Topped with one gold medal, two silver and one bronze in the Junior World MTB Orienteering Championships, the 2016 season closes a cycle in Sauli Pietikäinen's career. The time as Junior comes to an end and it's time for a break. But the idea is to return later... and stronger than ever!
Would you like to introduce yourself?
Sauli Pietikäinen (S. P.) - My name is Sauli Pietikäinen, I'm 20 years old and I'm from Kouvola, Southeast Finland. I study economics and business at the University of Jyväskylä. My hobbies are basically all kinds of sports and I’ve also done some mapmaking.
Why Orienteering and why not, for example, Ice Hockey?
S. P. - I’ve always been into endurance sports. I've always been strong at ballgames, such as Football and indoor Hockey, seeing them as a good way of training and having fun. Still, endurance sport has been the number one. I’ve chosen Orienteering and MTB Orienteering in particular because, in it, one can combine all kinds of features together. You can train so versatilely and that’s what I like. It is fascinating to see yourself improve in this kind of sport – both physically and mentally.
Was MTB Orienteering an upgrade from FootO?
S. P. - That is the case for many MTBO riders, but not for me. I have competed in FootO, as well as in skiO and ridden a bike a lot. I just like to do Orienteering with bike. I rode my first MTBO races in the National Championships in Finland when I was 15. After the World Championships in Estonia, in 2013, I decided to take MTBO as a major sport. I was 17 but, even making solid races there, my best position was the 13th place in the Long Distance. In Estonia, the strongest men Junior was Cedric Beill. He won every single gold medal out of four possible. In the prize giving ceremony of Relay, I looked up to the podium and decided that, at the age of 20, in 2016, I would also win four gold medals out of four. Close, but no cigar. One could say he was my idol.
What makes MTB Orienteering so special?
S. P. - I think MTBO is a beautiful and challenging sport. I like the challenge of the route choices, demanding terrains, up and downhills, the speed and fast riding.
How is your training routine?
S. P. - I use road cycling to improve my speed and strength. Road races last up to 4-5 hours so an hour-and-half MTBO Long Distance doesn’t feel that tough once one gets used to road races. Naturally I also have to train with my mountain bike to convert the speed from the roads to the paths. I do some technical mountain bike trainings, and trainings with map, of course. Basically, my training is pretty simple, just a good mix of riding, weight lifting, easy trainings, hard trainings, rest days, skiing, ball games, power trainings, long trainings, races, etc… Actually, not so simple to make the right combination. I aim to do the right things, things right and at a right time! In my mind, I do train quite a lot. I’ve tried to train as professionally as possible. Last winter I worked hard to improve my skills so that I could ride faster in the summer. I’ve found it easier to orienteer in MTBO races when you can ride fast. When you know you’re a strong rider you can take more time to do Orienteering and thus make less mistakes – this is how self-confidence is built, at least in my case.
Looking back on the season, how do you feel?
S. P. - Well, I’m satisfied. Although my goal was to win an individual gold I am now happy with the results. Not just and only the World Championships, but also all the Nationals, WRE races and other races I rode. I’m satisfied with the way I prepared myself heading to the World Championships. I also attended the World Cup in France, in May, but I feel I wasn’t at the top of my shape back then. Also the vineyards were a real challenge for my orienteering skills. I think that by training you can improve your skills and strength, yes, but the final step is taken just by competing. I’m satisfied I got to take part in so many races this summer, from Finland to Sweden, France, Spain, Portugal, Estonia, and so on.
How hard was it to lose the Sprint gold by two seconds and the Middle gold by three seconds in the Junior World MTBO Championships?
S. P. - Well, needless to say it felt bad. As an athlete, winning is the goal to aim for. After both races I felt disappointed with not being able to ride the courses some seconds faster… In sprint it was a twenty-five-second mistake and in the middle one a fifteen-second. I tried to figure out the route choices that cost me the gold. Despite the small marginals in Sprint and in Middle, the saddest race was the Long Distance one. I knew that race would fit me better than shorter ones and the course was good for me. I led the race but had a crash that broke my bike and it took me about five minutes to get everything together. It hurt to ride the race until the end and the bronze medal didn’t warm my heart at all. After the race it just felt so bad knowing that that race was the last chance for me to win an individual gold as a junior. Even having “won” three medals out of three races, I felt I had undercut my goals, as I actually had. I was asked then, and many times after, if I'd give these three individual medals to get the gold one. Back then, after the individual races, I would have done it. Now, I do appreciate those silver and bronze medals more and they tell me that I was in very good condition and ready to win. The gold in relay topped the World Championships and my team mates must be thanked for the astonishing job they did, letting me start the last leg in second place.
If I asked you to choose a moment - the great achievement of the Championships -, what would it be?
S. P. - This is an easy one – without a doubt it was the last 200 meters, from the last control to the finish line in the Relay. It had been a stressful race, battling for the win with the Czech guy. Before the spectators control I had made a big effort and was leading the race. However I didn’t know the advantage I had. Upon arriving at the last control, it was great fun to grab the Finnish flag and ride to the finish line seeing my team mates waiting and celebrating. That was something I had never felt before.
What about Portugal and the JWMTBOC overall?
S. P. - I think the races and everything else were well organized. The model event reflected how the terrains would be well. Personally I didn’t see the importance of an unofficial mass-start but that’s just my opinion. I’ve raced twice in Portugal - European Championships 2015 and the World Championships, this summer. Both competitions have been successful, so the organizers must be pretty good at arranging MTBO races in Portugal.
What does it mean to be part of the Finland MTBO team?
S. P. - It means good training camps, races and people who have become friends. I’ve been a part of the National team for four years. In that time we’ve driven a lot by car, flown a lot by plane and got to ride our bikes in a great spectrum of terrains and races.
Are you ready to face the challenging MTBO Elite next year? Do you already feel “butterflies in your stomach”?
S. P. - I have to say that I will concentrate on road cycling now. I’m not saying I will quit MTBO but, in the next seasons, I won’t ride MTBO races or practice for them. But, maybe if, for example, the WMTBOC were to be arranged in Finland, let’s say, in 2022, you might see me there stronger than ever! Taking part in Elite races this summer was a good preparation for the Junior races. The Sprint in Åhus, in April, was a good race for me but not a perfect one. It was good to measure my performance there, three weeks before the World Cup, in France. So, my goals are in Time Trial - and road nationals and to ride good races with the team I ride with in road cycling. This summer was the first one I rode road races alongside MTBO races.
I found your motto, “I've always got time for the media!”, interesting. How do you see the relationship between the media and Orienteering? Does it please you?
S. P. - As an economics student I see self-promoting as an important way of making MTBO interesting for sponsors, race organizers and federations. I’m always ready to give an interview and I bring MTBO up in social media. That’s what my motto means. The more people do this, the better and bigger MTBO looks in the eyes of others. We must face the fact that MTBO is such a minor sport – just like Orienteering, if looked on from a global point of view. At least in Finland the amount of MTBO riders have increased steadily each year and in the Nationals there are already over 300 riders. The media, and national orienteering federations can be counted as “media” in my opinion, have a huge role in making MTBO an even greater sport. Thus, it is important how we, MTBO riders, are seen in the media and in social media. Am I pleased with the way it is now? Well, yes. At least in Finland, MTBO has got some visibility in the media.
Now that we're about to “turn the page” and go into a new year, I would ask you for a wish for 2017.
S. P. - I wish some nice and warm weather, good legs, good races and good training!