Written by Teemu Virtanen
Photograph by Adam Illingworth
Estonia has always been a nation where cross-country skiing is popular and well-appreciated. Many of us still vividly remember Andrus Veerpalu’s and Kristina Smigun’s great performances in the Olympic and World Championship arenas. And in long distance skiing, Raul Olle used to be one the great heroes winning Vasaloppet in 2000.
In addition to these great skiers, Estonia is known for its great long distance ski event called Tartu Ski Marathon (Tartu Maraton). This 63-kilometer race has a long history that dates back to the early 70s, and this year was the 46th edition of this classic event with a nice course that leaves from Otepää and goes to Elva. The aforementioned Estonian legend Olle participated in the race and finished 24th.
This year, some history was made in the race as the winner Niko Koskela, Team Mäenpää, became the holder of the fastest winning time ever and also the first Finn to take home the victory trophy. Niko has managed to be in the top 10 in some of our Visma Ski Classics races in the past, but this season has been a problematic one for him due to illness.
The Tartu Marathon performance proved that he is in shape now and, together with his teammate Ari Luusua, the Finnish gladiators are setting their sights on Vasaloppet. Perhaps this year, we will see Finnish skiers in the top 10, which has not happened since 1990. The last Finnish Vasaloppet winner is Pauli Siitonen in 1974.
“Tartu Marathon was a nice experience,” Niko said after the race. “This is a well organized event, and the course is really great. There are now long hills, but it’s a bit of a mix bag of everything. The last 10 kilometers are flat making it really difficult to make any decisive moves. Since I was the first-timer in the race, I didn’t have a good starting bib, but I was able to get to the lead group very easily because the course was so wide in the beginning. I didn’t feel that good in the early part of the race, but after the halfway point I felt really strong.”
Antoine Auger, E-Liberty Ski Team, was able to break away from the group, and according to Niko no one was willing to chase after him. The “peloton” managed to catch the lone wolf about 10 kilometers before the finish, and when there was about a kilometer to go, Niko attacked and crossed the finish line as the fastest skier in history of the race, 2.31.08.09.
“I didn’t run out of energy even if my service team consisted of one person. It was a bit challenging with my energy intake as I got my first drink at the 30-kilometer point. My guy just couldn’t make it to the preordained points in time. I feel really good now after being sick for so long. I’ve trained a lot of double-poling for this season, and it’s paying off now.”
Niko would be happy to see Tartu Marathon in Visma Ski Classics, but he understands that the Tartu region is not the safest bet in terms of snow. This year, there was a lot of snow in the area in January and early February, but the sudden heat wave melted most of it making the tracks very icy and hard. When asked about his personal experience and take on Visma Ski Classics, Niko is eager to say that the tour is more than excellent.
“I like the atmosphere in Visma Ski Classics and it’s always great to race against the best long distance skiers in the world. And not just that, but the huge number of amateurs makes this tour something unique and brings in the relaxed vibe to the whole thing. Our team is now in great shape and we are really looking forward to Vasaloppet. I haven’t race that one yet, and it’ll be an exciting experience to me. After that race, I’ll do some local races in Finland and get ready for the final event of the season, Ylläs-Levi.”