Livigno Prologue and Ermil Vokuev, Russian Winter Team, the new event La Venosta, both in Italy. Johansson Norgren and Øyre Slind continued their power battle as the former won in Livigno and the latter at La Venosta. Øyre Slind’s performance became historic as she got the best overall result, both genders included, with her 49th place.