By Teemu Virtanen
Vasaloppet was truly an exciting event, and as always the race presented thrilling action, brave breakaway attempts and brilliant team tactics. Team Koteng, the gang in yellow racing suits, showed everyone that long distance skiing is becoming quite like pro cycling in terms of teamwork and strategic approach to racing. The team captain John Kristian Dahl turned out to be a shrewd chess player by placing his chess pieces in right places only a few kilometers before the lead group reached Mora.
This maneuver worked perfectly, and Tore Bjørseth Berdal realized that his chance had come and he spread his wings and flew away. The rest of the team decided to back him up and ensured that no one had a chance to catch the runaway hero.
This team victory is the boost that the Koteng soldiers needed to step out of the shadows where they have recently been hiding under. Berdal admits that to win the greatest ski race in the world is more than a dream come true. He has now moved to Switzerland, and his team in yellow is confident in their ability to repeat the feat under the sunny skies of the famous Engadin valley. Perhaps, the podium is calling again for these guys when the first skating race in Visma Ski Classics takes place this Sunday.
Berdal took a moment to answer my questions on his way to the kingdom of Toblerone, and this is what the Vasaloppet winner had to say.
Tell us about the decisive moment when John Kristian organized your troops and very much manipulated the victory for you.
This year’s Vasaloppet was a tough one. My plan was to attack before the finish line. I knew that was my chance to win. During the last 10 km before my attack, Eliassen was trying hard in front to get a gap but he didn't succeed. We knew then that a traditional attack would not work, and to succeed you needed the whole team to be in front. We have a very strong team and all of us were there at the end. With 5 km to go, Torleif took the snowy track and John Kristian followed. I saw that both Stian and Chris were behind me when I jumped over to that track. Then John Kristian started shouting and placed the rest of us on different tracks. Lastly, he shouted to me GO and that's what I did :)
What went through your mind at that point and during the last five kilometers?
First, I didn't know if I got the necessary gap. So, during the first kilometer I kept looking back to see if anyone was going to catch me. Once I realized that I had some meters in-between myself and the chasing group, I didn't look back until 10 meters before "kranskullan" to see if I could accept the "krans" (garland). Not a lot went through my mind in the last five kilometers. I was only trying to ski as fast as possible. I know we have an excellent team working for each other, and that really manifested in the way that the rest of the guys controlled the chase from behind. This was a TEAM victory in capital letters. Once I turned around and had the "krans" on my neck, it was the best feeling in the world. But an even better feeling was to turn around and see the entire sprint finish with all yellow!
Describe the race as it was one of the slowest in recent history
Five centimeters of snow on the tracks made the race slow. You had much better glide if you stayed far back, positions behind 100. So, that's what we did. The race was really slow in the beginning, but from Risberg to the finish we had a decent pace. A lot of guys tried to break away, but to do so you needed the backing of an entire team. We understood that and made it happen.
What did your victory mean to you and your career?
This is by far my biggest victory. Vasaloppet is the largest race one can win in long distance skiing, and being able to do it is incredible. I've achieved my biggest goal, so now it’s time to set some new ones.
What did the triple victory mean to your team and how can you guys use this to advance your team?
This is huge for the team. A triple victory and the way we did show that we have talent in our team. I'm so proud to be a part of this team. Seeing the replay and the way, for example, how Chris worked in the chase to slow the pace down really shows the team spirit. Going forward, the triple victory in Vasaloppet is both a confidence and marketing boost. We know we can win races, and now we have started doing so.
Why is Vasaloppet so important for every pro skier?
The history combined with the fact that it’s the largest ski race in the world. It's as simple as that.
What makes a great Vasaloppet skier (e.g. Rezac is always there but he just can't win)?
Vasaloppet is the longest and toughest race on the calendar. To win you have to be both physically and mentally strong. And it's also one of the flatter courses on the tour, which suits some skiers better than others.
Engadin Skimarathon is next and it's in skating technique - what are your and your team's expectations of that much shorter and faster race?
We're already in Engadin. It’s such an improvement to have a skating race in Visma Ski Classics. We have big expectations for this weekend as well. Chris has shown good shape in the last couple of weeks, and we all know how strong he is in skating.