Whilst saying my farewells to Callum as he headed off to the European racing season in early November, I asked him which event in his race diary he would recommend for me to attend, as a team supporter. Lillehammer World Cup was his suggestion - big names and tough competition, a colourful crowd of enthusiastic Norwegians and an attractive setting that is relatively easy to get to by plane and train. With the electric excitement of the 2011 Oslo World Champs still fresh in my mind I was rather taken by this idea. I started to make plans for a low budget flag-waving weekend trip to support Callum and the two Andrews in the 15km Men’s Classic race on Saturday 7th December.
Web browsing sessions revealed no affordable accommodation for single travellers in or around Lillehammer town, gripped as it was with World Cup fever. And so began a stream of decisions and circumstances that resulted in a complicated trip spanning 6 days, including flying in hurricane force winds, two unplanned nights in airport hotels, a chance meeting with an American friend of Callum’s and some “tight butt” driving on snow and ice in a tiny Fiat 500 with dodgy windscreen wipers.
Hazel, a retired friend with perpetually itchy feet decided that I should not set off into the back of Nordic beyond alone and offered to come along – she had not been to a ski race before and fancied the experience. I booked flights via Schiphol and four nights accommodation at Hunderfossen, a village 10 miles up the valley on the main E6 road and railway from Lillehammer. Unfortunately on further enquiry I found this 10 mile gap was not well served with public transport, being advised by the hotel that we would need taxis to get around. Renting a car made sense, so I booked a VW Polo (“or similar”) and updated my satnav for Norway. Obtaining World Cup tickets proved to be a further challenge. They could be pre-booked on line but had to be paid for and collected from ticket machines in Norway by December 3rd – two days before we were due to arrive. Fortunately Callum saved the day by purchasing them in Lillehammer. So now it was just up to the weather to keep clear – I am not a keen snow driver on the left side of the road, never mind the right. The forecast suggested all would be calm with perhaps a light sprinkling of snow in Lillehammer – no problem! I was proudly sporting a British Nordic Team jacket, obtained via my mothers gift to the Crowd Funder appeal (jacket not her style), and my Union Jack flag was packed. It was all going to be fine……relax.
A day at the races
Judy Patterson, Callum Smith’s mum, reflects on her recent trip to support the GB cross country skiers at the Lillehammer World Cup.
It's not just the athletes that put in the hard work at the races, there is a whole support team of volunteers, supporters and of course family that are behind the Team.
Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse on the morning of our outward flight. Amsterdam airport closed in anticipation of gale force winds and the first leg of our Oslo-bound flight got re-directed to Stavanger. A glimpse of a fellow passenger’s Norwegian newspaper headlines showed a satellite image of a huge white vortex spinning across the North Sea. The turbulence on the Stavanger descent alarmed passengers and pilot alike and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the landing gear was retracted and we withdrew to higher altitude. After circling for half an hour we headed for Kristiansand, a regional airport in Southern Norway. While disgruntled Stavanger bound passengers started a 5 hour bus trip to their destination we were more fortunate, making it to snowy Oslo on the last plane of the day. Hertz allocated us a Fiat 500 (is this what “or similar” means?) and we willingly accepted Callum’s advice against driving into wild Lillehammer blizzards that night. Instead we gratefully headed for his pre-arranged airport hotel reservation.
Settled into our cosy hotel room we watched the TV news with amazement - underneath our circling plane all hell had let loose, with not just gale, but hurricane force winds, overturned lorries and snapped telegraph poles. And the possible sprinkling of snow in Lillehammer had turned out to be closer to 20cm…..this trip was getting a bit more edgy!
Hunderfossen proved to be a delightful little resort of log cabins, trolls and open fires nestling at the bottom of a steep snowy drive. On requesting Lillehammer parking advice for Saturday we were advised not to take the car into Lillehammer that day, but to take the bus, instead. Bus?? This option had been omitted when I emailed both the hotel and bus company for guidance on public transport. Friday afternoon was spent locating the bus stop (requiring a short hike across a windswept hydro-electric dam) and exploring Lillehammer - a delightful town full of Christmas cheer , designer shops and healthy young people dashing around in sports gear. We met briefly with Callum to collect our tickets. All set for a day at the races!
Saturday dawned (around 9am) bright and clear as forecast, with a perfect skiing temperature of -8 degrees. World Cup shuttle buses were running every 10 minutes, ferrying the sea of supporters up to the slopes above the town. We sat opposite a young American woman who heard our accents, looked at my jacket and gently enquired if we knew Callum Smith. How is that for a coincidence! Anna turned out to be a friend of Callum’s from Hovden ski gymnasium, now living in Oslo for a semester of her USA based University course. She had come on the first train from Oslo for a World Cup day out - now there’s a good idea - why didn’t I think of that?
I am no expert on Nordic race courses but the 5km race loop seemed very hilly - like a giant Celtic knot of steep inclines and strategic declines- great for spectators, but relentless for skiers. Anna talked us through the key players, the history and rivalries involved in the dramatic Women’s 10k that was underway as we arrived. The winning three out of the 51 contenders were the big names of Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland at 24.59 minutes, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla at +12.4 and Norway’s Marit Bjoergen at +25.6.
