The stakes are high for the Finnish cross-country skiers during the upcoming World Cup weekend. The results in Les Rousses will be extremely important when the blue and white World Cup squad for Planica is selected.
The international elite compete in the French Alps on day three and the distances are broadly similar to those used in the WC. On Friday you go the free mile, on Saturday classic sprint and the weekend ends with mass starts over 20 kilometers in classic style on Sunday.
Yle Sporten’s expert Matias Strandvall underlines the importance of the weekend.
– An athlete who arrives at a WC with good self-confidence performs better than an athlete who does not have good results to fall back on, he points out.
Finland has the right to send a squad of 12+12 skaters to Planica, but head coach Teemu Pasanen has hinted that the squad will be smaller than that. All the skiers who are appointed to the Finnish team must ride at least one WC race.
Ristomatti Hakola is a WC joker
A handful of the Finnish sprint specialists can already be pretty sure of their place in the WC team. Of the men, Joni Mäki and Niilo Moilanen have fine World Cup results to fall back on this winter and are thus WC ready.
– Lauri Vuorinen is close, but he still has to prove that he is worthy of a place in the WC team. He is challenged by the brothers Ville and Olli Ahonen and Ristomatti Hakola, says Strandvall.
Hakola has had a very difficult season but hit the ground running on Sunday when he won FM gold. He is a joker both in sprints and in distance races.
– Suddenly, Hakola wants to go sprinting because her back is not good enough to skate. Maybe he will be tagged to go classic sprint, says Strandvall and continues:
– Whoever shows the best form on the day gets to ride the sprint in the WC. If Hakola is the best of the Finns in Les Rousses, it is up to him if he wants to compete. But the question is whether he wants to.
Strandvall believes that Johanna Matintalo, Jasmi Joensuu and Katri Lylynperä should be up for the women’s sprint in Planica. Of these, Matintalo shoulders the greatest expectations after his third place in the classic sprint in Beitostølen in December.
– I would like to see her make it to the final on Saturday, says Strandvall.
Matintalo has been clear that the WC sprint is her big competition for the season.
– In Ruka, she won both distance races, even though she is also good in the longer races. She has gone hard for the sprint, which is almost unusual in Finnish women’s skiing, and she has delivered great results.
Iivo Niskanen’s form a question mark
Of the Finnish men’s rowers, Iivo Niskanen, Perttu Hyvärinen, Remi Lindholm and Arsi Ruuskanen should already be WC-ready.
Iivo Niskanen is of course one of Finland’s biggest medal hopes in Planica, but his situation is very different compared to the situation before the Olympics in Beijing. Last year he almost won all classic distance races and arrived in China with rock-solid self-confidence.
This year he has barely competed at all. He was affected by corona just before the World Cup season and he felt compelled to cancel the Tour de Ski at the turn of the year.
Niskanen’s best distance during the WC is the five-mile with classic style. Sunday’s mass start gives an indication of whether he is on the way to finding great form again.
– I would prefer to see Iivo win that competition. I want to at least see him in the fight for podiums and be a key driver in the race.
– Ideally, he should win to gain the right confidence. Before Oberstdorf 2021, he didn’t get that feeling and we saw from his body language during the five miles that he didn’t feel at his best.
Sunday’s mass start is also of the utmost importance for Markus Vuorela and the already mentioned Ristomatti Hakola.
Matias Strandvall highlights Hakola’s potential as a relay runner. If he is in perfect shape, he is close at hand to take care of the first leg of the WC relay.
– But I don’t know how Ristomatti feels. Does he feel he has enough races under his belt to be a starter or would he rather go for the five mile?
Strandvall also believes that young Niko Anttola can become World Cup relevant if he delivers at a high level during the JVM in Whistler, Canada.
– I know that Alexander Ståhlberg was up for the WC in Oberstdorf after he won three JVM medals. A successful junior WC for Anttola could mean that he breaks into the WC team.
Kerttu Niskanen makes a comeback
On the women’s side, Kerttu Niskanen and Krista Pärmäkoski are self-described WC skaters. They get to choose which races they compete in. The other Finnish ladies get to join.
But just like in Iivo Niskanen’s case, it would be the case for the Finnish women’s stars to do well during the WC general rep in Les Rousses.
– For Kerttu, the most interesting question is how she has recovered from the Tour. Krista gave a hint in Tampere that she has recovered from her stomach bug, but how does she fare against international opposition? If they are part of the tight pack that breaks loose in the women’s 20 kilometers and Krista also places well in the free mile on Friday, it looks promising, says Strandvall.
Jasmi Joensuu and Johanna Matintalo will probably also ride distance races in the WC. For Matintalo’s part, it is mainly about the three miles and the relay.
– Jasmin Kähärä and Eveliina Piippo challenge. Kähärä mainly in sprints, while Piippo can join the team in ten kilometers freestyle and in relay. Anne Kyllönen is also in the discussion, but she has to do well against the other Finns in Les Rousses.
Yle broadcasts the WC competitions in Planica 21 February–5 March.