The Long Distance Ski Championship


By Teemu Virtanen

The long season of Visma Ski Classics is over and the gala night of the seventh season has just ended. Ylläs-Levi, the final event of the prestigious long distance ski series, took place earlier in the day, and what a race it was. Beautiful scenery, sunny weather and Lappish hospitality greeted all skiers including the pro athletes of the aforementioned classics tour. Everyone seems to be in a happy mood after the race, and I am talking to skiers who all agree that the race in Finland shall be ranked on the top of their lists.

As I am standing in the middle of the after-party venue, Areena in Levi, and enjoying my time with the Visma Ski Classics gang, I can feel the sensation of relief as everything has gone well, some may even say against all odds. As the race director, I can say that it was quite an undertaking for everyone involved, but we pulled it off. So, we all certainly deserve some pats on our shoulders. At the moment, I am not necessarily getting any patting but chatting with a lively person who has a funny nickname: Sausage (Pölsa). Öystein Pettersen is his real name and he also admits that Ylläs-Levi was a success and that he would certainly come back next year.

However, the race that day is not our primary discussion topic as the always talkative Norwegian has some great ideas to share. We talk about Visma Ski Classics, the status of cross-country skiing in general and how to make our beloved sport even bigger. He also tells me that Team LeasePlan will exist no more and Petter Eliassen may not be racing anymore. At that time, those were shocking news but today we all are aware of those facts. One of the most successful teams pulling out or the undisputed king of the sport retiring were not the only news he discloses that night. He really has an ace in his sleeve; his Team BN Bank will have a new recruit come the winter 2018 and that superstar has nothing to do with skiing. “Pölsa” really throws a curveball and tells me that the Norwegian ex-football player John Arne Riise will ski for this team, and he really means that Mr. Riise will SKI!

That is the way to go, and I silently admire Öystein’s courage to take a step that no one has dared to do in Visma Ski Classics. Of course, using celebrities in TV shows, commercials and endorsements is nothing new, and you do not have to be a rocket scientist to realize the value and potential of such moves. But we have not seen a true professional from another sport stepping into the competitive arena of long distance skiing, competitive being the key word here. Many celebrities have participated in various endurance events and thus exposing those events and themselves therein to wider audiences.

We all remember when Pippa Middleton graced Vasaloppet with her presence in 2012. Her participation created media frenzy like no other. It remains to be seen if Mr. Riise can do the same for the entire Visma Ski Classics series, but media exposure he will get for sure. And not just him, but his team, Visma Ski Classics and the entire sport – and for that we have to salute Öystein Pettersen, the man with whom I spent some time at the after-party in Levi and whom I can now reach when he is spending some valuable time fishing with his family. The family that he loves the most, even more than skiing.

I am happy to share our most recent conversation with you all, and you will certainly find out that the man that they call “the sausage” or “the joker” is much more than his nicknames. Here is Mr. Öystein Pettersen, the whole hotdog with all the works! 

1. Your team BN Bank did really well last year - what is your take on the successful season?

“The first year racing as Team BN Bank was special. First, it was the first year we were personally responsible for everything . That was a great challenge and we learned a lot. Secondly, both Simen Östensen and I tried to recover and come back to racing after a tough year with poor health. We managed to get in the best possible shape, considering the state we were in when we started in May 2016. Thirdly, the overall results for the team were good. Not great, but good. In the beginning, Morten Eide Pedersen was, by far, our strongest guy and his good performances saved us as a team. In the second half of the winter, Simen showed what he is capable of and as for me, I was happy with most of my performances. We all did our best, had fun and left all out there in the field, but we can improve.” 

2. How is your team looking like this season? What are your goals and primary agenda for the winter 2018?

“Well, so far we have had no injuries, no sicknesses and no drama. We have all been able to train as planned and things are going well. Both Kanalrennet and Kragerø - Gautefall showed us that we are among the strongest skiers out there, and it gives us great confidence in the upcoming races and training periods. Our goal for the season is to develop as skiers, as team members and as friends. We want to fight for the overall jersey and we want to be the team everyone wants to beat. Luckily, there are many strong competitors, and all we focus on is laying everything we got out on the field everyday. Our agenda stands; we are not here to take part, we are here to take over.”

3. How is your own training going so far and what are your personal goals for the next season?

“My own training is going well. July is difficult as I have to juggle between spending quality time with my family, training hard and finding time to rest. Today, I did intervals at 06.30 in the morning. Busy days, but it is still a long way to the winter. My goal is to give everything I’ve got in every race. I know how good I am, and I leave it to the others to judge my performances. I will always give 100%!”

4. You have a different approach to the sport as you want to make it more mainstream - you hired a famous football (soccer) player John Arne Riise - what do you want to achieve with that move?

“John Arne Riise is a new member in the team, and I am very proud to have such an athlete in Team BN Bank. There are several reasons for him joining the team. First and foremost, it is because I truly believe he can make me and my teammates better skiers. Not because he is a good skier himself, but because there is so much we can learn from an athlete who has played 8 years for Liverpool, won the Champions League, played the most games for the National Team, seen the ups and downs in his career, known how media can play a part in shaping people’s perception of public figures, and so on. He inspires me a lot, and I love that people are now paying attention to us. Not everybody likes the fact that we picked up Riise, and we respect that, but we want to show people that their doubts are without reason. Secondly, it draws a lot of attention. Both for our team, for Visma Ski Classics and for cross-country skiing in general. This is a good move for everyone who loves this sport as much as we do. Thirdly, we have a project going on, and I will tell you about it later.”

