By Teemu Virtanen
As the new season is approaching and the Prologue races in Livigno are only a step away, it is good to remind us of the powers that be in our Pro Tour and take a look at some of the potential stars of Season X. The 10th anniversary year will certainly be the most thrilling and action-packed in history, and there are more Pro Teams, 35, than ever before. It means that there are also more hungry athletes seeking glory on the tracks of our 12 upcoming events.
When predicting possible winners and podium skiers, we look upon our “usual suspects” first, but there are going to be new faces and some surprises come the winter of 2020. The defending Champions Andreas Nygaard, Team Ragde Eiendom, and Britta Johansson Norgren, Lager 157 Ski Team, are naturally the number one candidates for the top place on the podium, but they know that this season is not just a walk in the park for them.
Nygaard will face a fierce competition from his teammate Petter Eliassen, and we should not count out the former champ Tord Asle Gjerdalen. The third Ragde soldier, who has the capacity to win, is the only Swede in the team, Oskar Kardin. And there is always the 47-year old superhero, Anders Aukland, and he still has the mojo that can take him all the way to the podium.
Johansson Norgren, on the other hand, will most likely find that her dear opponent Astrid Øyre Slind is breathing down her neck and ready to dethrone her. But she is not the only one willing to become a standard podium skier as Team Serneke’s Magdalena Pajala can be a dark horse even if this is her debut season. Katarina Smutná is no dark horse, but she needs to revive her winning spirit; in the past two years she has only won La Diagonela in 2019. Team Robinson Trainer’s Justyna Kowalczyk will do some races but not enough to seriously fight for the overall victory. Team Ramudden’s Lina Korsgren, the winner of last year’s Jizerska 50, is certainly craving for greater things as is Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, now representing Team Koteng.
Speaking of Team Koteng, this Norwegian team won the Pro Team competition in Season IX, and they have all three Vasaloppet podium skiers in their ranks; Tore Bjørseth Berdal, Stian Hoelgaard and Torleif Syrstad. Additionally, they have signed the best British skier in the world, Andrew Musgrave, who managed to be in the top 8 in every individual race at the World Championships in Seefeld last winter. He will do at least four Pro Tour races this season.
One male Pro Skier who has the right stamina and power to win is Morten Eide Pedersen, Team Kaffebryggeriet, but he still needs to raise the bar and start winning more races. Stian Berg, Vetle Thyli and Magnus Vesterheim from the same team can also be potential podium skiers in Season X.
On the women’s side, there are more young athletes taking part in the Pro Tour, and some of them can conjure up enough magic and surprise us here and there. However, it is unlikely that they will reach the podium yet, but there will be a few skiers getting very close this season.
Sofie Elebro, Team ParkettPartner Sjusjøen, Elin Molin, Lager 157 Ski Team, Thea Krokan Murud and Emilie Fleten, both from Team Ragde Eiendom, are the rising stars of the sport, and if their stars align, they may even be able to find themselves standing on the podium in some races. Heli Heiskanen, Vltava Fund Team, is still the best Finnish female skier in the field, but the podium places seem to elude her.
What about the Lager 157 Ski Team boys? The team recruited a strong Norwegian skier, Øyvind Moen Fjeld, 6th overall, who finally managed to get a podium place at Ylläs-Levi. But the question is, can he win a race? And there are other skiers in his team, e.g. Andreas Holmberg and Emil Persson, who can also carry a laurel wreath at the finish. Anton Karlsson’s back injury may prevent him from winning races or even keeping the green bib (sprint), but he is already back on the saddle.
Other possible familiar names to be among the crème of the crop are Ilya Chernousov and Alexis Jeannerod from Lukas Bauer’s ED System Bauer Team, Anders Høst from Team Serneke (always doing well at roller-ski events), Max Novak from Team Ramudden, Ermil Vokuev from Russian Winter, Simen Engebretsen Nordli, Team ParkettPartner Sjusjøen and Ari Luusua from Vltava Fund Team.
An interesting new name in the game is Maxim Vylegzanin from Russian Winter. This experienced cross-country skier has three silver medals from the Olympics and five medals from the World Championships, one gold, and he is now solely focusing on Visma Ski Classics and wants to be one of the best.
Of course, there are more potential names to reach greater heights this winter. Some may become solid podium performers while others will improve on their past results and get closer to the most coveted top 10 club. As always, Livigno will be a great indicator of things to come.