The Long Distance Ski Championship

What about the youngsters?

Do juniors chose Visma Ski Classics or do they try to reach the national team? We have talked to the team directors Lukas Bauer and Jørgen Aukland to find out how it is in Czech Republic and Norway, respectively. 
Text: Erik Wickström. Photo: Magnus Östh

"At first you try to reach the national team, and if you haven't succeeded when you are around 25-30 years old you switch to long distance skiing."

That is a view of long distance skiing that prevailed for many years. Since the entrance of Visma Ski Classics, long distance skiing is a lot more prestigious. But what about the juniors? What do they think about a professional career in Visma Ski Classics versus the national team?

We have spoken to the team directors Lukas Bauer (Bauer Ski Team) and Jørgen Aukland (Team Ragde Eiendom) to try to find out.

No World Cup on TV
When we reach Bauer, he says everything looks perfect in his team. Not just "good". Initially Bauer was supposed to ski a few races, but he has realized that it is tough to combine the team director role with the role as an athlete.

-- My previous plan was to ski a couple of the big races, like Marcialonga and Vasaloppet. But then I realised that it's not the best for the athletes. In the most prestigious races I am even more needed. So this coming season I might not race at all. We will see.

Bauer has won Tour de Ski twice and have five medals from the Olympics and the World Championships. His last visit on the podium was in 2015, when he was second on the 50 K classic race in Falun. He switched to long distance skiing in the end of his professional career.

-- Visma Ski Classics has been very important for the long distance skiing. In Czech Republic, you can't see World Cup on the regular TV stations anymore, but all Visma Ski Classics events are broadcasted live, not only Jizerska. That is important for the interest in sport and for the visibility for the sponsors.

Need to see stars
Even though you see more long distance skiing than traditional skiing on TV, it is difficult to recruit young skiers for the long races.

-- There are some talents that have taken an early decision to focus on long distance skiing. Pavel Ondrášek is a good example. He switched to long distance skiing despite he was close to the national team.

Last two seasons Pavel has been top 30 in a few Visma Ski Classics events.

-- In Czech Republic, the whole system is based on traditional skiing. All clubs focus on that type of skiing and when the kids and the juniors race during the weekends they see elite skiers racing on traditional distances. They don't see long distance stars. Also, the money from the ski federation goes to traditional skiing.

Bauer also mentions that there has been some rivalry between the subdivisions of skiing. Maybe that is a reason why Stanislav Řezáč has skied so little for the Czech national team?

Success for Syrstad and Vestheim 
Jørgen Aukland has done some swimrun races this summer, as an addition to his kayak training.

-- I would rather call it swimwalk, since my hamstring doesn't let me run as I would like to, Aukland says with a smile.

I Norway, there is a similar pattern as Lukas describes from Czech Republic. Thanks to Visma Ski Classics, a few young skiers have switched to long distance skiing at an early age, but they are certainly not ubiquitous.

-- Torleif Syrstad and Magnus Vesterheim are two Norwegian skiers that started to focus on long distance skiing when they were relatively young, and they have both succeeded. Syrstad has been 8th in Marcialonga and Vesterheim was 6th in Vasaloppet last season.

Vesterheim has an interesting background. Two years ago, he wasn't even among the hundred first skiers in Birkebeinerrennet. But now he is among the stars.

Asks for applications
Many of the juniors in Norway are great double polers and Aukland would like to see more of them in Visma Ski Classics.

-- We get a lot of applications to Team Ragde Eiendom from skiers in the mid 20s, but very few juniors, which surprises me. I wish more skiers at an age of 18-19 years wanted to ski for a Visma Ski Classics team. We would be happy to pick them up for camps. Our team also needs to be better in contacting and attracting juniors. If you start early with long distance skiing, you increase your opportunities to make a living out of skiing.

Aukland mentions a few reasons of why most of the elite skiers in Visma Ski Classics are a little older. One of them is logistics and economics.

-- I think several juniors get scared about how much service is needed. Without a team, it is difficult to solve everything with traveling, ski testing, feed stations, knowing the courses and provide spare poles. But of course it also works with a minimum support team, like I had in the beginning of my long distance career.

Looks got in the Birke
Aukland do see the costs as a veritable problem.

-- Yes, it costs a lot to race a full Visma Ski Classics season with all traveling and fees for the races. Therefore, I think the organisation should implement subsidises for young skiers.

Lastly, Aukland states that things move forward in Norway.

-- It makes me happy to see the junior categories in Birkebeinerrennet nowadays. The quality is high. There are a lot more juniors that dare to participate in that race now compared to ten years ago. It probably lowers the threshold to make those athletes become professional long distance skiers.