5. How is he training for the season and what is his main goal? How well does he fit into your team where everyone else is a pro skier?

“He is doing his very best to get fit for the next season. I would lie if I said that he is in good shape now, but he is in good spirit. I am as excited as you are to see how he will perform! A guy who has spent all his life being on a team has no problem fitting into our small group. The question should be what he thinks about us, the three individual skiers, as his teammates.”

6. Tell me about your team's training philosophy - what are the key elements in performing well in long distance skiing?

“We don’t have a specific training philosophy, but we do believe in hard work. Success does not depend on economy, gear, traveling to nice places or fancy deals. Success depends on being in the right culture and hard work. We believe in hard work. Do today what nobody will, so you can do tomorrow what nobody can. I am not the most talented skier out there, but I am truly one of the hardest working bastards you will ever come across. That goes for my teammates as well. So, if we succeed, it is not by luck.”

7. Your team is also known for keeping up a good sense of humor - is that a way to remind us that we should never lose that side of life? That being said, is skiing sometimes getting too serious?

“We believe that good results should come with a smile on our faces. The better the mood is, the easier it is to do the hard work. Don’t misjudge us as clowns only because we are smiling and are social. And as you say, this is our only life, live it in the best possible way and get as much out of it as you can. Skiing is only dead serious when you do the actual skiing, not before or after!”

8. You are also an innovator and you have a lot of great ideas on how to improve our beloved sport - what do you think we should do to expand the scope and reach of our sport (besides getting celebrities involved)?

“That’s a good and difficult question. I truly love cross-country skiing and I hope that it will expand. We have a lot of challenges to overcome, none of them are impossible to solve. For the Visma Ski Classics part, I think we should concentrate on making every race on the tour a classic one. We need to build legends and stories that people can attach to. We need to introduce long distance skiing to a crowd that is not traditionally interested in skiing, but in other aspects of the sport. Look at Tour de France. One half of it is a bike race, the other is the show. There is an enormous economic potential in Visma Ski Classics. Just think about it; who is buying all the sports gear? The participants in Vasaloppet, Birken and so forth. Who needs accommodation, food, entertainment and services in those race locations? The same people. The list goes on and on. We just need to focus on making our own tour as big as possible by protecting and building up our assets”.

9. Long distance skiing is a unique sport because it combines the elite and amateur approaches, much like marathon running, and offers an experience and challenge tailor-made for each participant - from a professional point of view, what attracted you to the sport and what do you get out of it? What is the magic of long distance skiing?

“Yes, this is truly the magic of the sport, and this is why we need to provide our tour with classic events and true legends. We need to come up with a tour that people really want to participate in, something that people are always looking forward to seeing and taking part in. There are not many sports where a "normal guy on the street" can race on the same track or course, on the same day, in the same conditions as the professionals. But that’s exactly what we have in Visma Ski Classics!”

10. What is your take on the new FIS regulations and their attempt to hinder the development of double-poling? Do you think that double-poling will be the prominent way of classic skiing in the future (also in the World Cup)? 

“FIS can do whatever they want, and the rules are there for everyone to obey. Personally, I am an advocate for development. I love cross-country skiing, and I love diagonal striding as much as I love double-poling. I think that cross-country skiing has bigger obstacles than the pole length, such as poor snow conditions, the low number of athletes in important nations like Germany, France, Poland and Italy. But hey, I can double-pole with short poles if that’s what they want. No problem – bring it on!”

11. Speaking of those challenges, how is the future of cross-country skiing looking like in the midst of poor winters and pressure coming from other sports (young and talented people are selecting easier options than endurance sport)?

“I hope it is bright, but it has to overcome some of those challenges I mentioned earlier. Endurance sports are beautiful in many ways, but the one thing I love the most is that it is fair. The one that puts in his or her best effort relentlessly will be awarded. That’s the beauty of it to me.” 

If the hotdog as the main course in this week’s menu tasted delicious, I am happy to let you know that there is more to come in the form of some sweet dessert. Now, you will get to know the man behind “the ski mask” and how sweet and tender he is – and that is a compliment! Good job Öystein – you are indeed an inspiration to us all and you speak the truth. Anyone reading this interview can easily detect that there is really more to this man than his joke-cracking demeanor reveals. I am cheering for you and may the Gods of Nordic Skiing be on your and your team’s side!

What is your favorite workout and the least pleasurable one? What about your favorite Visma Ski Classics event and why?

I love to work on my weaknesses, so intervals going uphill are my favorite workouts. In terms of my favorite races, I love Vasaloppet, Birken, Marcialonga and Jizerka Padesatka because of the atmosphere and the status of those events, what they represent to me. Those are the four classics in Visma Ski Classics.

Who were your idols when growing up?

I had many idols, but I have to say my parents. They still are. I also have to mention my beautiful wife and my teammates. They inspire me everyday and keep me pushing on.

What hobbies do you have besides skiing (fishing)?

I have to say family. Doing sport is nothing compared to them, and I cherish my time with the most precious people in my life.

Name three most important things in your life?

Family, hard work and love.

If you had the almighty power to change the world, what would you do?

Tell everyone that they could be anything they want if they just put in the effort. Also, I would tell everyone to start treating each other with respect and dignity. That would make the world a better place for all of us!