With the top Americans starting their race season yesterday in Munio, Finland with a skate sprint, the Canadians attempted to keep pace, taking part in a 1.6 k skate sprint in Bruksvallarna, Sweden.
There were several top finishes by the Americans in Munio, including a win by Kikkan Randall, and the Canadians kept the ball rolling in Scandinavia with more early-season North American success.
The day started out extremely promising. Dasha Gaiazova tore up the qualifier, finishing second, a mere .9 of a second away from Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla. Chandra Crawford, the only other Canadian woman in action, also qualified strongly in 22nd place in a deep field that featured many World Cup regulars.
In the men’s qualifier, Kershaw was the strongest Canadian on the day, recording the 5th fastest time. He was joined in the heats by five of the seven Canadian men – Alex Harvey (7th), rising star Len Valjas (11th) Stefan Kuhn (19th) and Phil Widmer (22nd). The other two men, Brent McMurtry and Fred Touchette finished 34th and 40th respectively, just outside of the top 30 cutoff.
In a phone interview with FasterSkier after the race, Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said he was “overall really pleased,” with how everyone skied on the day.
“I thought we might have everyone in the heats,” said Wadsworth, “The guys skied well, especially considering the fair amount of volume we have put in since our arrival [in Sweden].”
When the heats began, Gaiazova and Crawford were placed in the same quarter-final, but failed to advance further. Wadsworth noted both may have made a few small tactical errors in their heat. Crawford was sitting in second heading into the final stretch and looked to be a lock to advance, but was narrowly edged out at the line.
Despite both racing only one heat, Wadsworth said there were positive signs from the women. Wadsworth described Crawford as “totally healthy – 100%, which is great” and Gaiazova’s quick qualifier clearly indicated she has the speed.
The women’s A-Final was Swede-heavy, as Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE) took the win over top qualifier Charlotte Kalla (SWE), and Hanna Brodin (SWE). Laure Barthelemy (FRA), Hanna Falk (SWE) and Laurie Van Der Graaff (SUI) rounded out the top 6.
On the men’s side, the competitive heats combined with the narrow course meant that contact was inevitable, and the Canadians didn’t back down. In Stefan Kuhn’s quarter-final, he attempted to make a move around a few skiers, got tangled up and went down. For Alex Harvey, a crash on the last steep pitch of the course where a skier in front of him broke a pole and forced him to a dead stop ended his day.
However, two Canadians advanced all the way to the A-Final. Lenny Valjas and Devon Kershaw faced off against three Swedes and a Japanese national – all with extensive World Cup experience. Kershaw forced his way onto the podium behind Emil Joensson (SWE) and Jesper Modin (SWE).
While Kershaw is somewhat of an impressive early season racer (on his blog he noted that he is now 3 for 3 in winning cases of smoked meat in Bruksvallarna, no small feat), the big surprise of the day was rising Canadian sprint star Len Valjas.
“I wasn’t really expecting it [the qualifier] to go as well as it did,” Valjas said in a phone interview with FasterSkier. “Halfway around the course I felt winded.”
Despite feeling less than stellar, and facing what he called a “tough field,” Valjas cruised to an 11th place finish in the qualifier.
Valjas described the start as “crucial”. Getting the ‘hole shot’ – the term for being in first position after the initial straight stretch – was the key to success on the day. “It was a really narrow double pole start, if you nailed the start you could dictate the pace,” he said.
In his quarter-final he was the third ranked skier, drawing top qualifier Nobu Naruse (JPN) as well as Daniel Rickardsson (SWE), who finished 13th in the Sprint Cup rankings last season, and qualified 10th on the day.
Despite being matched up against some top notch competition, Valjas went out hard, and took the lead. As a result, when Naruse crashed behind him Valjas was unaffected and went on to advance.
He skied his semi-final the same way, leading out and staying strong the entire way around the course.
When he lined up for the A-Final, however, things were different. Valjas received the worst lane selection, as he faced Emil Joensson (SWE) the Sprint Cup winner from last year who qualified 2nd, Jesper Modin (SWE), team mate Devon Kershaw, and Rickardsson, all of whom were faster in qualification. Also on the start line was Yuichi Onda, a strong Japanese sprinter.
As a result, Valjas only managed to climb into fourth after the start, at which point the other more experience skiers aggressively pushed him back into sixth, where he lost contact and trailed by two seconds up the last steep hill on the course. At which point the course turned into a long gradual downhill, where “I free-skated my ass off,” Valjas said, and got back on the other racers tails.
Some contact between Onda and Rickardsson allowed Kershaw and Valjas to slip around the two, and finish 3rd and 4th respectively.
“This was awesome!” said Valjas, “I wasn’t expecting it at all!”
Wadsworth described the race as a “really good confidence booster” for both Kershaw and Valjas.
While the majority of the team will race again tomorrow in the 10/15 k Free, Crawford, Valjas and Widmer will take the day off racing, as they look to another sprint race next weekend in Rovaniemi, Finland.
Wadsworth picked Fred Touchette and Daria Gaiazova out to excel in, distance races, as “Dasha wants to make up for today,” and Touchette is a much better distance skier than sprinter.