The world's biggest cycling talent is a skier
By Bert Saarloos*
He isn't the giant bloke you expect. Normally first year juniors who are as successful as Jukka Vastaranta are built like bears. The Finn is a little fellow, "Only 1.69 metres", he says. But still, practically unbeatable.
The 17 year old from Tampere, the second city of Finland, 200 km north of the capital Helsinki, has had a remarkable season. Three wins in six World Cup races: the Coupe du Président/Coupe Ville de Grudziadz in Poland (29 April - 3 May), the Grand Prix Général Patton in Luxembourg (7-8 July) and the Tour de l'Abitibi in Canada (16-22 July). With a fifth place in the Junior Peace Race and a ninth in the Ober-Österreich Rundfahrt it brought him to the top of the world junior ranking, with the first rival nowhere in sight. Last weekend he won the European junior mountain bike title in Sankt Wendel, Germany.
In the Ober-Österreich Rundfahrt, Jukka met Frans Maassen, former Dutch champ and winner of the Amstel Gold Race, Wincanton Classic and numerous other races and nowadays sport director of the Rabobank junior team. "I asked a Rabobank soigneur if I could get a lift to Holland and if he'd knew a place to stay for a while, since I was planning on racing some time in Holland and Belgium," Jukka says.
Maassen didn't hesitate. "I watched him since he won in Poland. And there in Austria he rode very well, winning a stage. I immediately knew that this was an extraordinary talent. So I took him with me. You can't let a rider like Jukka walk away."
With good reason. In Luxembourg and Canada, Jukka got a lot of offers from foreign teams. But Maassen acted quicker. Jukka had already signed a contract with Rabobank. That was after he had impressed Maassen with his ride during the RAP (Rabobank Ardennen Proef), three days of talent scouting in the Ardennes to which all promising young riders from Holland are invited. The hill time trial is particularly important. Jukka won both. In the first Tom Stamsnijder, son of former world cyclocross champion Hennie, set a new RAP record. Jukka pulverised it, being almost a minute faster. "And the conditions were not particularly good", said Maassen.
However Jukka's contract with Rabobank is not for 2002. "The Rabobank junior team is also a kind of national team and riders from abroad are not permitted, only Dutch boys. So the contract is for 2003, when Jukka turns amateur." His sport director will then be Nico Verhoeven, former Tour de France stage winner.
Next year Jukka will ride for a local club, possibly TWC Maaslandster. For this team Jukka rode (and won) the Heuvelland Tweedaagse as a guest rider. Sport director Robert van der Donk, a former top amateur: "I know Frans Maassen is charmed of my way of working with juniors. I don't emphasize getting results, but I let young riders grow and learn, making mistakes. What's the point of juniors already being pushed to the limit? In a couple of years, that's when they have to get results, not now."
On Jukka: "It would be great to have him, although I don't expect him to ride many races in a club shirt. I think he will travelling a lot with Rabobank as a guest rider."
Maassen: "Anyway, I will be monitoring Jukka very closely. I'll certainly keep being personally involved in training Jukka." The very same person stayed at Maassen's house last week, because Maassen went for a few days to Italy with the professional team (for the Tre Valli Varesine, Coppa Agostoni and Coppa Bernocchi).
Jukka (accent on the a) Vastaranta (the V pronounced more like a W) was born on the 29th of March, 1984 in Tampere. "I started cycling when I was ten or eleven years old. My father Pauli was a cyclist, that's why," Jukka says. "First on a BMX. Then my father asked me to participate in MTB race. I did and I won. First race, first victory."
He doesn't ride the mountain bike so often any more. "I concentrate on road racing. Before I became European MTB champion I only did two mountain bike races this season."
At the same time Jukka started cycling, he began cross country skiing. In this sport Jukka is nearly as talented as in cycling. He currently is Finnish junior champion cross-country skiing, "or maastopyörälly, as we called it in Finland", he says, laughing when I try to say to same word (You try it!).
The young Finn is better known as a skier than as a cyclist in his home country. "Cycling is not important at all in Finland. Ice hockey, skiing and athletics are the sports people have interest in." Jukka also knew little about cycling. "To be honest, I had never heard of Frans Maassen. I didn't now how good he was as a pro cyclist," he confesses. "Now I know."
Jukka prefers cycling to skiing. "Cycling is not so tiresome", he laughs. "In cross country skiing you have to work all the time very hard, and with all of your body. When you are on a bike however, you can just sit and go with the flow of the peloton most of the time. That is not so tiring. That's the sport for me! I don't like suffering all the time." (Yeah sure, when you are so good as you are. But ask us thousands of not so gifted cyclists! Pain is the word.)
Jukka is also a bright lad. "I go to the gymnasium [Ed note: school] in Tampere. I still two years ahead, but going to school is a bit difficult when so far away from home. This winter I'm staying in Finland. I can catch up a bit then."
Cycling won't be possible in freezing cold and snowy Finland during the winter. Jukka will, of course, be skiing. "And doing a lot of swimming. Outside! There's nothing like coming out of a steamy sauna and jumping into an ice cold lake. I love it."
How about being home sick? "I'm not. I'm so much away from home that I'm used to it. And I love travelling, I'm always interested in seeing new places." Moreover, an upcoming sense of home sickness can be eased by his one and a half year older brother Mikko, who is an amateur cyclist with a Belgian team.
Aren't you afraid of already being close to your limits, Jukka? The number of riders who were practically unbeatable as a junior or young amateur but never managed to be (a top) professional are uncountable. "I'm not afraid of that. The riders you refer were all big guys. Their body had already matured on young age. They already were adults. After that they couldn't do so much better. However, I am quite small but still growing. My body is far from its mature shape."
That is except for his legs. Firmly built and so beautifully lined...No one's wife or girlfriend can beat this. "It's more fat than anything else," Jukka smiles. Well, I would love to have that fat if I could race that fast...
This weekend Jukka will was the top favourite in the Heuvelland Tweedaagse. "Yes I know. Since winning so much I noticed that everywhere I race everybody is watching me. I'm prepared to have a lot of riders riding on my wheel. But that's no problem. If I'm strong enough, that is."
Winning more races is not Frans Maassen's idea regarding Jukka. "The important thing now is that he keeps his feet on the ground. He is so successful now and the knowledge of everybody wanting you, that can turn a young riders mind upside down."
That's lesson one on the long path to become a professional cyclist. Lesson number two: "Staying off my couch. Jukka always on my favourite spot watching TV. All the time I have to chase away. If he keeps doing that he's got a problem," Maassen laughs loudly.
*Bert Saarloos is a correspondent with Dagblad de Limburger.