By Teemu Virtanen
The man with the aviators on his head ruled the kingdom of Visma Ski Classics for two years. He was a fighter and a strong warrior respected by his peers and enemies alike. His demeanor was noble and his persona suited for the great conqueror he had become. He uttered his words of wisdom with razor sharp wit, and his subordinates trusted him as he was the champion. His name was Tord Asle Gjerdalen.
But there was a prince in the kingdom who followed the footsteps of the beloved king wanting to achieve the same glory and respect as the king before him. And the king saw that the time was right to step aside and let the young prince take the throne and rule over the land of long distance skiing. So the young prince rose to the occasion and became the new king, and his name was Andreas Nygaard.
Seriously speaking, this Visma Ski Classic season has indeed been an extremely thrilling extravaganza with multiply triple victories, amazing breakaways, tight sprint fights and some great team tactics. When the season started in Livigno, many expected Gjerdalen, Team Ragde Eiendom, to continue his reign, but the first race gave us some signs of thing to come. Petter Eliassen, Team BN Bank, returned with a vengeance after a year long hiatus, and for a while it seemed that he would be crowned as the king of the sport again. But Nygaard, Team Ragde Eiendom, returned to form in La Diagonela, and ever since it was a fearsome battle between these two friends who despite their rivalry train a lot together.
A day before the final race Ylläs-Levi in Finland, Nygaard admitted that there was a little too much excitement in the air as there was only 27 points separating him and his dear opponent Eliassen. But the former proved to be worthy of the champion crown by winning the race with a glorious breakaway about 10 km before the finish. He sealed his overall victory and he is now the new Hertz Champion of Visma Ski Classics.
The season is over, but the work continues for Nygaard as he is getting ready for his summer training period. Now, it is time to rest a bit before starting serious training for the new season, and he is going to face a new situation as the defending champion. He had a moment to spare and answer the questions in the midst of this fine Easter weekend.
What is your story – how did you get into skiing?
“I started skiing as soon as I could. I had an older brother (3 years) who also skied, so I just followed his footsteps. I started doing races when I was 8 years old, and have been competing ever since. Last year as a junior, I was 4th in the National Championship in classic sprint, 5th in a skating sprint and 20th in the skiathlon (beat Golberg and Musgrave). I won the classic sprint in the FIS race in Muonio 11.11.2011, which was a kind of my "breakthrough" as a senior skier. I got 16th place in the National Championship 50km race in 2012, and in 2013 I became U23-Norwegian champion in the classic sprint. In 2014, I was in a final in a Scandinavian Cup classic sprint, became 6th in Vasaloppet, and did my first and only World Cup race in Drammen three days later (finished in the bottom 10). After that my sole focus has been on Visma Ski Classics and long distance skiing.”
What does it mean to you to be the Champion now?
“It has been a long way from the 2014/2015 season up to this point. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to develop step by step since the first year. As Martin Sundby said: " The champ is the champ is the champ". Of course, it is nice to wear the yellow bib, but I know I will lose it fast if I don’t keep pushing 110% in the training and recovery.”
Before the race, you've said that there was almost too much excitement in the air, but you managed to handle it. What went through your mind in the last days before Ylläs-Levi?
“Just keeping the eyes on the prize. Getting good training sessions, and building up good mental energy for the race to come. These are the moments we train for. The races with a lot on stake. I was feeling sharp the whole week, so I was really looking forward to the race.”
You started as a sprinter in VSC and worked your way up to the Champion status. Anton Karlsson wants to follow your footsteps - do see this approach being perhaps the most successful?
“It is hard to say. Eliassen and Gjerdalen never won the green bib, but with many races coming down to a sprint finish, it is always an advantage to have a decent top speed. It is a long way from green to yellow, especially in terms of endurance and capacity, but with the right training it is possible.”
How would you summarize the whole season from your perspective?
“This season was the best so far in terms of snow conditions. I like all the races, but it was fun to finally do a good race in La Diagonela. Especially since I have had some difficulties with the altitude and the uphill finish in the past.”
Petter Eliassen turned out to be your toughest rival, but did it surprise you that he returned so strong?
“No. I know him pretty well, so I know his amazing talent. He is made for long distance skiing.”
What is your overall take on Visma Ski Classics as we are now stepping into the 10th anniversary year?
“A couple of things for consideration. Firstly, the first and only race before Christmas cannot have half the points and no prize money. That has to change. If not, I think many skiers will skip that race. Secondly, prize money needs to be granted to the top 3 in the climb competition, and to the top 3 in the sprint competition. Thirdly, what about a sprint on the way down from Pontresina towards Zuos in La Diagonela? Those are my suggestions for improvement.”
Then, would you mind giving us a word about your summer training and keeping up your performance level?
“Keeping it simple. That’s my motto. Easy hours combined with some threshold training and speed workouts. I guess there will be quite a few sessions with Petter since my dad lives in Alta and my girlfriend studies there.”
Based on your experience and being the best now, how would you describe the perfect long distance skier? You and Petter "morphed" into one would be impossible to beat?
“Yes, I think that would be a great combination. Petter’s Vo2-max and aerobic capacity, Chris Jespersen’s technique and my sprint finish. That’s the perfect long distance skier.”
Finally, let’s talk about the team tactics as Team Koteng showed us how to do it - do you foresee the team play taking a larger role next year?
“Yes absolutely. Especially in races like Vasaloppet and Ylläs-Levi. Our team has not prepared anything yet. Things usually get planned in the latter part of the spring. But I believe team tactics will become more visible in the future.”