The 2015 Blink Festival brought many of the world’s best cross-country skiers together for three days of rollerski racing in Sandnes, Norway. But the festival is much more than just a race for World Cup level athletes. There are open races for junior athletes ages 11 to 20, as well as opportunities for those with low enough International Ski Federation (FIS) points to race against the best seniors in the world.
Anyone can try to sign up for the high-caliber race series, but because it has grown to be so popular, the 150 athletes with the lowest FIS points get chosen for the senior races. This year, one of them was 23-year-old Jørgen Grav of the University of Vermont (UVM).
Grav was born and raised in Oslo and is training at home in Norway for the summer before his senior year at UVM. He lives just five minutes away from the Holmenkollen ski jump and works at a nearby boat-classification company that certifies and insures large ships. He has an agreement worked out with his employers where he gets a week off every three weeks or so in order to more effectively train for his senior year of college racing. His work schedule also gave Grav an opportunity to compete in this year’s Blink Festival.
He began the festival with a strong showing in the Lysebotn Opp. He finished 45th in the 7-kilometer uphill rollerski race, ahead of household names like Petter Northug and Finn Hågen Krogh. The UVM Catamount described the location of the race in Lysebotn, located at the end of a fjord, as one of the prettiest places in Norway.
“[The race] starts at sea level and it literally goes straight up for 640 meters and it has 27 switchback turns. It goes through 1.1k of tunnel, and the first k is completely flat. So it’s basically all that climbing in 6 k,” Grav said in a recent phone interview. “At least we do it on number 1 wheels, because it would be brutal on number 2 wheels.”
The fastest racers in the Lysebotn Opp, Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, Russia’s Alexander Legkov and France’s Maurice Magnificat, manage to V2 the entire climb, which has an average incline of 10 percent. Grav was able to V2 most of the race, but had to take a few breaks and switch to V1, he said. His effort was good enough to put him within five minutes of the leaders and shatter his personal record from three years earlier.
“I finished at least two minutes faster than what I did three years ago so I am super happy about that and anything less than five minutes behind those guys up a tough course like that you should be satisfied with,” Grav said.
Friday and Saturday brought two more days of rollerski racing and other events in downtown Sandnes. One such event was the shooting duel, a range-focused event for the biathletes where they run about 10 meters to the shooting mat, shoot five targets as quickly as possible, and then run 10 meters back to the finish. The event goes quickly, with the winning times for both the men and the women being under 20 seconds.
“Its really entertaining; it’s good TV I think,” Grav stated about the shootout format.
For those who attend Blink in person, like Grav, there are some added perks. The festival has a VIP tent with live music and bleachers set up all the way around the 900-meter course so spectators can enjoy the action. The organizers even temporarily pave part of a pedestrian-only street so the race goes right by the fans. They also add bridges and turns to keep it exciting for spectators.
Because of the tight course setup, Friday’s mass start could only accommodate 30 racers. World Cup skiers get a free pass to the final, but the rest of the participants have to qualify with a short, two-lap race to determine the remaining spots. There were only 12 available, and Grav finished 15th, missing the final by seconds.
“I wish [the World Cup skiers] all had to race the qualifier so we all had the same chance, but I think it’s good in a way because then in creates more exposure [for the sport] on TV,” Grav said.
He had strong races on Thursday and Friday, but met some trouble in Saturday’s sprint qualifier — and he wasn’t alone. Rain poured down all day, making an already technical course very slippery.
“I was way off. I couldn’t ski properly and I think a lot of people just didn’t want to race because it was not safe,” Grav said about the sprint. He finished 30th in the preliminary round, but much like the mass start, some spots in the heats were reserved for World Cup athletes who bypassed the qualifier. As a result, Grav’s 30th place was not enough to put him in the heats.
Though there are many things about Blink that Grav enjoyed, he said the kids in attendance were one of the highlights. They all get a chance to race, and then they stay to cheer on their idols and get autographs.
“They love standing around outside of the finishing area and are up in your face for getting you to sign their bib number or their autograph book and everything,” Grav said. “You feel like a real celebrity. It’s super cool.”
The energy from the spectators also impressed the incoming college senior, though at a rollerski festival in Norway, he didn’t expect much less.
“It feels like a festival with people that love skiing,” he explained.
Grav also attended last week’s Toppidrettsveka, where he finished 41st overall. He said feels he is in his best shape ever because he has been able to focus on his training and has a fast group of peers keeping him motivated and setting strong examples. Grav also feels he has made some promising technique changes this summer.
“I’ve been switching more over to increased double poling in my training which is the development of the sport right now, more upper body strength,” he said. “I think that is going to be a big thing this winter.”
Looking ahead to this winter, his main goal is to place in the top three at the 2016 NCAA Skiing Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Last season, Grav finished ninth in the 20 k classic mass start.
As for after college, Grav plans to continue skiing. He will try and reach one of the recruit teams for the Norwegian National Team and then ultimately hope to get selected to the team. Grav knows it’s a tall order, but as long as he continues to love skiing, he sees no reason to end his career.
“It’s the toughest country in the world to get on the national team so its definitely a commitment to get all the way there, but as long as I have the motivation in the spring every year to start up a new year then I am probably going to keep going!” Grav said.