One year ago, it was an American, Simi Hamilton, who topped the men’s skate sprint prelim at the U-23 World Championships in Germany.
In this season’s edition, Canada’s Len Valjas couldn’t quite match that feat, but he came darn close. In Saturday’s classic sprint qualifier in Estonia, he was second, within a half-second of Olympic silver medalist Alexander Panzhinskiy of Russia, the winner.
The finish sets up Valjas well for a run at a medal here, since as the second qualifier, he will not have to face Panzhinskiy until the finals.
The two were well clear of the field, with Norway’s Magnus Moholt the only man to finish less than three seconds behind.
The sprint course in Estonia might as well be laid out for Valjas, who at 6’6” has an untouchable double-pole. The 1.4-kilometer loop has just two short climbs, and with an endless, 250-meter long finishing straight, Valjas could enter in last, “and still have a shot,” said Canadian coach Eric Bailey.
Valjas may be the best North American hope for the heats, but he’s not the only one that will get a start in the quarterfinals. No fewer than nine Americans and Canadians qualified in the top 30, plus Britain’s Andrew Musgrave.
On the women’s side, Sadie Bjornsen (USA) led the way in 11th, seven seconds down on winner Kerttu Niskanen of Finland.
Alysson Marshall of Canada was 14th, American Jennie Bender 18th, Canadian Emily Nishikawa 19th, Ida Sargent (USA) 21st, and Canada’s Sara Hewitt in 30th. Erin Tribe (CAN) and Becca Rorabaugh (USA) were the only North American starters not to qualify, with Tribe the second Canadian in two days stuck in the 31st spot.
On the men’s side, Musgrave was 28th, with American Reese Hanneman 29th, and Canada’s Jesse Cockney 30th, just topping Gianluca Cologna, the brother of Swiss superstar Dario, for the last spot in the rounds.
Despite temperatures just below freezing, wax didn’t end up being a factor—there was enough new snow mixed into the tracks to make things straightforward. Just one of the men, Austria’s Markus Bader, opted to double-pole the course, and it clearly was not an advantage. (Bader was seeded fourth, and finished 19th, clearly bogging down on the main climb.)
The fields were small, with 56 men and 40 women. Especially on the women’s side, the depth that was present in Friday’s junior race was clearly absent.
Hewitt, in 30th, was nearly 21 seconds down on Niskanen’s time, compared to a 10-second spread last weekend’s World Cup qualifier on the same course. Swedish sprinter Hanna Brodin, who was second to Petra Majdic in that race, appeared to be holding back a bit on Saturday, and she finished ninth.
Things were a little tighter on the men’s side, with Panzhinskiy finishing 13 seconds up on Cockney, but that was still a 50 percent larger spread than the one from Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestad to Switzerland’s Valerio Leccardi, the first and last qualifiers in the World Cup.
The course, Hanneman said, favors athletes who are jacked enough to power through the long double-pole sections, but who can also stay relaxed and smooth on Otepaa’s gradual terrain, of which there is plenty.
“Fluid and long—I think on this type of course, that’s how you’ll ski fastest. There’s nothing steep enough that you need to run, or anything like that. It skis pretty easy,” he said. “But then, in a way, it’s also hard, because there’s so much time that’s on these weird, awkward…sections. The hills are really short.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.