The Long Distance Ski Championship

TEAM SANTANDER – STILL THE FORCE TO BEAT

Written by: Teemu Virtanen

As I’m sitting on the train to Rovaniemi, on my way to Levi, I can’t help myself from looking outside to see the last signs of this summer reminding me of a song that I used to listen to at the tender age of my early adulthood. The words still echo in my mind and I can hear the lead singer John Wetton belting out that “the summer can’t last too long.” Rest in peace Mr. Wetton and enjoy the greener pastures wherever you are. The Asia vocalist really knew what he was singing about.

Actually, the fall season is quite nice. It’s relatively comfortable to train in the brisk weather whenever it isn’t raining like cats and dogs, which it does quite often here in the land of the northern lights. The fall also means that there are not many months left before the ski season is in full gear, and that puts a nice spin on everyone’s exercise routine. There’s no time to fuss about as the first race is coming quicker than we can blink our eyes. Our training sessions get more intense, and we keep running up to the attic to check out our winter gear.  Soon we can take them out and start enjoying the perks of the magical winter season.

This time of the year is also important for Visma Ski Classics pro teams as the long days of summer are fading away giving room for the long nights of fall. Indeed, this is the time when the teams finish up their VSC registrations, conclude their team rosters and leave behind their summer camps. So, this is a perfect time to catch up with them, and who would be better than the number one gang in the club; Team Santander.

The team has enjoyed a great summer as the members had a kick-off session with their title sponsor in June followed by a training camp in Bö in Telemark, Norway. The skiers also participated in two roller ski races, Olaf Skogslunds Minnelöp and Blinkfestivalen, in July, and the roller ski action continued last weekend when the world’s largest summer ski event Alliansloppet took place in Sweden. And as expected Team Santader was conspicuously present at these events gaining several podium places. The team remains in Trollhättan where the team’s sport director Magnar Dalen can be reached. He is in his usual perky mood, and why not, Team Santander seems to be stronger than ever (is that even possible?).

“Our summertime training consists of a variety of activities,” Magnar declares confidently.  “Our athletes do a lot of roller-skiing, running and strength training. But not only that as many do cycling either on mountain bikes or on roads. Others do kayaking, orienteering and some of us have been down in Livigno, Italy, for an extra camp. We all know that we need to ski faster than last year in order to have the same success. The competition is getting harder as it should!”

When asked about the secret of his team’s success, Magnar is quick to reply by stating bluntly that it all boils down to training hard but not too hard. The key things are to avoid overtraining, to stay healthy and work on technique, capacity and tactics. He is also happy about the changes made in the race calendar for the upcoming season as it will leave some weekends off and have 11 races instead of 13.

Despite the great success that Team Santander has gained over the years, many have also criticized the team for having too much focus on Norwegian power and becoming almost like a national team on its own. Magnar is, however, willing to contradict the notion by saying that the team is not only carrying the flag of Norway as Oskar Kardin from Sweden is their new recruitment. Magnar admits that now after Kateriná Smutna and Justyna Kowalczyk have jumped ship and the new set of team competition rules have been presented, the fight for the number one spot is harsher than ever (the rules of Visma Ski Classics can be found here: http://www.vismaskiclassics.com/content/rules).

“United Bakeries, Lager 157, Pioneer Investments, BN Bank and many other teams will be our fiercest opponents come the new season,” Magnar says without hesitation. “But we have a good team and organization.  Jörgen and Anders Aukland are the owners of the team, and the latter is still racing while the former acts like a manager responsible for sponsorships and such. He’s working at the office, but he will come with me to the most important races next season, but the rest he will skip and stay with his family. That leaves me to take care of training camps and races. I’m really happy with the set-up we have here between the three of us. We all have a lot of experience and skills, and combined we will thrive.”

It’s hard to argue with Magnar, and the truth of the matter is that his team has contributed a great deal to long distance skiing. The Aukland brothers are true legends of the sport and their eternally burning passion moves mountains, which we need in order to see long distance skiing surviving in the midst of the ever-changing world. Speaking of that, how does Magnar see the future of Visma Ski Classics and mass start events?

“Long distance ski races will grow! There are many athletes from the FIS World Cup reaching out to see what this particular sport is about. So after the Olympics in 2018 and specially the World Championships in 2019, I think there will be many standard distance skiers testing out long distances.

The most important thing for us to do is to make sure that we will always have a great variety of races with different course profiles. This is not a stadium sport and it will never be such. We need to be out in the open surrounded by beautiful nature and scenery. And where else can you have pro and amateur athletes together doing the same race. It’s really wonderful to see those huge crowds of people moving ahead mile after mile. I also believe that we can present an exciting show for spectators and TV viewers because these races usually offer suspense and drama, and of course great endings.”

Before letting Magnar go and carry out his duties at the on-going camp, it’s time to ask him how he keeps himself so motivated after all these years.

“The motivation is there as long as I can keep motivating our athletes. To see those young athletes with their big dreams and hunger for success, working hard for their goals, keeps me motivated. Also, understanding and knowing the importance of taking care of my skiers. I know that cross-country skiing isn’t the biggest sport in the world, but we have to work hard to keep it alive. Not just for pro skiers, but for everyone regardless who they are; young, old, elite, amateurs, men, women. Everyone who crosses the finish line in a ski event is a winner, and that’s the spirit we need to nurture!”

