By Teemu Virtanen
On Saturday, La Venosta in Italy has its debut in the Visma Ski Classics Pro Tour. The 34 km course has some technically challenging sections and a long gradual uphill to the highest point, 1970 m, which the Pro Skiers need to negotiate three times. It is not a steep hill and easily double-poleable, but there is a Climb competition point on the top of the first and second full laps guaranteeing high speed.
When speculating about possible winners and podium skiers, the Livigno Prologue works as a good reference. The distance is almost the same, and the race was also held in high altitude and had three climbs, but those climbs were much shorter than at La Venosta. Many Pro Teams have spent the intermediate time in high altitude, which means that most of the skiers are now quite adapted to the elevation.
The Livigno Prologue podium skiers are steady favorites here as well, but we should expect to see some dark horses stepping out of the shadows much like in Livigno. Emil Persson, Lager 157 Ski Team, took us by surprise then as did his teammates Marcus Johansson, 4th, and Andreas Holmberg, 7th. They will be vigorous on Saturday, and it could be Holmberg’s day as he was strong in the uphill sections in Livigno. One of them could be on the podium, but they could be pushing their luck if they tried to get another victory to their camp.
In the men’s race, my bet goes to the Coffee Boys, Team Kaffebryggeriet. Morten Eide Pedersen showed explosive power on the hills two weeks ago and he finished second right behind Persson. His teammate Vetle Thyli almost won the race in Livigno as he took the lead when the skiers approached the final stretch in the stadium area. He just run out of juice and had to see four skiers pass him, but he was only a second behind the winner. Now, there is an uphill to the finish that should work for both Pedersen and Thyli’s favor.
In the women’s race, it will be the last race’s winner Britta Johansson Norgren, Lager 157 Ski Team, against Astrid Øyre Slind, Team Koteng, as the course is now much harder than in Livigno. Astrid wasn’t able to reach the podium in Livigno, 4th, but this course suits her much better. However, the two podium skiers, Katerina Smutná, ED System Bauer Team, and Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, Team Koteng, are going to fight back very hard.
Emilie Fleten, Team Ragde Eiendom, performed really well over the Prologue weekend, 5th in the individual race, but the demanding course may be a bit too much to chew for her. But then again, she could be one of those dark horses I mentioned earlier. And we should not count out Lina Korsgren, Team Ramudden, who couldn’t find her usual spark in Livigno, but La Venosta may be a whole new ballgame for her. The three-time Birken winner Justyna Kowalczyk, Team Robinson Trentiono, will also race on Saturday, but we don't know anything about her current shape.
Then, what about Team Ragde Eiendom and Team Koteng in the men’s race? Tord Asle Gjerdalen was 6th in Livigno while the current Champion Andreas Nygaard, who dislikes high altitude, was 9th. Petter Eliassen and Oskar Kardin didn’t have their best day and finished 11th and 14th, respectively. Anyone of them can be on the podium, and the course suits Nygaard well as the climb on each lap is not too steep or challenging, and it is hard to attempt a breakaway there. Eliassen will certainly try to get a gap on the climbs, but he needs a longer distance and a harder course to wear everyone out before the finish.
Team Koteng’s Stian Hoelgaard showed in Livigno, 3rd, that he is in good shape, but he just can’t win a race. He is certainly going to break the curse and take home the coveted victory. Chris Andre Jespersen may be able to get a better day than in Livigno where he finished 12th while Tore Bjørseth Berdal needs a bit more time to re-gain his stamina due to the fact that he is finishing up his master’s thesis as we speak. Based on Livigno’s results Torleif Syrstad is not a fan of high altitude, and Saturday’s race should not be his cup of tea.
Finally, I urge everyone to pay attention to the Russian Winter’s Pro Skiers, they have seven in total in the race, and Ari Luusua, Vltaval Fund team. This Saturday’s suprises may come from those two camps.