The Kuusamo mini-tour opened with a bang for the North American contingent, as both Andy Newell and Alex Harvey skied into the top ten for the first time this season.
Newell, who had a lackluster 15k in Gallivare last weekend but a strong opening relay leg for the United States, qualified in eighth position and ultimately finished sixth after making the A-Final.
Harvey had a mediocre weekend in Gallivare, finishing 34th in the skate race – not a disappointing result, but clearly not his best – and turning in one of the Canadians’ better relay legs. But today, he qualified in ninth position, and held his place through the heats.
For both men, today’s sprint was clearly a major improvement.
Finland had a great day in the qualification round, taking three of the top four spots. Niklas Colliander had the fastest time on the day. His position as the top qualifier was by far the best performance in his career so far – he has made the quarterfinals in several World Cups, but has only made it into the semifinals once.
Colliander was followed by Sami Jauhojaervi, who had a disappointing season last year but appears to be back on track. Estonian Kein Einaste finished third and Finland’s Matias Strandvall fourth.
Newell said that his qualification round was “pretty normal”, and that he can usually qualify in good position.
He was only 0.6 seconds in front of Harvey. The Canadians had a great day, with Lenny Valjas qualifying 19th, Stefan Kuhn 26th, and Devon Kershaw the last lucky man to sneak into the heats in 30th place.
Once the heats got rolling, the standings were shaken up quite a bit. Colliander was unable to hold his position, finishing last in his heat and 26th overall. In fact, only one Finn skied in the A-Final with Newell – Jauhojaervi. He finished third behind John Kristian Dahl of Norway and Alexei Poltoranin of Kazakhstan.
Newell was the lone North American to make the A-Final, and he called his 6th-place performance “embarrassing”. He trailed going up the first hill and was never able to get back in the mix.
“The semifinals were much tougher [than the quarterfinals],” he said. “I really had to fight for the line… That heat definitely took a lot out of me. All in all I think the day was a little bit of a disappointment just with the way the final went, so I’m not feeling great about the performance.”
Newell had only fifteen minutes between his semifinal and final, and said that when he was in the start for the final he felt confident. It was only after the gun went off and he hit the first hill that the wheels came off.
Alex Harvey had the next best day for the North Americans. After qualifying in ninth position, he skied well in the quarterfinals and semifinals, finishing ninth overall. For Harvey, this was an encouraging result.
“Normally he’s a slower starter at the beginning of the season,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier. “So he’s in a really good position for the rest of the season. He’s definitely brought himself up a whole ‘nother notch from last year, so far.”
Harvey’s teammate Devon Kershaw agreed. “What is exciting is Alex. To be 9th in a classic sprint for him is amazing. The last time he qualified in the top 20 was Trondheim and we all saw what he did in the distance race the following day (he was 3rd). He’s going to be amazing this weekend I think. He’s in great shape, and seeing him today was unreal. Should be exciting.”
Kershaw didn’t have too shabby of a day himself. He qualified in 30th, the last man to be included in the quarterfinals.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see my name in 30th – but at the same time a bit disappointed because 30th isn’t exactly lighting it up or anything,” he said. “I have never qualified in 30th, plenty of times between 31st-35th – and let me tell you, it’s an awesome feeling to sneak in. But that feeling quickly subsides when you realize that there were 29 dudes faster than you in qualification – and you have to square off against all of them soon enough.”
For Kershaw, that turned out to be easier than he thought. With some luck, he finished third in his heat, beating half of the skiers who had qualified ahead of him.
“Like every classic sprint of my life, I was slow out of the start. I tried to move up on the first hill but got semi-tangled/boxed out by Jens Eriksson [of Sweden] and soon found myself in 6th – by a lot. I picked a garbage track and that coupled with a sluggish body – I didn’t climb the hill very well either, but I felt much better skiing over the top of it and started to bring the dudes back. Then, I got lucky as Dario Cologna fell – and I felt good in the double poling finish to pick off another guy to finish 3rd in my heat.”
As Wadsworth pointed out, it doesn’t matter where you qualify, as long as you do qualify. Dahl, the day’s winner, had qualified in 27th – only three spots ahead of Kershaw.
Overall, putting four men in the heats was a definite success for the Canadians. Wadsworth was enthusiastic about many of the performances, saying that sending Valjas, Kuhn, and the rest of the Continental Cup squad to Rovaniemi last weekend was the right choice for them. Instead of sitting around in Gallivare, they gained confidence in some races, which clearly paid off.
He was excited, too, about the Canadians’ prospects in the mini-tour.
“Especially for Alex and Devon, this is the perfect format because those guys can skate, they can sprint, they can do 30 k, whatever. If I look at the top 20 guys, I think that Alex and Devon are in a really great position to ski solid and be there for the hunt at the end…. most of the guys in front of Devon, except for Alex and Jauhojaervi, are sprinters. And even guys like Ivan Babikov, he can be there if it was a little bit longer – but for him starting off with classic sprinting is not the best. But I think the mini-tour format suits us well.”
Valjas and Kuhn ended up 29th and 30th on the day after finishing sixth in their respective heats. The rest of the Canadians trailed significantly: Brent McMurtry finished 50th, followed by George Grey in 84th and Ivan Babikov in 109th.
For the Americans, Newell had the only really solid result of the day. Simi Hamilton finished 67th, followed by Kris Freeman in 87th and Noah Hoffman in 120th. Hamilton has been struggling with an IT-band injury, and Hoffman isn’t much of a sprinter. Still, all is not lost for the weekend – Freeman could move up a lot in the distance races, as could Hoffman.
Newell said that he was tired after spending four hours on the snow today, but that he still felt good going into tomorrow’s classic race.
“I think a 10 k classic could be a good race for me. Also, we get some bonus seconds, I’m not sure how many I got but it was probably 35 or 40 bonus seconds, so that helps. Hopefully I’ll recover well tonight and then we’ll see what happens tomorrow. I’m still learning a bit on the distance side of things.”