The Canadian National Team led the way in Rovaniemi, Finland today, with Chandra Crawford, Dasha Gaiazova, and Lenny Valjas all cracking the podium in an FIS classic sprint. Meanwhile, the United States was led by Torin Koos in fourth.
Temperatures were quite reasonable – between negative five and negative seven degrees Celsius – and the tracks were firm on the out-and-back course, which featured two bridges, a large hill, and several tight corners including a corkscrew leading out of the stadium, through the underpass of one bridge, and ultimately over the top of it.
Gaiazova and Crawford led the North Americans in qualifying, finishing second and third behind Victoria Melina of Russia. Hannah Dreissigacker of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) finished tenth, leading all U.S. skiers, while Audrey Weber from Go! Training was 24th.
In the men’s race, several North Americans had strong results. Canadians Stefan Kuhn and Lenny Valjas led qualifying with sixth- and seventh-place finishes. Their national team compatriots Phil Widmer and Frederic Touchette qualified 17th and 24th, while Americans Pat O’Brien of the CGRP and Torin Koos of the Methow Olympic Development Project skied to 16th and 25th. Also of interest were results from Vahur Teppan, an Estonian who formerly skied for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks; and Andrey Golovko, a Kazakh who spent a year skiing for the Factory Team in the U.S. The European pair qualified 4th and 23rd.
Among all of these performances, O’Brien’s was perhaps one of the more surprising results of the day, given that the other American and Canadian men who advanced were all national team or former national team athletes.
In the quarterfinals, Gaiazova and Crawford both led their heats from start to finish, while Dreissigacker skied to second-place showing in her quarterfinal, also advancing easily. Weber finished sixth in her heat.
Gaiazova and Crawford went one-two in their semifinal, while Dreissigacker was boxed out in the corkscrew and was sent to the B-Final.
“It’s a herringbone sort of corkscrew, so you really have to get into good position,” Dreissigacker said. “I did get off to a good start, but I guess I just got behind the wrong person. Then the problem was that there was four of us going the same side, and I couldn’t get around them.”
In the B-Final, she faced similar problems at the start, but took an outside lane going up the large hill and ended up second, for eighth on the day.
“It was fun – in the quarterfinal, there was one girl way ahead of me, and I was in front of everyone else. But the other two heats were fun because you’re just skiing with those people. The coolest thing about today is that I felt like I was competitive here – I feel like I belonged racing against those people.”
In the A-Final, Gaiazova, Crawford, and Melina came into the finish in a tight pack, with Melina leading the way. However, strong finishing sprints and a pair of toe-slides helped the Canadians edge out the Russian.
After the final, Crawford was overheard discussing her double-poling with a coach.
“No matter how long you’ve been skiing, it’s really tough to keep your technique together after a long day of racing when you’re tired,” she told FasterSkier.
When asked whether she and Gaiazova had planned to work together in the final, she smiled.
“I told Dasha that my life would be complete if I could just stay on her, or at least close to her, on the uphill,” Crawford said. “In the semifinal she had probably ten meters on me just on that hill.
“You know, this is a small race. It’s not a World Cup; there isn’t a single World Cup skier here. But it’s really important right now to go out there and ski four rounds. It’s good for development, and it gives you confidence. You could go straight to the World Cup and not qualify and get depressed, but here I am skiing four heats.”
In the men’s heats, there was a bit more excitement with some hard crashes and a number false starts. Widmer was the victim of one crash after tangling with Kari Varis (FIN) on a downhill, and Anssi Pentsinen (FIN), the top qualifier, fell hard about 200 meters from the finish in his semifinal heat, ultimately finishing 11th overall.
Several rounds included multiple North Americans, making it tough for all the athletes to advance – O’Brien and Koos were paired in the same heat, with only the latter advancing. In another heat, Valjas profited from Widmer’s fall, making his way through to the final more easily than he might have otherwise. Touchette finished third in his quarterfinal and failed to advance.
In the B-Final, Kuhn skied to second place, and finished eighth in the overall standings.
The A-Final included Koos and Valjas, as well as Teppan, the former Alaska-Fairbanks skier. After a restart, they were off. Initially, things looked bad for the North Americans, but by the time they entered the finishing straightaway, Teppan held an insurmountable lead, Valjas had second place locked down, and Koos was in fourth place. Vasili Rotchev of Russia finished third, rounding out the podium.
“It was kind of a rough start, in the outside lane,” Koos said. “But I put in a good move going around the corkscrew. Going over the last bridge I was in fourth – I touched the leaders – but then Rotchev and I kind of tangled a little bit. He pushed me out. But I tried to ski inside him a little bit too. In the end I just didn’t have enough in the tank.”
“It is really great to see Vahur up there,” Koos added.
Valjas, who turns twenty-two tomorrow, was clearly excited about his race. Because the Canadians are using the Rovaniemi races as trials, only the top men will get a start at the World Cup mini-tour in Kuusamo next weekend – and Valjas said he was looking forward to it.
As for today’s final, he said that he got off to a slow start – as usual.
“But on the big uphill, I switched to the outside track, and the two skiers in front of me were in a different track, so I could attack and move up. Then it was just hanging on,” he said.
Valjas did note the Canadian team “had some bad luck in the heats, like what happened to Phil. You don’t want that to happen in trials.”
Racing continues in Rovaniemi tomorrow with a classic interval-start races, 5 k for women and 10 k for men.