MADISON, Wis. – Most of the men in the SuperTour classic sprints on Saturday probably didn’t have a clue who Jari Joutsen was.
He certainly had an international reputation with several World Cup top-30 results. Yet to the 22 others in the 1 k sprint around Madison’s Capitol Square, Joutsen was just another competitor – one Finish skier among a half dozen Scandinavians.
A few days after first setting foot in the U.S., Joutsen made himself known in Wisconsin’s state capital at the eighth annual Madison Winter Festival, at least among the racers. He started out by setting the fastest qualifying time around the city loop in 1:55.1. Skyler Davis of the U.S. Ski Team was 1.1 seconds behind in second.
Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) qualified in third, finishing the square-shaped and strictly double-pole course in 1:57.4. He was 2.3 seconds behind the leader.
Anyone who thought they knew how to overtake Joutsen either didn’t or couldn’t, as the 33-year-old advanced through the heats with little trouble, even with a pole-strap malfunction in the semifinal.
Fearing his makeshift pole repair might not hold up, he held back at the beginning of the A-final. About halfway through, Joutsen decided to go for it and jutted ahead to win by several meters.
Behind him, Lars Amund Toftegaard (Team Sjusjoen) and Blackhorse von Jess battled for second. Blackhorse-von Jess edged the Norwegian at the line, and Karl Nygren of Central Cross Country (CXC) finished fourth.
In his SuperTour debut, Joutsen was recognized as a winner. Few knew the 6-foot-3 Finn was the CEO of a company called Optiwax and designed an Excel pole grip handle used by two-time U.S. Olympian Torin Koos. Most were probably unaware that Koos convinced Joutsen and some other Scandinavians to visit the states for the first time and race in the SuperTour before the American Birkebeiner.
From a racing standpoint, his result was all that mattered. Joutsen had a plan and it worked, even with a taped pole strap. Fortunately, his engineering skills played a role.
“I was afraid my pole was broken, so I had to start slowly,” Joutsen said after initially trailing Toftegaard and Blackhorse-von Jess, respectively, in the A-final. “After the middle part, I started to push then I raced [to] first place.”
He made it sound easy.
“I think it’s a benefit if you are tall and big like in these classic sprints,” Joutsen said. “Only the problem with the strap, but otherwise I felt very good.”
Blackhorse-von Jess, who won his quarterfinal and semi, said he was particularly excited to race against Joutsen and Toftegaard in the final.
“It’s really good having these guys here because they race a lot different than we do,” Blackhorse-von Jess said. “Watching them race in the semifinals, there was a lot of track changing going on so I was ready for that, and in the final, I just followed that.”
In the final, he positioned himself in second and later dropped to third before the only downhill before the final stretch. The plan to let the Finn and the Norwegian lead could have worked out if not for a costly blip, he said.
Blackhorse-von Jess made his move on the gradual descent, attempting to get up front before the last corner. When one of them heard him, he had to step to the outside of the corner where he hit some soft snow.
“My legs were flooded with lactate and I just didn’t get forward on the ski and push and that cost me a chance at the win,” Blackhorse-von Jess said.
His indecisiveness at times against unfamiliar opponents also hurt him, he said.
“I had this vision in my head, and I was like, ‘I know how this is gonna go, I should go now. No, I’m too tired, I’m gonna wait. No, I’m gonna go now! No, I’m too tired, I’m gonna wait. Now I’m gonna go!’ ” he recalled. “When I finally went everything was perfect and then I didn’t make it happen so that’s a bummer. That’s a real bummer.”
After beating Joutsen in the semifinal, Toftegaard was disappointed his strategy of getting out in front early didn’t result in a win, but he understood sprints involved some guesswork.
“I just have to make my plan and try to follow that,” Toftegaard said. “The other guys probably have their own plans.”
He was second in the quarterfinal after first leading the Pat O’Brien (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) and tucking behind him to advance in second place.
“It worked the first two times and the last time I didn’t manage to keep one guy passing me before the last hill,” Toftegaard said. “I tried to keep up with him and I got a little tired so I lost [another] position to number two.”
Toftegaard qualified for the heats in fourth.
Davis had his hopes of an A-final dashed when he poled through one of his skis shortly after the start of his semifinal. He fell and ended up fourth in the heat. He initially scrambled to catch Blackhorse-von Jess and Nygren and came close in the final stretch.
“I worked so hard in that semi to just get back,” Davis said. “Then I was basically done for the B-final. I was out of energy.”
After winning his quarterfinal in front of runner-up Tim Reynolds (CGRP), the two met again in the semifinal when their skis came in contact during lane changes before the finish.
“It’s really not that common to poke your own ski,” Davis said, looking at bullet-like hole in the ‘F’ of his Fischer skis. “I don’t really know what happened. … It’s just really unfortunate, but that’s just how it goes.”
O’Brien won the B-final to end up fifth overall. Norway’s Halvor Korb Thoner (Team Sjusjoen) was sixth, Reynolds placed seventh and Davis was eighth.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.