The Long Distance Ski Championship


By Teemu Virtanen

Each Visma Ski Classics season brings along unexpected events, big surprises, a bit of drama and new heroes who are hungry for success. Last winter, there were 28 teams competing for the glory and their place in the sun in the long distance ski series. While Team Santander seems to be basking in the limelight after every season, there is a lot of affirmative action taking place behind the number one team. 

Lager 157 Ski Team from Sweden managed to take home the second spot in the overall team competition right before Team United Bakeries, which really did not have the greatest season last winter. Team LeasePlan, now defunct, finished fourth under the leadership of Thomas Aalsgaard, the true legend of Nordic skiing. Another new Norwegian team, BN Bank, injected some humor and positive attitude into the proceedings, but that was expected from the team that has a man nicknamed a sausage holding the reins, Öystein “Pölsa” Pettersen.

All these top five teams were quite expected to be in the top of the food chain, but the first true surprise came in the form of a young Swedish team that goes by the name of Team Serneke. Most of the skiers in the team were born in the era of trashy Euro-dance-pop and grunge rock led by Nirvana. Music preferences aside, these 90s kids entered the scene without fear, judgment or prejudice, and they were willing to push the envelope and play by their own rules. It paid off and they walked away with a few podium places and the sixth place in the overall team results (Sara Lingborg was 3rd in five races including Vasaloppet and Marcialonga, Oskar Kardin was 3rd in Årefjällsloppet).

Despite the great success, the team is still relatively inexperienced and somewhat uneven performances marked their first season in the big league, e.g. Bob Impola was 5th in Sgambeda and 13th in Vasaloppet and 12th in Vasaloppet China, 31st in La Diagonela but was in the north side of top 40 in the rest of the races. But this is something that the team leader Martin Holmstrand is ready to tackle and make sure that the Season VIII will be even stronger for his youthful team. So, let’s meet the man guiding his team to the podium and promising us that Team Serneke will be among the giants come the season number eight.

​​1. Can you tell me about the origin of the team - how did it come about?

“My background is in sport events and sponsorship; finding the link between sports and business. That led me to be in contact with Ola, the founder and CEO of our current main sponsor. We met for the first time in one of the Swedish long distance races, which I happened to oversee. In my mind, I’ve had a plan to put together a team for the longest time, and when meeting with Ola, the occasion presented itself and we moved ahead with the idea.

2. ​​When looking back on the last season, how would you summerize it? What were the biggest surprises and your team's ups & downs?

“The first year with the team was beyond my expectation. Many had probably expected me to bring in more famous skiers, but I was convinced that the guys in the team had great potential. It was therefore very nice that my faith in them bore fruit. Sara Lindborg also had her best long distance season so far, but it was quite expected because of her previous success and high level performances in traditional distances. Bob Impola’s breakthrough and Sara Lindborg's performance in Sgambeda were both very important for the whole team as it gave us success immediately. Oskar Kardin's podium place in Åre was really icing on the cake for the past season. Actually, the only really bad moment took place in Jizerska where we gambled on our waxing choices. We became overly confident because we had spent the whole week in the area.”

3​​What are your expectations for the Season VIII? And how do you prepare your team to meet those expectations?

​​“Our primary goal is to be able to perform at the absolute top level. We value individual top performances higher than, for example, the team competition. I feel that we have already raised the bar in our training camps, and everyone in the team is in better shape at this time of the year than they were in last summer.”

4. ​​What are the strengths & weaknesses of your team - what do you need to work on to make your team one of the best?

​​“Our strength is the fact that every athlete has a very high capacity but the challenge lies in being able to become more stable and being able to perform well throughout the entire season. Of course, the continuously high quality workouts that we keep doing in our summer and fall training programs is the way to success.”

5. ​​That being said, what kind of a training program do you have for your team (training camps, roller ski races, etc.)?

​​“This summer, we will focus on the Guide World Classic Tour on roller skis. It’s a great platform to get feedback and see how well we can do against our strongest competitors. When we have our training camps, we try to keep continuity in everything we do. We’re not big on one-off workouts as they don’t really develop the qualities needed for building up endurance and shape for the winter.”

6. What are your training principles? What are the key elements in training well for long distance skiing?

“If you are a good long distance skier, you know that you have the capacity and needed endurance for the sport. I’m not a firm believer in doing extensive double-poling as I think it can hamper your overall development. Diversity is the key in my opinion and focusing on areas that each athlete needs improve on. It goes without saying that to do well in Visma Ski Classics, you need to train double-poling, but there’s a limit to everything!”

