As the new title sponsor, we have spent several months working on sponsorship and visibility for Visma Ski Classics. Last weekend saw the start of the season in Livigno, with the Prologue on Saturday and the La Sgambeda race itself on Sunday. Sponsor Manager Helena Julusmoen and I travelled down to get a first-hand look at the action.
This is the story of a starting shot with an original twist, life in a triple-decker Visma trailer, my attempt to keep up with the elite and my meeting with an ambitious Finn.
GPS with a taste for ski jumping
We left Oslo in heavy rain on Friday morning and landed in Munich after lunch. The drive to Livigno was supposed to take four hours, but the GPS in our hire car must have been set to tourist mode, because it took us via both Garmisch Partenkirchen and Innsbruck. While it was wonderful to have the chance to see these places, it also meant the trip took a good hour longer than planned.
After settling into our hotel, we took a stroll down to the centre of Livigno, a very pretty village that was all decked out for Christmas with displays and Christmas lights.
We could see a bit of the ski track, but we weren’t sure where the start and finish were. That is until we caught sight of the huge Visma Ski Classics trailer positioned by the start and finish area.
We had seen several sketches of the trailer during the autumn while we were working on the design and visibility, but seeing it in reality and life sized was fantastic. Along with all the other Visma Ski Classics profiling, it ensured we completely Visma dominance. It was so exciting that we felt like children on Christmas Eve.
Trouble at the ‘starting blocks’
On Saturday morning we were in place early. Helena had the great honour of kicking off the mass start of the women’s Prologue and had to practise firing the starting shot. Only it wasn’t really a starting shot, because instead of a pistol, it was just two big red wooden blocks that she had to bang together hard. Helena took her job very seriously, though, and practised energetically.
Unfortunately the organisers hadn’t thought about the fact that it might be difficult to hear the wooden blocks above the music and continuous stream of announcements emanating from the loudspeakers. So, despite Helena’s super technique with the blocks, not all the ladies heard the starting shot. When it was time for the men to start the team prologue, the blocks were retired and the organisers made do with shouting GO, GO, GO instead.
Not much snow and short course
As there was a lack of snow, the course was shortened and changed so that there were more laps of a shorter track. I had a chat with Team Exspirit Sports Director Christer Skog about whether the lack of snow had created problems with their preparations. The team had been in Livigno since Sunday and had lots of good training runs on roller skis, so the lack of snow hadn’t been a problem for them.
Big TV production
The races are being shown on TV in 70 countries and attract around 20 million viewers. As a viewer, most of what you see is the actual race, so it was very interesting to hear about how the production Works.
Filming takes place from snowmobiles, on foot and from helicopters. The images are sent to a plane flying 10,000 metres above the slopes, which sends the signals back to the TV buses on the ground, which then send them out via satellite. The plane is needed because of the high mountains all around and as a precaution against bad weather.
No rest after the finish
Another thing you don’t always think about when you’re a viewer watching from home is what happens when the athletes reach the finish – they barely had time to get some dry clothes on before they were whisked away to the interview zone, where rows of journalists were waiting for them.
The athletes were ushered between journalists from the various TV stations and answered the same questions again and again.
The only thing that varied was the language they spoke, but they smiled and spoke to everyone who was waiting.
Thanks to our VIP passes, we were able to go almost anywhere we wanted. After the flower ceremony, I went over to Øystein Pettersen from Team United Bakeries and introduced myself as representative of the title sponsor.
Since he had been in hospital when we launched the sponsorship in October, he thought it was nice to finally have the chance to meet the sponsor. I even managed to get a selfie 😉
Triple-decker Visma trailer
The Visma trailer came into its own during the race. It has been enlarged to three decks, with a veranda and roof terrace, and is decorated with Visma Ski Classics logos.
The trailer’s big TV monitors make it the perfect meeting place for team leaders who wanted to follow the times and TV broadcasts during the races.
It was fun to get an idea of how involved they are and hear their comments along the way. Even though they are rivals, it’s clear they have respect for one another and there was always a friendly vibe among everyone.
How do you prepare for a race at 1,800 metres?
The La Sgambeda race itself took place on Sunday. I really enjoy cross-country skiing and have participated in several races before, including the Marcialonga. So, since I was in Italy anyway, of course I had to take part in the race, which was open to amateurs.
Livigno is 1,800 metres above sea level, and this altitude affects the body in slightly different ways. One thing is for sure: you get very thirsty and your heart races even more when going uphill.
On Saturday evening, the talk turned to the challenges of artificial snow, as well as klister versus smooth skis without wax. Given that there were some tough uphills, for me the choice was easy: klister.
Life on the course
In connection with the sponsorship, we had designed our own Visma Ski Classics ski clothing. It arrived just before we left for Italy, so there was no doubt as to what I would be wearing.
When I stood on the starting line in brilliant sunshine, with the Visma logo on my start number, and looked around at the hundreds of athletes with the Visma logo on their chests – surrounded by Visma Ski Classics banners and barriers – I felt really proud.
The race itself went well, and the Italian spectators cheered and shouted as I passed. I don’t speak Italian, but I think they were rooting for me.
It’s always a challenge when your start number means you’re way at the back. You ski the first part in a line, and it gets packed even more tightly as you go up and down the hills. I know the competitive instinct kicks in in these situations, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
The course was shortened to four 6-kilometre laps. Those of us who were just skiing for fun started several pools after the best amateurs, so when some were on lap 1, others were already on lap 4.
The very best overtook me in one lap. It was fun trying to keep pace with those whizzing past, but maybe it was a bit optimistic to think that I could manage to keep up with well-trained younger men.
To make sure I didn’t get the laps mixed up, I took care to drink and eat a bit differently at the drink station on each lap. It would have been annoying to have done one lap too few or too many.
A Finn with lofty ambitions
After the race, when the stadium was empty, there was a lone Finn still carrying on round the track. It turned out that it was Teemu Virtanen, a man with a background in Hollywood who works as a sports commentator, among other things. Teemu is training to set a new world record for doing a 500-metre lap in 24 hours.
He has found a Russian and a Swede to take up the challenge and join in the crazy scheme, but he’s still on the hunt for a Norwegian. The world record attempt will be made on 1 April 2016, the date of the Årefjällsloppet.
Socialising after the race
A hectic and exciting weekend was rounded off with a lovely dinner featuring traditional local food. Among the people there were the head of tourism for Livigno and the organisers of La Sgambeda, who told us how important this event is for the village and how much effort they had put into ensuring that the race went ahead despite the lack of snow. The Visma Ski Classics staff were there too of course, as well as several of the athletes and team leaders, who dropped in for a friendly chat.
The weekend in Livigno was full of impressions and experiences that will stay with me for a long time. If you enjoy skiing, I would recommend entering one of the Visma Ski Classics races. These races are a great experience in themselves, while the setting and the social life surrounding the races also contribute to turning it into a lifelong memory.