PEZ History: Norwegian Professional Cycling
Last fall, in a town just outside of Melbourne, Australia, a man most had written off for the road race title amazed many and sprinted home to take the gold medal and rainbow jersey of World Champion. That man was Norwegian rider Thor Hushovd. The first Scandinavian to ever win the title and a well deserved win after what most described as a gruelling race. Thor’s achievement was also a fantastic tribute to The Norwegian Cycling Federation who was quite aptly celebrating 100 years since their inception in 1910. But did it all start there for Norwegian cycling? The answer is Yes pretty much so, but not quite.
Contributed by Christian Miller
Around Forty years ago, just around the time BP and later Statoil struck the massive oil reserves and Norwegian people finally started to leave their poverty behind, Norway bred a huge cycling star. His name was Knut Knudsen. Knut was from Nord-Trondelag way up in the Arctic Circle where they brave up to -30 temperatures throughout most long dark winters. Amazingly however he won most of his professional road races and major results on the dusty roads of Italy, becoming the first Norwegian to wear a leader’s jersey in a major tour (Italy).
Knut was a national phenomenon and whenever he raced in his national jersey he attracted the attention of most Scandinavian sports writers and race commentators. In various bike magazines from 1979-81 he was voted the best Time Trialist in the world during the period and having personally ridden on many a lonely Norwegian road, I can see where this one man inspiration and sheer physical determination comes from. When Knut retired from racing a whole generation of Norwegian cycling fans retired too. After all surely nobody from forgotten Norway could ever be as great as old Knut was? He had won 6 stages of the Tour of Italy and had an amazing professional career on the bike and in the limelight.
In 1980 something extraordinary happened in Norwegian cycling that gave it the boost needed to keep the sport alive and kicking in a country where snow covers the roads for five to sometimes six months a year – Jшstein Willmann came 14th overall in the Tour de France. An amazing achievement by any standard and a superhuman achievement for a Norwegian whose professional career was tragically short and ended just three years later in 1983. Jшstein is probably the most forgotten man in Norwegian cycling but certainly not one to be overlooked, his career palmares make very impressive reading indeed and some of the British readers here may remember him for his impressive appearance in the 1979 Milk Race.
There was another Norwegian rider around at that time who was very nearly the First World road race Champion. A Neo-pro rider named Dag Erik Pedersen who came 4th in 1981. 4th is no shame at all considering he came in right behind Freddy Maertens, Giuseppe Saronni and Bernard Hinault. He went on to win 3 stages of the Giro d’Italia and have a total of 43 palmares to his professional record. So Norway was producing great riders but agonizingly few and far between.
Dag-Otto Lauritzen’s brilliant stage win in 1987 brought cycling to the masses in Norway.
However, a few years later in 1987 and basically when most Norwegians had moved on, got over it and bought a motorbike, a quite unknown domestique rider from the 7-Eleven team did something quite extraordinary. He won a stage in the Tour de France, beating down the pride of every Frenchman in the race on their special day on July 14th, that day being Bastille Day. Dag Otto Lauritzen became a household name overnight as he hit the headlines and reignited the burning ambition of road racing in Norway. After all the Giro is a massive race for World cycle fans, but just about everyone on Earth with a TV set has at least glimpsed the Tour de France. Dag Otto is from a small town called Grimstad with a long list of national sport stars with Thor Hushovd funnily enough being one of them.
Dag-Otto: popular commentator.
In 2010 Dag-Otto is probably the most recognizable ex-pro rider and commentator from Norway and today he is the Eurosport commentator for all the major tours and classics and has his own TV show on NRK called ”Pе hjul med Dag Otto” (On wheels with Dag Otto”). This show has been a major hit and rekindled the idea of road cycling to many a Nordic sportsman needing a summer training routine after the snow melts and the wait for the following winter season begins. Dag Otto is inspirational when he speaks, full of enthusiasm for the sport and a fine ambassador for road racing in Scandinavia. He is much loved here and all the signs indicate he will be around on our screens for some time to come. With Dag-Otto coming from the same small southern town as Thor Hushovd it could be said that Dag-Otto was Thor’s junior mentor. The man Thor wanted to aspire to and be better than so as to speak.
Thor Hushovd is no stranger to the top step of the World Championships podium. He managed it for the first time in 1998 when he won the U23 TT. He also won the U23 Paris-Roubaix that same year.
Thor Hushovd turned Professional at twenty years old in 1998 at the beginning of what is now probably described as the golden era of Norwegian Cycling. For many years the country had been in the Professional shadows of both Denmark and Sweden due to the sheer amount of Professionals the other two nations had produced and for this reason the majority of the Norwegian public knew very little about the sport and how it actually works and is calculated. Even today in Oslo very few residents I speak to know any national riders at all except for Thor and maybe Edvald Boasson Hagen (if you’re lucky that is and only in the last 2010). Thor had been a brilliant amateur in the final seasons before turning Pro. His list of wins was a sign that here at last maybe, just maybe Norway had produced something extra special. Something it had never produced before. An extremely consistent and very, very fast cycling champion.