Well said Magnar! We all are winners and we certainly deserved to be treated as such. Before wrapping this article up, we should spend a moment with the true winner whose name has been mentioned in the paragraphs of this written rendition of the achievements of the greatest team in long distance skiing. But for your reading pleasure, it may be convenient to change the format from a traditional article style to a one-on-one Q&A set-up. So without further ado, my dear Nordic skiing friends, let’s put Jörgen Aukland in the spotlight and let him tell us what he has in mind in the eve of the new season. 

1) The summer is over and the always important fall season is starting. How did the training go for your team over the summer and did your team come up with anything new training-wise to keep up the motivation?

The training is going well. We have competed in some roller ski races and also in running races. No big injuries and lots of motivation! Tord Asle is getting used to having two children, a big change for him. Luckily, he will get good tips from the older men in the team…Some are picking up swimming, like Anders. He has tried some Swim Run training.

2) There are about three months before the season starts. How is your team going to maximize the fall season in order to be in the best possible shape come winter?

The fall season is important. Train well, but not pushing too hard. We do not want to be in the best shape in September and October. We are going to train a lot in Livingo, as we have a new cooperation deal with Livigno Alpen Village Hotel. That will be our base during the fall and the winter. It’ll help us to  maximize the training impact.

3) You've had some changes in the team for this season. Can you share a word about them? And a word about your team in general as they are getting ready for the new season? And your brother - how on earth can he be that good at that age and keep going?

We wanted to give a Norwegian girl the chance to reach the top in Visma Ski Classics. Kari has the talent and ambition. I hope she will challenge Britta and Smutna for the victories in some races! We also lost Jens Eriksson, but there’s a new Swede in the team, the young and talented Oskar Kardin. We hope he will be the next Swedish winner of Vasaloppet! Anders is still going strong, training not so many hours but hard as hell. He knows what to do and how to be in shape at the right time. Now, he also has a personal blog where he shares information about training and stuff. Every day, no secrets!.

(Anders Aukland’s online blog can be found at https://auklandmetoden.no)

 4) Running a team is a challenging job, I assume. How is it going for you right now as this is your second year behind-the-scenes sharing duties with Magnar? And what really makes a great team?

We learned a lot last year. Magnar is always the hands-on-guy for the team. He takes care of all training camps and races. I will work more with our sponsors and media. I’ll join him in some of the big ones like Marcialonga and Vasaloppet. Not as a racer, but testing skis, serving skiers and so on. Together Magnar and I have tons of experience ranging from his leadership skills to my years as a racer. We both know what we want and what the athletes in the team need in order to win. And we got the PASSION for the sport! What really makes a great team; trust, dedication, respect, talent, communication and lots of fun and big smiles!

5) Long distance skiing as an organized professional sport is still relatively new, Visma Ski Classics is now heading for its 8th year, and each season brings something new. What are you expecting from 2018?

I expect a close battle for all jerseys. The new rules for getting points present an interesting challenge. We aim for the yellow, sprint, youth and team jerseys, so we have to be sharp from the start. Last year was amazing, but if better is possible, good is not enough….*

*(Author’s note: Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote)

6) In our previous articles, we've discussed about double-poling, you being one of the torchbearers of that particular technique, but last year was the first one with pole regulations. When you look at the evolution of double-poling based on your long experience and the recent developments, where is it heading towards and how should we approach it (pro skiers, FIS, amateurs, etc.)?

I think that double poling is still developing, and we will start seeing young guys taking some big steps. I don’t like regulations that are trying to stop a sport from its natural development. I think the big question is whether we will only have skating in the future or can classic survive.

7) Visma Ski Classics is also in a constant development; a new hill climbing competition has been introduced, rules & regulations have been refined and Finland is now part of the tour (the finale will be Ylläs-Levi again) and there's always something new cooking. From your perspective, what do you want to see taking shape in VSC and why?

As I have said before, I would like some skating races in VSC. Now we see that some teams are focusing on the FIS Marathon Cup, and the sport is too small to be divided. I would also expect to see some old or young biathlon superstars from Germany double poling and skating in VSC if we had some skating races in the mix. We need to pull in the same direction.

8) What about long distance skiing in general - what should we do in order to ensure that our sport stays popular and can expand to other markets?

I think VSC is heading the right way, and lots of good things are going on! But we could improve the TV show. Maybe send a 30 minute recap from the first two hours of a race, then broadcast the last hour live. More behind the scenes footage, and all teams must “play the game”, like go for different jerseys, have a girl on the team, take some action during a race! We can’t complain if we don’t put on a show.

9) There is a lot of talk about the Norwegian dominance in cross-country skiing, which is reflective in VSC as well, but what should we, teams and skiers from other countries, learn from you guys so that we could even up the competition?

Train like hell, train together, think about development and give it some time. Don’t focus on the details, go for the big picture.

10) Lastly, you still keep yourself fit and you did the Night-Vasa race last season. Do you have any plans to do something similar for this season as well?

I have learnt that what you spent years on building up goes away pretty fast… But I spend a lot of time on my surf-skis paddling in wind and waves. I also do some long swim run sessions/ open water swimming. I have no plans for competitions, just small adventures so that I can eat ice cream every day without getting too fat to double pole the Cascata Hill:)

Thank you Jörgen for these great words! We will certainly have some ice cream in Cavalese after Marcialonga. And we will work on the show business aspect to make this sport a fun spectacle for everyone involved. As a matter of fact, a little bit of Hollywood glamour won’t hurt us!