FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – The Canadian men had no reason to believe they couldn’t contend for the podium in the Friday’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay at Nordic World Ski Championships.
In the last week, they had already been there with Alex Harvey notching a career-best bronze in the individual classic sprint – a best for a Canadian male at World Championships as well. Harvey and Devon Kershaw went on to place fourth in the freestyle team sprint, just three-hundredths of a second from third, and on Wednesday, Ivan Babikov set another new mark of fourth in the 15 k freestyle individual start.
With those three primed for the relay, it seemed anything was possible. Scramble leg Lenny Valjas was a bit of an unknown coming off a long bout with strep throat, but everyone knew what the 24-year-old was capable of, with two individual World Cup podiums this season.
But as athletes often say, relays are relays, and anything can happen.
In an effort to get in front and out of trouble early, Valjas started strong for the team, taking the lead on a long downhill halfway through the first of three 3.3 k laps. At the end of the first loop, he remained within 3.7 seconds of eventual-winner Norway up front, and moved from 13th in the pack to seventh by the end of the second lap.
Valjas charged up the big climb out of the stadium in fourth behind Germany’s Hannes Dotzler, Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson and Evgeniy Belov of Russia, but lost contact with the leaders on the second half of the course.
Valjas tagged Kershaw in 11th, 11.6 seconds back, in a chase group with Czech Republic, France and Belarus.
“I blew up for the last 100 meters,” Valjas said. “But other than that I was happy with the effort, happy to be out of bed.”
While the group caught up to the nine others on the first kilometer of the second leg, Kershaw worked hard to hang on, holding onto 11th through the first lap. The next time around, he slipped to 12th, four seconds behind France’s Maurice Manificat.
Unable to stay with the Frenchman, Kershaw fell nearly 20 seconds out of contention midway through and handed off to Babikov in 12th, 1:47.3 seconds out of the lead and 39.1 behind Finland in 11th.
“I was in a pain cave like I’ve never been in. I was a mess,” Kershaw wrote in an email.
Burdened by stomach problems for since mid-January, he explained he felt good enough out of the start, but was having some issues with his skis, specifically his kick.
“For sure the skis weren’t the best-ever, but even with the skis I had I should have been able to limit my losses,” he continued. “I was struggling to even stay on my feet coming down the last hill. And that’s after getting just shelled by 1:50. One minute fifty. In a classic race. … The last lap was just so, so, so difficult. It was the worst-feeling race of my entire career – and that’s not being dramatic.”
“Devon’s body just wasn’t there,” head coach Justin Wadsworth said. “It’s been up and down for him all year, especially in the last six weeks with his stomach issues. Some days in training he feels great, like team sprint day, he felt great, and then other days he feels horrible.
“We had doctors look at it and we still need to do more looking at it to make sure we know what the problem is, but right now it’s like rolling the dice.”
From the third leg on, the Canadians struggled to stay relevant, skiing alone for the rest of the race. Babikov tried to close the gap, but realized early it would be near impossible to catch anyone. Ahead of him, American Noah Hoffman was pushing with Finland and France to cut down a 30-second gap, but they were at least 50 seconds from his reach.
“It was hard to ski by myself and see no one around,” Babikov said. “Today didn’t feel super great, not as good as two days ago.”
He and the rest of the field were also fighting warming conditions above 10-degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) as the race wore on under the beating afternoon sun.
Babikov tagged Harvey as their anchor in 12th, 2:41.5 out of first. Finland was a minute and 15 seconds ahead of them in 11th. Harvey completed the final three laps alone, finishing in 12th, 2:39.3 behind Norway.
“I’m feeling good,” Harvey said. “It’s been five days since I’ve raced now. I was feeling pretty rested this morning so just used that as a prep for the 50 [kilometer classic mass start on Sunday].”
The Canadians’ finish tied their result from the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, but it wasn’t even close to what they were hoping for. In 2009, the team was fifth with Kershaw, Harvey, Babikov and the now-retired George Grey. They placed seventh in the 4 x 10 k at the 2010 Olympics.
“Just one of those days that we should not really think about much and forget,” Babikov said.
Valjas was healthy, but hadn’t raced in over a week, Harvey explained. “And Devon had a rough one, really rough one,” he said.
“It’s racing and when the body just isn’t there there’s nothing you can do about it,” Wadsworth explained.
“We have a good team and today just wasn’t our day,” Valjas said. “We’ll make it there.”
– Audrey Mangan contributed reporting