I could write a complete book here and now about Thor Hushovd’s fantastic career since 1998 and I have no doubt the readers here know as much about his epic rides in the last twelve years as I do (and besides the guy’s retiring soon and we should leave that book to him as part of his pension fund!) All I will say to summarize is that he is indeed the greatest cyclist Norway has and probably ever will produce. I cannot stress enough how much Thor’s determination to win has affected Norway these last 5-10 years. When I arrived here in 2005, everybody I saw rode an MTB (Evidently due to the illustrious career of Gunn-Rita Dahle in the female MTB category). It was when Thor won the Tour de France green jersey for the first time in 2005 that I witnessed what I can only describe as Road Race fever.
I have no idea what the official sales figures for bicycles was that Summer but I can say that people who had never even ridden a racing bicycle went out and bought a brand new one. The roads filled with people on training runs and the weekends I saw my first road club pedaling past like proud peacocks after years of riding in the shadows of the local MTB riders. Road racing arrived to the masses in Norway and all thanks to the smiling and ever charming Thor Hushovd.
But Thor was not the only professional to emerge during that era. A couple more have been racing on the continent now over a similar period and winning from the odd breakaway, bunch sprint and even the odd overall classification jersey along the way. A rider I have always had great respect for is Kurt Asle Arvesen.
Arvesen winning the prestigious E3 Prijs Vlaanderen.
Kurt is what I would call ‘a super domestique’ a man who on his day can beat anyone, an all round racer who can shine in all disciplines and slog his heart out to put his team leader on the podium. Kurt is lesser known in Norway but has a great respect from riders here and indeed on the international scene where he has been successfully employed for the last 13 years. He is without a doubt the most experienced Norwegian rider in the current peloton after Thor Hushovd and now a member of Team SKY, which shows how much he is respected still. Kurt Asle has won stages in all three major tours, been the Norwegian national road race champion five times and like Thor Hushovd was the World under 23 Champion. If only the guy could hold Thor’s wheel in a sprint and I would say he would be the best rider of all time to hail from these shores.
This really brings us to 2011. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Lars Petter Nordhaug blasted onto the world scene a few years ago and are now prominent Team SKY riders and proving that there is no fluke going on here at the moment regarding producing world class talent.
Edvald Boasson Hagen is regarded as not only one of Norway’s brightest talents, but also one of the world’s best young hopefuls.
Alexander Kristoff for BMC is another rising star to watch out for this season and the seasons to come. The scene at the moment really reminds me of Britain in the 1980’s and the small yet extremely fierce contingent of professionals we had racing back then. Things as they say can only get better.
Lars Petter Nordhaug.
This has been a short and not overly concise history of the Norwegian cycling scene. I am also sorry if I missed some major professional racer. I will say this about all racers I have encountered here though and that is in my short time living here and having already witnessed two high profile Oslo GP races featuring tour superstars such as Lance Armstrong and Andy Schleck, I am finding that Norwegian athletes in general are very dedicated people and sacrifice everything they have to win or be closer to winning.
You can extend that attitude to all aspects of life here really, no detail is too small to overlook for a Norwegian. After all they have all been in a life or death situation at some point. You suddenly get cold, you freeze, you die. So there can be no margin for messing about. I can guarantee they will become a stronger force in the coming years and carry on producing great riders for many years to come and more often.
Christian was born in Lancashire and started riding at the age of 11 after seeing Robert Millar win the King of The Mountains in the 1984 Tour de France. After moving to Spain with his family in 1986 he joined Bici Club Benidorm and raced in the infant/cadet and juvenile categories in local and regional events for four seasons. He won the Benidorm Criterium race in his second year in the U-15 category in 1987 and went on to win numerous medals and trophies over the next few years. (His best regional placing was 20th in the Alicante Championships and 32nd in the Valencian Championships in 1988, which is not too bad out of a field of over 200 avid Spanish racers.) He was most probably the first U-14 British rider to ever hold a full Spanish racing licence (?) At that time Christian was trained by Miguel Vinardell an ex-professional rider from Catalonia who once came 6th in the Volta D’Catalunya during the mid 1950’s, before injury had forced him to retire. On returning to his native Lancashire to complete his studies Christian worked at Harry Hall Cycles in Manchester for 3 Years alongside Nigel Bishop and Harry Hall himself meeting many of the greats of British Cycling and learning a wealth of invaluable knowledge. He trained at that time with Horwich CC in Lancashire. It was around this point that whilst back in Spain on a training ride in Calpe (Alicante) he hit a lamppost on a decent at 60kmph on the N-332 and severely broke his left ankle and completely shattered his foot. He was out of the sport for a few seasons before deciding to quit racing altogether and concentrate on his future wife, skiing and his other passion which is mountaineering. Today he lives in Oslo, Norway with his wife and children putting back the pieces of his first real passion, Cycling. He is finally riding again (for pleasure) and again taking a serious interest in professional cycle racing and the whole of the sport in general.