The Long Distance Ski Championship

Ermil Vokuev- a new challenger from the east

By Denis Kabanen
Photo: Magnus Östh

Norwegian dominance in Visma Ski Classics series is on the mens´side overwhelming. Perhaps, it's a special training model, excellent terrain for workouts or a lot of roads without traffic that gives this advantage. However, there might be a challenge to the Norwegian power -- and it's coming from the East.

Russian Ilya Chernousov won La Diagonela, was second in La Sgambeda and gained four top ten places last season. And he's not alone- fellow Russian Ermil Vokuev's performance in Jizerska-50 was a eye-opener for the long-distance skiing world. In the fight for the third place the 24-year-old skier from the Russian North was beaten at the finish line by less than a length of the ski by no less than Tord Asle Gjerdalen himself. Now Vokuev's goal is to make it to the podium coming season. And his training model is different from what you might expect..

Ermil Vokuev comes from the Komi Republic - one of the most ski-crazy regions of Russia. It is the Komi trails that gave the world the multiple Olympic champion Raisa Smetanina, the Rochev family, and more recently, Ivan Babikov who's now coaching the Canadian cross country ski team. Not surprisingly, Ermil started skiing at a very young age. In 2012 he won the World Junior Championships, then the Universiade in 2013, and a year later, senior Russian Championship in sprint.

-My first classic race without kick wax was the Russian Championship in 2014. It was a spontaneous decision - Alexander Panzhinsky double poled the prologue with a good margin, so I also gave it a try, and won the final.

Ermil's performance secured him an invitation to the national team. A traditional route of the high level skiers in Russia was predetermined to him: National, Continental, World Cups and Championships, Olympic Games. The bronze in the sprint at U23 World Championship two years ago served as a proof of his strength. Then he caught a new "virus" of cross-country skiing -- double pole skiing, and got his mind set on the Visma Ski Classics series.

-Before 2014 I did not even know words like "double poling". I was just skiing using my arms. In the summer I watched the Ski Classics races- how Scandinavians skied them. On YouTube I found useful videos about double poling and thought if it worked out that well then I should focus on it. Next winter 2015 I gave myself a try in a mid-distance race and won it without kick wax. After that I began to use double poling more and more, and in terms of my technique and preparation, almost nothing had changed.

Ermil's talent developed in this direction: at the Russian Championship in 2016 in Tyumen, he was third on 15K race and led the team of Komi to the first place in the sprint relay -- all using double poling. At the Russian national team, Vokuev trained side by side with Sergei Ustyugov. In Instagram comments, Ustyugov called him "the best double poler of Russia".
Instagram post

World Cup
The beginning of last season was tough for Ermil - racing in the World Cup, Tour de Ski. Good experience, but without success.

-It's not so easy to come from the Russian winter to the altitude in the sunny Alps and show all your potential. At the Tour de Ski, good races alternated with failures and the Alpe de Cermis was particularly difficult for me.

You might remember a relay at the World Cup in La Clusaz last December with desperate attempts of Martin Johnsrud Sundby to double pole along with the leaders running with kick wax. But there was yet another double poler - Ermil Vokuev on the second leg of the Russian team relay.

-It was a mistake to run such a course with heavy uphills without kick wax. Also at the temperature of +12 after -25 I was "cooked" from the heat after several laps. But I gained invaluable experience.

Jizerska-50 However the main start of the season for a young skier was not the World Cup. He dreamed for a long time to take part in a Visma Ski Classics event and test his upper body strength against the best long distance skiers. Thanks to the Russian Marathon Team he got a chance to race Jizerska-50. This was for him the second classic 50K race after the Russian Championship 2015.

-At the beginning of the season I got an invitation from RMT to do La Sgambeda, but the National team did not let me. Eventually we found a window in my racing schedule in the middle of February for Jizerska-50 and I was very excited.

The race started well. Ermil stayed in the lead of the group for the entire first pass and even won the first sprint. During the race, he regularly looked at his heart rate monitor.

-I checked kilometers before the finish line. It was very tough race and I felt cramps in abs and arms early just after 20K.

On the big uphill at 30K there was the main attack of Morten Eide Pedersen and Petter Eliassen. Just before that Vokuev rolled to the back of the group for feeding and failed to react in time. He made an attempt to catch up with the leaders but without success. Wisely he decided to wait for his pursuers and together with them he reached the finish line fighting for the last spot on the podium.

