For the past two years, Norway’s Petter Northug has been the best in the world. One look at the medals tables from the 2009 World Championships and 2010 Olympic Games serves as proof: Over the 12 competitions at those two events, Northug took gold in five of them, and reached the podium on two other occasions.
FasterSkier had the opportunity to talk with Northug over breakfast in Las Vegas in July, immediately following the rollerski race that he won over Marcus Hellner. He had already conducted three consecutive interviews and two photo shoots prior to speaking with us, but he still answered our questions with patience, in English. For the record, he eats his eggs on toast.
FasterSkier: To start out, have you been recognized by anyone here in the U.S.?
Petter Northug: I heard one guy from ESPN recognized me, because he was following the Olympics in Torino, but that is the only person from the U.S. that has recognized me here in Las Vegas.
FS: Is that surprising to you at all?
PN: It’s good for me, because in Vegas, no one knows what cross-country skiing is. I can just go where I want, and I just enjoy having a vacation here. Yeah, it feels good.
FS: How is your training going this year?
PN: It’s been very good. In June, I have not been sick—just trained a lot, had good feelings. The body is working, and I can handle a lot of training now.
FS: Are you doing anything significantly different from last year?
PN: Going to Vegas. That’s the only thing. I’m doing almost all the same things as last year—it has worked for me for many years now, and I have to stick to that plan. I’ll just try to do the same things, and focus on keeping the good techniques, and working on the techniques.
FS: Are you training more hours?
MH: Maybe a little bit. But if I feel tired, I’ll take it easy for a few days. I trained a little bit more in June than I did last year. I’ll also try to train a little bit more at the end of the summer, in August and September. Most important is to listen to your body—if you’re tired, take it easy.
FS: Do you know how many hours you’re trying for?
PN: I don’t know, but maybe 850 to 875, or something like that.
FS: Is that pretty similar to last year?
PN: Yeah, I think I trained 860 or something last year.
FS: Was there any part of last winter that didn’t go the way you wanted, or that you’re hoping to improve upon?
PN: It was a great season, but for sure, the start of the Olympics was not as good as I hoped for. The skis were not that good in the 15 k, and in the pursuit I broke a pole with two k left.
FS: But as far as your fitness?
PN: My fitness was good all the way, and I had my best shape in the Olympics. I was in really good shape—it wasn’t going my way at the start, but in the
50 k, things were going my way and I was on a roll there. It was a great season—I didn’t have any bad, really bad races.
FS: So for this year, you’re focusing on Oslo?
PN: For sure, everybody at home is talking about the World Championships in Oslo—there will be big pressure on the team and on me, but I use it as motivation, and I look forward to competing there. The World Cup last year was crazy—a lot of people, nice tracks. I think it will be like a big party for skiing. There will be so many people there. We just have to use it as motivation.
FS: After winning the World Cup overall and four Olympic medals, what do you see as your big challenges for the next few years?
PN: The most important [thing] is to keep your motivation high, and also to remember that you need to do the work to be there. It’s tough to fight on the World Cup circuit—I want to do good sprints and good distance races, and I think the combination is getting more difficult because you get more sprinters. It’s good for me that we have the Tour de Ski races where you have to combine the two. Hopefully I will fight for the top in sprint and distance next year, but the most important thing is the motivation.
FS: You don’t feel like you want to relax a little bit more after the Olympics?
PN: I am very happy that World Championships this year are in Oslo, because after the Olympics and a good season, your body can go to sleep a little bit—you feel happy about how you did. If it had been, like, a season without a championships, it would have been difficult to motivate myself, but in Oslo with the home crowds, you have to do the work. I’m glad for it.
FS: Is having the Norwegian team at a level where you can get a relay gold a big priority for you?
PN: Yeah, it’s important for the Norwegian team to take the relay back. We lost to Sweden last year. At the home course, in Oslo, there will be so much people there, and everyone wants and expects that we’re going to take the gold. We have to be prepared—it will be a tough relay, and for sure we are one of the favorites. We want to win that one.
FS: What do you need to do as a team to get there?
PN: We are a strong team, and I think that if we stick with the plan and everyone is in good shape, I think it will be really difficult for anyone to beat us. We have some strong classic racers, and also in skating now, so I think it will be tough to get rid of us on the first two legs, and also the third one—and then on the last one we will take it home.
FS: Who do you see as your biggest rival for these next few years? Is there anyone you see coming up, aside from Marcus, who might be surprising?
PN: I think like Dario [Cologna] and Marcus [Hellner] in the distance, and also in sprints, will be the toughest competition in the next few years. We will have many fights for the World Cup and in many races—that’s also good for the sport. But you never know—maybe a new guy will come and beat us.
FS: Is there anyone that you see that could be that person?
PN: You always see new names on the list, but right now I don’t see one name. We’ll see when the season is on—you always get an image, after the first World Cups, who is going to be on top and who is going to be good.
FS: Tell me a little bit about what you think of your brother as a skier.
PN: We train a lot together—he’s getting stronger, his capacity. He has to work on the speed, because he’s fast. When you’re getting older, it’s so important to take good care of the speed. You’re always fast when you’re 19, 20, 21 years old, but you have do a lot of sprint training, and do strength training, to keep that speed up. You need it in the World Cup now, with a lot of mass starts and sprints. If he is motivated now, I think he will be on the World Cup in two years—but I also think he will get to try some races in this year.
FS: Does he have the potential to do as well as you?
PN: Yeah, if he has the motivation and wants to do all the training, I think he will be a really good racer.
FS: Is there anything you think he might do even better than you?
PN: Maybe skate sprinting he can do better. He is so fast in the skating. He beats me in some sprint training. When we train together, I have to give 110 percent to try to beat him sometimes, because he is really fast.
FS: With the new mini-tour at the start of the season, and now the Tour de Ski Championships being discussed, how do you feel about these changes in the sport?
PN: The tours, I think, are good—the people love it. If you see on TV how many [people] watch, the tours are very popular. That is why they are trying to make a mini-tour in Kuusamo this year, and I think if you get a World Championship in the Tour de Ski in 2015, that’s good.
FS: And good for you?
PN: Yeah, because then athletes have to combine distance and sprint races. I think it’s good to have a competition where you have to do well in both.
FS: Do you recognize some of the concerns about the individual start 50 k? Do you wish it would stick around?
FS: It’s okay for me that the one race, the 50 k in the World Championships, is mass start. But I hope that the individual 50 k in Holmenkollen will stay in the program. Because that’s, like, the traditional Holmenkollen. That’s a really tough course, so you get the differences there between the best racers.
FS: Would you like to see it come back in the World Champs as an event?
PN: For me, I think mass starts are better, because I have prepared for that type of competition with the high speeds during the race and also at the finish. I hope that the championships race will stay in the mass start.
FS: The image of you playing poker going back to the Norwegian people—I know there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding that. Is that anything you care
PN: Not really. I love to play it; I love the game, and for me, it’s important to have other interests than just cross-country skiing. It’s good for the mentality. I have a vocation, and then I also love to be here and do other things.
FS: Do you have any feelings about whether it should be made legal in Norway?
PN: No, not really.
FS: Do you understand some of the concerns that were raised about the way that Norsktipping funds sports, and that if more people started playing online, it could distract from that?
PN: You can play online in Norway—it’s live poker that’s not legal. It’s not illegal for me to go out and play. I don’t want to be like a front guy who wants to make it legal in Norway; I do it because I think it’s fun.
FS: But if people see you playing, and get more excited about playing online, do you worry that that might take away funds from Norsktipping, and the funds going to athletes?
PN: It’s too far—I can’t go and think about something like that.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.