Canada Comes Out On Top In North American Relay Battle

Chelsea LittleMarch 4, 201115
On the third leg Ivan Babikov (CAN) and Noah Hoffman (USA) battled on the first lap before Babikov pulled away.

Much to the Americans’ and Canadians’ chagrin, the men’s 4 x 10 k relay at World Championships on Friday did not unfold as it often does.

“At the start, they usually jockey for a bit,” Canadian leadoff skier Stefan Kuhn told FasterSkier. “But one Swede, Daniel Rickardsson, was thinking otherwise today, because he had two bad races. So he wanted to prove a point.”

Instead of a tactical first leg, where many of the teams ski together in a pack, the hammer was down from the get-go. Rickardsson, perhaps out for revenge after two straight races with terrible skis, attacked early on, and only one man was able to follow him: Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia. Neither the U.S. nor Canada was able to stay anywhere close to the speedy, lanky Swede.

Earlier this season, the U.S. had a promising relay result in Gallivare, Sweden. There, leadoff skier Andy Newell skied with the main pack for almost his entire 10 k leg, leaving Kris Freeman only a 15-second gap to close. Here in Oslo, the more intense pace did him in much earlier, and Freeman was faced with 14th place and a two-and-a-half minute deficit.

“Today was not a typical World Cup relay,” Newell said after the race.

Canada faced a similar situation. With neither Alex Harvey nor Devon Kershaw racing, Kuhn, who didn’t even know he was racing until this morning when Kershaw called in sick, scrambled.

“You could see the pack spread right away, after one kilometer,” he said. “It was a tough 10 k, that’s for sure. I wanted to move up, so I was in third or fourth…I skied for a while but then I was like, ‘I’m not going to win the relay leg.’ [Rickardsson] won the World Cup the week before by 30 seconds, so I just tailed off a little bit, and made it to the finish as best I could.”

Len Valjas skiing the second leg for team Canada.

Newell and Kuhn – two sprinters – skied together for part of the race, before Kuhn dropped his southern neighbor and tagged off in 13th place, 25 seconds ahead of Newell.

The American had other problems to deal with, besides the pace.

“I really couldn’t get any kick,” he said. “So that kind of sucked…On a good day, when I’m feeling good and I can kick my skis, being over two minutes back is kind of unacceptable.”

What happened next in the North American battle was not what most people would have expected. While Kuhn tagged off to Len Valjas, a young sprinter with only five distance starts this year and only one at the World Cup level – the 15 k at World Championships earlier this week, where he finished 48th – the U.S. cued up Kris Freeman, a veteran who has skied a number of strong relay legs in the past.

Kris Freeman (USA) closed a big gap to the Canadian team on the second classic leg.

Freeman looked strong and in control, and caught Valjas six kilometers into their leg. Once he did, Valjas said that it was “a little bit tactical.”

“He tried to gap me up that one big hill there,” Valjas explained. “He put a little gap on me, but I closed it back over the top, on the flats, so I got back on him. We got down [before the next big uphill] and he just stood up and let me go by, and I thought, ‘okay, we’ll play some games here.’ So I went in front and took it easy, and then attacked up the sprint hill. I didn’t gap him, so for the last quarter, I just practically walked… and then, on the last climb, I just really opened it up.

“It was fun just to compete with him,” Valjas said.

Valjas ended up tagging off six seconds ahead of Freeman. While he was pleased to have come out on top in the tactical battle, he pointed out that since Freeman had to catch him first, his performance didn’t really count as much of a victory.

Freeman was a gracious competitor, calling the Canadian’s move “impressive.”

“I think Lenny skied pretty well,” Freeman said. “I hope he did, because if he didn’t, then I didn’t.”

After his initial move against the Canadian, Freeman said that he didn’t have anything else left, and that it was hard to gauge his effort given the lack of other athletes around him. And while his skis were good, he wasn’t surprised that Newell had stuggled to kick.

“I tested what Newell raced on and I said, ‘no way.’ I went something else,” he said.

The pair then tagged off to Ivan Babikov and Noah Hoffman, who finished 30th and 29th, respectively, in the 15 k classic earlier this week, separated by just a tenth of a second.

While both are known more for their skating, for Hoffman, it’s to a relative degree. For Babikov, it’s a little more serious: he has a handful of World Cup top-tens, all in skate races.