-One kilometer before the end Simen Østensen broke his ski pole. I got second wind and sprinted just before the final descent gaining ten meters of advantage. Only Tord Asle Gjerdalen managed to narrow the gap and I stayed behind him. At the finish line, I went to the parallel track, almost overtook him, but stumbled and missed the moment, finishing fourth. It really hurted to miss the podium but now I understand that I can give a fight to the best skiers in long distance skiing. Several years of preparation have not been wasted, and this is incredibly motivating.

After this great performance, the top skiers of Visma Ski Classics noticed Ermil.

-I've never heard of Vokuev before, - said Petter Eliassen - but I was impressed of his technique at high speed in Jizerska. I hope he will improve even more and fight for podiums and the green jersey.

Best Visma Ski Classics sprinter Andreas Nygaard is very impressed with Vokuev's performance:

-He seems like a very talented skier, strong and fast.

Some skiers expected Voukev to come to Vasaloppet but he had to return home for Continental Cup, where he won the 15K skate race. Russian Championship was scheduled at the end of March. Huge series of races and a desire to do well on the main domestic start played a trick.

-I was overdone with intense workouts, I should have slowed down with speed training. Plus there was a lot of races in February and March.

At the Russian Championship Ermil was "only" sixth in skiathlon and ninth in the sprint. However, the season did not end there and Russian Marathon Team gave him a second chance in Visma Ski Classics - participation in the final 67K Ylläs-Levi race.

-The beginning of the course was very narrow. On the third kilometer I crashed and lost a lot of positions. It took some time to catch up but then everything settled. On the second climb I was among the leaders and I even won the first sprint. The middle of the distance was hard and I felt cramps in my muscles again. I suffered until the last hill but had to let the leading group go. A little later I came back but it was too late to catch them up. I lost a minute and a half to the group and finished 18th.

Despite some good results last winter, he did not make the National team selection, but he's on the reserve list. Elena Vyalbe the head of Ski Federation was not satisfied with his results. So now he trains with the Komi Republic team and is striving to be selected for the Olympic Games through the local Russian races and the Continental Cup. He is strong both in sprint and distance races no matter skate or classic. And he still dreams of competing the Visma Ski Classic races with the Russian Marathon Team.

Vokuev's strengths and weaknesses in long distance skiing
Years of mid-distance racing made Ermil incredibly strong in uphills. He has potential to become a favourite for the new climb bib next winter on La Sgambeda, Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, Jizerska-50, Birkibeinerrennet, Ylläs-Levi? His sprinting potential speaks both about opportunity to fight for a Green jersey, and great future in long distance skiing (check Dahl's and Kjølstad's profiles).

The weak link for Ermil is monotonous flats that requires a lot of experience and long distance skiing in the past.

-In Russia it's not possible to train on roads or bicycle tracks on roller skis. In Syktyvkar there are about 7 kilometers of asphalted XC ski tracks on heavily crossed terrain. So a flat preparation falls out of my training. I don't train especially for double poling. If I need workouts for upper body then I do short intervals at high watts to simulate racing frequency. Sometimes I do a lot of exercises on TRX by myself not with a team. This year I decided to emphasis on stabilization exercises and work less with barbell.

It's clear that Ermil Vokuev is good in all ski disciplines and he wants to be successful everywhere.

-Today's traditional World Cup skiers train so much double poling and strength training. Just look at Røthe, Sundby, Cologna etc, - Andreas Nygaard says about Vokuev's training model, - But If you want to win Vasaloppet, then you need a lot of special specific training. So up to two hours hilly marathons can be won by those kind of skiers, but something longer and flatter is for long distance skiers who train for it all year long.

Time will tell whether we see the new male skiers from outside of Norway in the top of Visma Ski Classics, but some persistently knock on peloton's door and are ready to fight head-to-head with recognized masters.

Ermil Vokuev's profile: 
* Born: March 29th 1992 in Gam village, Komi Republic, Russia
* Live: In Syktyvkar, Russia
* Languages: Russian, Komi, German
* Occupation: Cross country skier.
* Family: In relations with Olga Repnitsyna, Russian Champion in Skiathlon 2017.
* Team: Russian Marathon Team
* Training volume: 800 hours last year, aims for 750 hours this year.
* Weight/height: 73 kg, 180 cm
* Results long distance skiing: 2017: Jizerská-50 -- 4th place, Yllas-Levi -- 18th. Russialoppet Nikolov Perevoz -- 2nd place.
* Results traditional skiing: Junior World Champion 2012, two times Russian National Champion, U23 World Championship 3rd place 2014.
* Strengths as a skier: double poling in uphill, sprint
* Goal Visma Ski Classics 2018: bring as much points to the team as possible
* Occupation in ten years: professional skier