Any racer will tell you it feels pretty good to qualify, especially in a World Cup sprint. Even if they expect to, making that top-30 cutoff is often easier said than done and doing so is a relief.
However, in the hour or so that follows before the heats, one has to move on, refocus and think strategically about the quarterfinals ahead. And on the downtown course in Drammen, Norway, there’s no cut-and-dry method to depend on. No matter what the conditions, some men double pole on skate skis, some stride the 1.3-kilometer classic course. Women race the same distance and have to get in position early if they want to make it to the next round.
For Canada’s three qualifiers in Wednesday’s World Cup classic sprint, Dasha Gaiazova, Lenny Valjas and Alex Harvey, there were a few decisions to be made after concerning kick, no kick, etc. But mostly, they were thinking about how to guarantee a top-two finish and secure a spot in the semifinals.
Once again, not so simple.
Both men and women raced the one-lap course in Drammen, marked by a gradual incline from the start to the top of a 60-meter (200-foot) hill, followed by a long descent, a few sharp corners and several straightaways. The longest straight leads to the finish, and at several hundred meters long, it’s also uphill.
Gaiazova qualified in 24th, the best of the Canadians, while Valjas and Harvey narrowly made it though in 29th and 30th, respectively.
Like several of the top racers in the 75-person men’s field, Harvey initially raced on freestyle skis – double poling the entire loop. Qualifying by six-hundredths of a second didn’t exactly put him at ease, and Harvey opted for classic skis in the heats. Valjas, meanwhile, stuck with striding throughout.
In the women’s quarterfinals, Gaiazova surged to the front out of the start, leading Sweden’s Linn Sömskar and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland. Saarinen pulled ahead over the top of the long hill, and Gaiazova and Sömskar attempted to hang on. Germany’s Hanna Kolb and Nicole Fessel threw themselves into the mix on the descent, coming around the last corner in second and third behind Saarinen.
Back in fifth ahead of American Sadie Bjornsen, Gaiazova pushed hard toward the finish, picking off a few places to finish third and edging Kolb in a photo finish. Saarinen won the heat in 3:19.2, Sömskar was 0.9 seconds back in second and Gaiazova 1.4 seconds behind in third.
With two more women’s quarterfinals to go, Gaiazova waited to see if she’d nab one of two lucky-loser spots. Her heat wasn’t fast enough compared to the five others, and the Canadian settled for 15th.
“That was a hard effort,” Gaiazova told Cross Country Canada. “My arms and lungs are toast now, but I’ll take a 15th place result in a World Cup.”
Gaiazova has been one of Canada’s most consistent racers this season, notching 12th at the last World Cup classic sprint in Davos, Switzerland, and achieving the same result in a skate sprint at the pre-Olympic World Cup in Sochi, Russia. Also in Sochi, Gaiazova and teammate Perianne Jones won bronze in the classic team sprint. And in mid-January in Liberec, Czech Republic, Gaiazova tallied a career-best fourth in a World Cup classic sprint.
“Dasha was good today,” Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth wrote in an email. “She kinda got pin-balled around a bit, but was solid.”
Jones placed 45th, about 15 seconds behind Finland’s top qualifier Mona-Liisa Malvalehto and 3.43 seconds out of the top 30. Emily Nishikawa of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) was 63rd (+26.56).
In the men’s quarterfinals, Harvey lined up in the first heat with eventual-winner Petter Northug and his younger brother Tomas Northug, another Norwegian in Paal Golberg, American Andy Newell, and Sweden’s Johan Edin.
Dropped by the top of the climb, Harvey took advantage of separate crashes on the other side: the first by Newell, who appeared to have his skis slip out from underneath him on a fast straightaway, and the second by Edin, who fell on an S-turn before the finish.
“I think I crashed at that exact same spot last year,” Harvey said of Newell. “He was skiing outside the track because it was faster and I think he hit some ice and kind of slid, but I couldn’t see … I wasn’t really in contact with these guys.”
Until Newell and Edin went down, that is. The Canadian moved from sixth to fourth in the heat, 5.23 seconds behind Petter Northug as the winner.
“I got kind of lucky that they crashed because I wasn’t in it much,” Harvey said.
His time wasn’t fast enough to lift him to the semifinals, and Harvey ended up 20th. A World Championships bronze medalist in the preceding classic sprint in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Harvey pointed out that he hadn’t cracked the top 30 in a World Cup race since the Tour de Ski in early January.
So even though it wasn’t a “super-great result” and he might have reconsidered using skate skis for the heats, Harvey wasn’t disappointed. With the Holmenkollen 50 k freestyle mass start on Saturday in Oslo, Norway, and World Cup Finals next week in Sweden, he’s hungry for more.
“Holmenkollen’s always really special and the World Cup Finals, last year was pretty good for me and I hope this year will be the same,” Harvey said. “It’s the last push now so I’m excited for the five next races.”
Valjas is feeling good about his form coming off an eighth-place skate sprint result last weekend at the World Cup in Lahti, Finland. Wednesday didn’t exactly go as planned after he placed third in his quarterfinal for 16th overall.
But it was also sprint racing in Drammen, where positioning is king. Given a difficult starting spot on the outside, Valjas had to get out early and fight for a track. When he couldn’t quite cut in, he decided to restart his race from the back.
Trailing up the hill, Valjas was unable to pass on the descent. He opted for a lot of grip, which didn’t make his skis fast compared to the four skate-ski double polers in his heat. Pushing hard to get toward the front, Valjas had no room to move, no tracks to ski in. Somehow he skied along the outside and finished third, 0.7 seconds behind Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh and John Kristian Dahl, respectively.
“It was kind of a frustrating race and then getting blocked at the finish, there were no tracks to kind of show my speed,” Valjas said. “I just followed and ran in between the track at the end there. I’m a bit disappointed, but I guess it could’ve been worse. I’m happy that I even got in the heats.
“I was really hoping to hoping to get top two in that heat and get to the semi and try again … but Stockholm’s coming,” Valjas added.
He’ll also participate in the 100-meter sprint in Olso on Monday. “I’ve never done a hundred-meter race so that should be pretty fun,” he said.
As for the rest of the Canadian men, Devon Kershaw placed 49th, 8.43 seconds behind Northug as the qualifying winner and 1.84 seconds out of 30th. Like Harvey, he also went with skate skis.
“Drammen is always one of the toughest sprints to qualify for due to the number of good classic sprinters in Norway, so getting [in] was good,” Wadsworth wrote. “Devon was satisfied with his effort, and although disappointed, at least his body felt decent and was not too far from qualifying.”
Kershaw has not raced since World Championships in an effort to rebound from stomach ailments. AWCA skiers Jess Cockney was 67th (+15.58) and Graeme Killick was 71st (+19.83).
“Today was pretty disappointing,” Cockney wrote in an email. “I was really hoping to ski heats again and being so far out contention was really never what I imagined.”
Cockney, Killick and their teammate Michael Somppi will join Canadian World Cup members Ivan Babikov, Harvey and Kershaw in Holmenkollen, according to Wadsworth.
“The guys seemed in OK shape, so we’re hoping for good bodies on Saturday and next week,” Wadsworth added.