When Len Valjas departed for Europe this past fall, he was looking for experience, and to ski well.
Instead, the 22-year-old Canadian recorded his first World Cup points by finishing 29th in the sprint in the Kuusamo mini-tour, and 34th in Dusseldorf, narrowly missing a berth in the heats.
Then, he punched himself a ticket to the 2011 World Championships in Oslo by finishing 17th in the skate sprint at the World Cup in Davos, Switzerland.
“Looking back, I think it [the early-season campaign] went better than I ever would have expected,” said Valjas in an interview with FasterSkier.
If you watch the video of his sprint quarter-final in Davos, it’s easy to see why.
Towering on the start line over Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, Valjas got off to a great start, tailing the hometown Swiss skier around the first loop of the two-lap course. As Sweden’s Jesper Modin and Norway’s Anders Gloeersen jumped out from behind Valjas and Cologna, and made a move up the field, Valjas felt like he let them go.
“Maybe I should have gone right as well,” he said, “I would have liked to make a move myself; I felt like I had good snap.”
Crossing the line fourth by a narrow margin, Valjas missed advancing to the semi-finals.
“I really wanted to be in it with those guys,” said Valjas. “I knew that I could do it. I had a great interval session the week before. I knew I had good speed, so it wasn’t really a surprise. I had it in my head that I could.”
The young Canadian has not had much experience on the World Cup circuit – he has raced events in Canada, but this trip was his first time facing the Europeans on their home turf – and he called the racing “not even in the same league.”
“It’s so organized, and everyone’s working so hard,” said Valjas. “There’s more pressure than racing in Canada, where you’re the favorite, you want to win, and you’re expected to win. Here [in Europe], you just want to do your best – go out, ski hard, and see where you end up.”
While making the World Championships team as a sprinter was a huge accomplishment for Valjas, he kept racing through December, and skied a strong opening 10 k classic leg for the Canadian relay team in La Clusaz, France.
He then returned home for Christmas for two weeks, to get some quality relaxation and a little volume before heading to Thunder Bay, Ontario, for a Nor-Am.
After finishing 10th in the 30 k pursuit, and fifth in the classic sprint in Thunder Bay, Valjas hopped straight on a plane to the Czech Republic, in order to race the World Cup skate sprint in Liberec. There, he missed qualifying by 12 places, or just less than two seconds, which he chalked up to jet lag.
Now, Valjas heads to Estonia for another World Cup, and the Under-23 World Championships. He hopes to race the sprint and the 15 k at U-23’s.
As for the senior World Championships, Valjas’ spot on the roster is not entirely secure. With several strong Canadian sprinters having achieved the objective criteria, the World Cup sprint in Drammen, Norway, just prior to Oslo, has been selected as a qualifying race.
In addition to Valjas, Stefan Kuhn and Phil Widmer are in the mix. While all three sprinters will get to travel to World Championships, the skiers are racing for just two starting spots in the individual skate sprint, while the third will be included as an alternate.
There is also a chance that Valjas will be able to extend his racing season. If he skis well enough at World Championships, he could be selected to race the World Cup Finale in Sweden.