7. What kind of a leader are you and what qualities are needed to run a team like yours?

​​“I don’t see myself as a leader in that sense, but more like a person who enables things. I take care of the team and run the business side of things. I think it's important to always keep a good sense of humor and refrain from overdoing things if possible. I’m willing to give anyone a chance, but if people abuse my trust or patience, I'll lose my cool. I’m also a bit impatient, which have had its pros and cons in the past, but I guess it comes with the territory in a hectic environment like Visma Ski Classics.”

8. What is the status of long distance skiing in Sweden? Is it difficult to find talent and recruit young skiers?

​​“I feel that the recruitment opportunities are relatively good since we have many young skiers who show some great potential. Our biggest challenge is to make them winners and not just good skiers in general. Here in Sweden, we have a lot to learn from Norway, and not just in skiing but in general sense. Norwegians have a stronger mental capacity and urge to win than we have here in Sweden, and that is something we need copy from them.”

9. What is your take on Visma Ski Classics and its future - the importance of the series? And what is the future of long distance skiing in general?

​​“I am looking forward to seeing the future. Our biggest challenge, however, is to attract the younger generation to skiing. Nordic skiing isn’t really considered to be sexy and cool among the youth in today’s world. There’s a massive group of young talent out there choosing interesting things for them to do. Quite often, cross-country skiing isn’t one of them. So, we have to be active and tap into that pool to make sure that one of the selections they may pick is cross-country skiing. Generally speaking, I believe Nordic skiing will survive if the basics are covered, one thing being securing sufficient snow factoring possibilities. The winters being what they are now, we need to be able to provide good training facilities to keep up the interest.”

10. What developments & changes would you like to see taking place in Visma Ski Classics?

​​“To raise the level of interest, I think we need to let people see what we are doing on daily basis and not to hide behind the curtain – not be so secretive. Compared to maybe soccer and ice hockey, we need to boost up the media coverage and offer behind-the-scenes peeks for fans; they want to know what’s happening in an athlete’s life and how teams prepare for their races or train in their camps. One way to boost the interest of Visma Ski Classics is to do more things around the actual races and teams.”

11. What are your favorite Visma Ski Classics races from the team director's point of view and why?

​​“Personally, Reistadlöpet in Bardufoss, Norway, and Ylläs-Levi in Finland were two events that I thought were awesome. Mostly because of the nature and the surroundings. My all-time favorite is perhaps Marcialonga, and it's mainly because I like Italy very much and I also work with Italians in conjunction with one of my other companies.”

12. Finally, what is your perspective on double-poling and how it has changed Nordic skiing?

​​“It is in our human nature to always develop and seek greater heights, especially in sports. Obviously, an individual will always do everything necessary to go as fast as possible. Nevertheless, I can understand some of the arguments in resistance to double-poling, but if people had been a bit more sensitive and humble about the issue from the beginning, the hoopla around it would have been much less than it had been in the recent years. It has become a new discipline in skiing, although it has always been a natural part of classic skiing technique, which has been used since the dawn of time, or at least when cross-country skiing was invented.”

Great words, insightful ideas and opinions from Martin Holmstrand who is gazing upon his lucky stars to bring great success for his team when the new season kicks off in Pontresina, Switzerland, in the end of November. Before we let him go and join his team for upcoming summer camps and roller ski races, there is still time for some “quickies”, and I mean some short questions, four to be more precise. Here they are – enjoy his candidness:

1. Can you put these three Fs in the order of importance for you -fortune, fame, family?

​​Martin: family, fame, fortune.

​​2. If you had the almighty power bestowed upon you by "God", what would you change in the world?

​​Martin: I would change the winters to be better ones just to give young people the opportunity to come in contact with winter sports ;)

​​3. Who is the greatest legend of long distance skiing?

​​Martin: Anders Aukland without a doubt.

​​4. What is your motto for life and for doing sports?

​​Martin: If everyone had been skiing, there would have been no wars on earth.

​​Thank you Martin, what a revelation that last sentiment is indeed. I have to agree with him and say that the world would be a better place if Nordic skiing, or any endurance sport for that matter, would be the love of everyone’s life. With this beautiful idea in mind, let’s pursue that idealistic goal and get ready for the next Visma Ski Classics season because it will be filled with love and excitement. And that is a promise I can keep!