The Long Distance Ski Championship

NEW WINDS ARE BLOWING FOR YLLÄS-LEVI

By Teemu Virtanen

The summer is in its last stretch and the fall season is waiting in the wings. For long distance skiers, the warm summer breeze on their faces is a welcome change from the more typical winter scenario of frostbites on their cheeks and shivering bodies fighting below zero temperatures. Well, the summer breeze this year may have resembled the winter chill as the warm days of summer have eluded us in Northern Europe. The Central Europe, on the other hand, has been basking in some really hot weather. So hot indeed that the extremely warm weather has been nicknamed by a certain horn-headed devil who goes by the name of Lucifer.

There is nothing we can do about the weather but take it as it is. And for many pro athletes, the mild and modest temperatures are the most perfect climate for extensive endurance training. As the autumn leaves start falling, many Visma Ski Classics skiers set their sights on the upcoming season that starts in the end of November. There is not much time to waste and everything needs to be in order before the 25 or so pro teams arrive in Pontresina, Switzerland.

The season number eight is again a long one even if there are two races less in 2018. Now, there are some weekends off from racing, which is certainly much appreciated by the teams and their skiers. But the actual length of the season has been extended as the final event of the prestigious long distance pro skiing cup takes place on Saturday, April 14. Like last season, the finale is in Finland and Ylläs-Levi is again the scene for the final battle of these winter gladiators.

Ylläs-Levi, and Finland for that matter, is still a new addition to Visma Ski Classics, and the organizers of the event admit that the first race was quite an undertaking. Ylläs and Levi are both well-known winter resorts catered to tourists who love skiing in its all forms and want to have some fun by doing various winter activities. These places are also known for good restaurants, great nightlife and cozy atmosphere for anyone visiting the area. Levi is also the host of Audi FIS Alpine World Cup bringing in a lot of international tourists and media every November. No wonder that these two resorts were selected when Visma Ski Classics wanted to expand to the land of sauna, Sibelius and sisu (guts). 

Finnish Lapland is really a perfect location for the final race because of its wonderful landscape and nature and these two great resorts. But to put together a world-class long distance ski event for the first time without any previous experience is not a cakewalk for anyone involved. As the race director for the last season’s event, I can attest to that, but luckily Lady Luck was on our side and despite some hick-ups here and there everything went smoothly. To make things even greater, Mother Nature wasn’t on her typical capricious mood giving us the most perfect day of the whole season. I believe everyone went home smiling and swearing to come back 2018.

That feeling was surely something that Levi and Ylläs strived for, and to achieve that was beyond anyone’s expectations. But there is no time to rest on laurels now since the sophomore year is always the trickiest. The bar has been raised and the organizers are now facing a challenge to make a great event even greater. In order to do that, some changes are inevitable. The biggest improvement comes in the form of an energetic guy who knows how to organize events. Otto Lintunen has been hired as the head of events for Levi, and he will also oversee all actions for Ylläs-Levi.

“I worked on many events in Ruka where I held a similar position,” Otto says enthusiastically. “But cross-country skiing, and long distance in particular, is something new to me. But that presents a great challenge and I’m really excited about Ylläs-Levi. In addition to our Alpine World Cup, this event can become a cornerstone for us and for the whole region. Event organizing follows certain guidelines in general, but of course each event brings in its own characteristics. And I’m quickly learning the ones that Visma Ski Classics finale abides by.”

Otto is keen on getting his hands dirty and jumping into action. He has already re-shaped the organization by having right people at right places and giving them responsibility over their respective fields.

“We have to come up with an organization that is similar to the one we have for the Alpine World Cup. It needs to be a well-oiled engine that runs smoothly over bumps whenever needed. Each person needs to know what his or her duties are and how to perform them in the best possible manner. I know for a fact that many small problems that we encountered this year will be solved since we know what needs to be done and how. But to grow and make this a truly international gathering of cross-country lovers, we need to work hard and systematically.”

Another aspect that Otto has pointed out in his plan to glory is more focused promotion and communication efforts to reach the audience and media. For that, he wants to have a premeditated content plan, which should make the event and the region around it much more exposed to a wider audience. For that particular task, the undersigned will take the ball and run with it by promoting Ylläs-Levi to my heart’s content.

“I think that marketing an event like Ylläs-Levi is a challenging task because you need to reach out to domestic and international markets,” Otto acknowledges. “I’m a firm believer in systematic plans where we do something on regular basis and we actually want to wake up the sleeping lion. We need to create some buzz and hype around the event and make people want to come over here in the middle of April. It would be great if this event became the finale for the whole cross-country skiing community around the world. So that we could get all the best pro athletes along with thousands of recreational skiers and we all would have fun here!”

Those are really hefty goals and I totally agree with Otto. Ylläs-Levi should become a celebration of our beloved sport and a carnival for all that winter bears within. Juha Vanhanen, who was the assistant race director last season, is on the same page with Otto’s sentiment. Juha will continue his role next year as well and his contribution is pivotal to the organization as his expertise is second-to-none (Juha worked for the Lahti World Championships last winter, too).

“We managed to pull out a great race, but there’s no room for mistakes anymore,” Juha says firmly. “We had to improvise a lot for the first race and we had no clue on how to do certain things. We learned by doing them on the fly. Now, we have documented everything and we have a blueprint to follow. But it won’t be an all-out document laying out all possible scenarios. We just have to be prepared for unexpected circumstances and sudden changes. We are on the right track and this event will eventually become the greatest ski race in Finland and hopefully one of the greatest in the world as well.”

The course of Ylläs-Levi received a lot of positive feedback from Visma Ski Classics elite skiers. Some of them even claimed that the race was one of their favorites. The 67 km route from Ylläs to Levi has unparalleled sceneries and views from fell tops making the race one of the most beautiful in the long distance series. There are three long climbs ensuring that pro skiers do not find the course too easy. The start in Ylläs is in the middle of a downhill resort and the track goes through Lappish wilderness all the way to the center of Levi where cheering people can welcome exhausted but happy skiers.

“I think that our course is really good for pro and amateur skiers alike,” Mikko Koutaniemi, the chief of course, admits. “It may be a bit on the tough side for some recreational skiers, but overall it’s a very pleasant one.  To have a race in these wonderful surroundings, you can’t really avoid having some tough climbs, but that’s what makes this race a unique experience. And it’s a perfect opportunity to compare yourself with the top skiers of the world, to ski the same distance on the same day.”

Now, it’s a good time to take a break and hold your breath for a second as Mikko has something interesting to tell those skies who did find the course a bit too hard last season.

“We’ve been toying with an idea of having an easier course as well for those amateur skiers who feel that climbing up the fells may be too big of a challenge. We’ll see if that materializes, but that would be an easier course from Ylläs to Levi skipping the tough climbs. Nevertheless we are working on the existing course to make it even better and safer for next year. We now know how and when to groom the tracks beforehand and we want to serve Visma Ski Classics skiers much better next year.”

So, there are really some new winds blowing in Ylläs and Levi and more exciting news will be coming your way very soon. Stay tuned so you won’t miss a thing! For now, I urge all of you to get ready for the new season and mark April 14 in your calendars. Otto, Juha and Mikko all guarantee that Ylläs-Levi will be an experience you won’t forget if you choose to come over. That is a promise that I can wholeheartedly make as well.