We then scouted out a good hill with a photographic backdrop for the big race - the 15km Men’s Classic. The sun and snow made the red and white crowd glow – Norwegians are very keen on their national flags, hats, jackets and face paints. They lined the edges of the track, climbed trees, set up camp complete with barbecues and reindeer skin mats, and tore down spruce branches for foot insulation. As the skiers pass they wave flags, yelp and whoop encouragement on the hills for every skier (big names merit double volume) backed up with the joyful clonk of cowbells. With an increasing wind and the sun returning slowly to the horizon, our spruce-free feet started getting pretty chilly as we waited for the 1pm start.
Our placement was marked with a large Union Jack and with cameras at the ready we watched and shouted as our lads - Callum and the two Andrews passed within arms length of us, all totally oblivious of our presence! They were indeed mixing in with “plenty of stars, all looking for victory” as reported by Eurosport’s Patrick Winterton. The only star I recognized was Petter Northug who started strongly in the first two laps but slowed down to 9th place by the final lap – this lapse in his winning form being attributed to illness preventing a full training programme earlier in the year. Anna kept us informed of other big names as they powered by.
The bib numbers of the 86 starters did not seem to reflect ranking so I found it hard to tell from the racing how the 3 British athletes were doing. With Callum Smith in bib 39, Andrew Young in 47 and Andrew Musgrave in 83 they were well spaced throughout the field and kept us well engaged spotting them as they swooped around the tight knot of tracks. I have since learned that the seeded skiers with the highest world rankings went out later, as usual, but they were interspersed with unseeded athletes from bib 38 onwards. As a result, Andrew Young was followed by Petter Northug in bib 48. Keeps it interesting! The field was heavily weighted towards the big ski nations, reflected by the convoy of huge team lorries in the warm up area. The final results pleased the crowd, with two Norwegians in the top three - first Paol Golberg (Norway) 35mins, second Alexey Poltoranin (Kaz) +14.2 and third Didrik Toenseth (Norway) +15.5. Our three British skiers came in at 58th (Musgrave), 74th (Young) and 79th (Smith). Probably not their dream positions but pretty impressive stuff in such a star studded field.
Callum noted that while starting as the lowest ranked skier in this race he had the satisfaction of having gained several places within the race as well as notching up some great race experience. Roy Young, the team coach, and the 3 skiers agreed that it was a very hard course.
After this event finished we wandered down the marked trail to the Ski Jump arena, passing a lively solo drummer warmed by his rhythm and a small bonfire, a full brass band (instruments being played in ski gloves), refreshment stations serving gingerbread and oranges and moose-costumed men posing for photos with drunken teenagers. With ice under the snow and steep inclines the descent became quite a treacherous endeavor and we were glad to get to the shuttle bus to Lillehammer without broken bones.
The highlight of the evening was dinner at the Radisson with British Nordic Team and many other ski teams (we sat just across the way from Marit Bjoergen – yes - her!!). Listening to the amazingly complex and interwoven onward travel plans of Roy and the team I appreciated afresh the amazing organization, commitment and personal resilience that goes into keeping this team of athletes touring Europe on a tight budget. My little worries about snow driving and timetables faded into insignificance. After supper we made our way back to the bus station in a crisp -17 degrees to await the newly forecasted overnight and early Sunday snowfall – it did not disappoint.
The final stage of our trip involved a wintry wonderland return to the ski tracks on Sunday afternoon to watch more Nordic Combined races, then a visit to the ski jump for the final of the 130m men’s “hopp”. Incredible skill needed. Sadly, even top athletes can make errors of judgment it seems, and you can’t hide your mistakes in this sport! We witnessed one full face fall, but with goggles absorbing the friction it seemed no damage was done, thankfully.
Monday’s early morning drive to Oslo on snowy roads was slow but not dangerous, the only falling snow being in Oslo itself. The airport runways were cleared continuously by a 10 strong convoy of snow ploughs and it seemed like business as usual. Sadly, due to a delayed arrival at Oslo, our outward flight was late and we missed our connection in Schiphol. Another night in an airport hotel - but this time at KLM’s expense. We finally got home to balmy Aberdeen on Tuesday morning.
A 6 day trip for 50 minutes of racing? Would I do it that way again? Probably not, but I would recommend a day out at the races (by train from Oslo, say) to anyone who enjoys watching these exciting sporting battles of strength, skill and strategy. Following Callum’s sport has certainly expanded my world, and for that I am hugely grateful to him and all involved in the British Nordic Team and BNDS. Good luck to you all in the rest of this season’s races and beyond!
And lastly, a thank you must go to Hazel for being a brave car passenger and a fun travel companion through thick, thin and endless Norwegian sandwiches!
Callum Smith (large pic above) and Andrew Young welcomes the British Nordic cheers in amongst the large Norwegian crowd