CANMORE, Alberta – On Saturday, Jesse Cockney pretty much did the unthinkable, leading his 1.3-kilometer freestyle sprint quarterfinal from start to finish. And he tried to do the same in his semifinal.
Big deal. Actually, it is, especially for someone who’s never made the heats in a World Cup sprint to do so on one of the more difficult courses on the circuit.
Few dared to try it; most knew the last few hundred meters down into the stadium decided the race. If you were in front the whole time, up the long climb and down the hill, you might as well be toast.
Cockney, 23, didn’t care. Strong feelings of self belief lifted the Alberta World Cup Academy/Canadian Senior Development Team skier to the second-fastest qualifying time in his third World Cup sprint.
He was only slower than one man, eventual winner Emil Jönsson of Sweden. The surprising start fueled his adrenaline in the ensuing rounds, where Cockney ultimately placed ninth.
His previous World Cup best was 32nd in last weekend’s skate sprint in Quebec City. Before that, he achieved sixth in the U23 World Championships classic sprint two seasons ago in Otepää, Estonia.
“It’s bittersweet right now,” Cockney said Saturday. “I’ve never skied this well in my life and there’s a lot more days like this to come, but right now, I’m a little upset that I maybe wasted a great day. It’s a really fantastic day, but still I feel like I was pretty close.”
After winning his quarterfinal in a photo finish (and leading the entire way), Cockney decided to go for it again in the semifinal. He charged out of the gate with Canadian National Team member Lenny Valjas close behind, and the two skied abreast ahead of the group to the height of the land. The pace slowed at the top as the Canadians tried to pick their position – preferably not in front – on the downhill. Both knew what was coming: a game-changing slingshot that could swallow them at the finish.
The tactics didn’t quite work out to their liking, and Valjas moved ahead down the hill to try to gap the field. When he looked back before the finishing straight, he realized he hadn’t created enough space. Cockney attempted to hold his own on the outside lane and ended up straddling a v-board. Valjas sunk to third as Norway’s Anders Gloeerson and Andy Newell of the U.S. flew by.
Cockney settled for fifth in a photo finish with Austria’s Harald Wurm, and neither Canadian advanced to the final. It was a tough way to end a good day for both Valjas and Cockney, with Valjas notching a season best of seventh.
“That was fun, like a roller derby out there,” said Valjas, who qualified in 28th. “A lot of pushing and shoving. It was awesome to ski with my teammate Jesse. He had an unbelievable day. It’s a really wide course, but on this kind of a downhill course you almost need it wider.”
Valjas played his tactics near perfectly in his quarterfinal, sitting tight then accelerating in the final stretch to advance in second behind Newell. The semifinal was a bit dicier, and Valjas knew what was in store when he glanced back and saw four men behind him.
“The attack didn’t work,” he said. “Maybe I should have stood up, let a few people by, but I’m happy. This is my first real race [coming off my] hand injury and I’m super happy.”
About a month ago, Valjas broke a bone near his pinky finger and has been healing it since. Thursday’s 15 k was his first without a cast. While his result on Saturday showed rapid improvement, Valjas said he and his teammates were looking for more after Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey failed to qualify in 50th and 52nd, respectively.
“None of the guys are happy with the start of their season,” Valjas said. “They’re missing one gear. For Alex to be in the top 11 [Thursday] missing that gear … I was skiing behind him and it wasn’t the Alex of late last year. It’s coming. It’s part of our training. To have these results, still missing our top gear, we’re happy.”
Cockney was also excited about his future prospects, especially in potentially securing a World Championships spot in February.
“I hope that the coaches see that I’ve improved on a lot of things over the summer and the last year and I belong with these guys,” said Cockney in his second year on the national development team. “I beat everyone except one guy in the qualifier.”
After placing 63rd in Thursday’s 15 k mass start, Cockney said he used his frustrations to motivate him for the sprint. He also changed his mental approach to sprint qualifiers this year.
“I’m an emotional guy,” he said. “I feed off myself and feed off all of the race emotion. There was a lot of positive energy around.”
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth wasn’t surprised by his performance. He had seen Cockney hang with Kershaw during intensity workouts in Canmore throughout the summer.
“You just don’t see that, when we do longer intensity, for anyone to be able to stay with him, and Jesse has done it a few times,” Wadsworth said. “So I’ve always been impressed by him. I didn’t think he had the qualifying speed like that so I was really impressed today and I hope it gives him the boost to take his skiing to the next level.
“Qualifying that high up shows he can do it on this kind of skate course and we will just have to evaluate where he is and what races are coming up and the courses and if they kind of suit him,” he added. “My guess is we are definitely going to give him some opportunities. He’s young.”
Another Canadian who made the heats, Phil Widmer (AWCA) placed 15th for his second-best result in 23 individual World Cup starts.
He qualified in 24th and was third in his quarterfinal (in a photo finish with the top three), but failed to advance based on time.
“I knew in the back of my mind the heat wasn’t fast so lucky loser wasn’t going to play a factor,” Widmer wrote in an email. “I was gunning for top 2 in the heat.”
Switzerland’s Christoph Eigenmann set the pace for the quarterfinal from the start, which it was considerably slower than other heats. Widmer tucked behind, and by the top of the climb, it became evident that nobody wanted to lead. Russia’s Anton Gafarov eventually went ahead on the downhill, followed by Frederico Pellegrino (ITA) and Widmer, and it came down to an all-out sprint to the line (which Simon Persson of Sweden won after waiting in fourth).
“The last dowhill is so fast and the finishing straight is quite long, so for me it was about using the rest of the course to get set up for the last downhill and finishing straight,” Widmer wrote. “It’s a lot of fun to get to race in front of the home crowd!! The community is so supportive of these races, it’s a rush to get to compete in front of friends and family and in our own back yard.”
Summing up the day, Wadsworth said it was the best so far this season.
“We really needed a day when the team skied better on a whole,” he said, pointing out the high points, which included Chandra Crawford in sixth and Perianne Jones in 11th as well. “It has been the best weekend of the year, the best day of any weekend so far this year.”
As for the rest of the Canadian men, AWCA skiers Russell Kennedy and Michael Somppi were 42nd and 55th, respectively. Alexis Turgeon of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) was 56th, Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA) 58th, Matt Wylie (AWCA) 59th and Andy Shields (Thunder Bay) 61st, Raphaël Couturier (CNEPH) 62nd and Ian Murray (Rocky Mountain Racers) 64th.
— Gerry Furseth contributed reporting