Hoffman set out in hot pursuit, and quickly closed the six-second gap to Babikov.

Without Harvey and Kershaw in the race, Babikov said he was just using his leg as preparation for Sunday’s 50 k. Skiing without any pressure, he said he was enjoying himself, and it showed in his split. At just 53 seconds off Finland’s Juha Lalluka, Babikov’s time was the sixth-fastest of the third leg—the best of any of the eight North American skiers on Sunday.

For Hoffman, two-thirds of the way through the leg, the pace proved too much. His initial push caught up with him, and he popped.

“I should have caught [Babikov], but maybe catching him in a k, or however long it took, was a little fast,” Hoffman said.

Since all the teams behind the U.S. and Canada were ultimately lapped, Hoffman said that he should have kept his sights on Babikov, with whom he was engaged in a “two-team battle.” But he acknowledged that perhaps he shouldn’t have chased quite as hard early, which left him hurting later on.

Tad Elliott anchoring the United States team to 14th place.

“To give up [44 seconds] is not the way to beat Canada,” Hoffman said. “I would have been better tagging off to [anchor] Tad [Elliott] 15 seconds down, not ever having seen Babikov.”

Hoffman’s leg left the U.S. 50 seconds off the Canadians, and Elliott didn’t do much to stop the bleeding. Feeding off the tens of thousands of fans in the stadium and lining the trails, he went out aggressively, in pursuit of Canadian anchor George Grey.

“I knew there wasn’t anybody behind us, really… I started off so hard—it’s so loud—and kind of exploded,” he said. “I think here, it’s hard to control your pace, because everyone’s cheering, and you want to catch some people.”

Elliott’s leg was a rough one—he ended up more than two minutes behind Petter Northug (NOR), who had the fastest split of the fourth leg—and with Grey having a decent day, the race for North American bragging rights ended decisively, with Canada on top by nearly two minutes.

While the U.S. placed last of the 14 teams that finished the race—Great Britain, Australia, and Denmark were lapped and pulled—Canada’s anchor leg was enough to bring the country up to 12th, thanks to a move Grey put on Kazakhstan’s Yevgeniy Velichko.

A member of the Canadian Olympic relay team last year, Grey hasn’t been at his best this season, and had actually lost his spot on the country’s squad to Valjas. But thanks to Harvey’s decision, he got a chance to start on Friday.

“I’m just happy as hell to be here,” he said. “Not the strongest team, but I think we’re all very proud to do it for Canada.”

George Grey brings the Canadian squad home in 12th place.

Chelsea Little

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  • RonBott

    March 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    With results like these maybe we should have just stayed home and had the “North American Relay Battle” in North America.

  • John Forrest Tomlinson

    March 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I really don’t like this article. It’s interesting to read about new World Cup skiers doing their best, and reading about how their races went, but two teams doing back-of-the-field racing against other is not interesting – whether it was real or just made up for this article.

  • nordicguy

    March 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    The best of the worst and the lousiest of the best.

  • freeheels

    March 4, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Seriously, did any of you guys actually think we’d do better? We should just be happy that this isn’t a normal World Cup, were things would be even worse. Don’t forget, with every nation only fielding 4 athletes, our results all are artificially higher. Happens every championship.

  • RonBott

    March 4, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    No I wasn’t expecting much better. In retrospect it would have been better to not have entered a team.

  • Martin Hall

    March 4, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Ronbolt–not true—you always have to race—hoping you are building and exposing the younger skiers to the BIG international scene—to not show is a real no-no—that’s quiting—you never know when you are going to make the next step—-but you can’t take that step if you aren’t there—right?
    I do think I know the missing link here—the last 2 years the US Team has been flat at the Olympics and now at the Worlds—everyone goes home in the break between their last WC effort and the next WC race just before the big event—they are totally on their own—nothing directed or team organized —and on top of that none to very little racing. They need to have 5-7 days at home coming back from Europe–do the laundry, see the family or be with the other half and then go to an altitude camp like everyone else does, and have some races—this year 1 or 2 before Drammen. Get back to Europe as earlier as they can.
    I think they are on their own for too long and lose that in the winter competition mentality. I can read it in the interviews they do—totally switched off to what their job is, being international racers—-NOT GOOD!
    That’s my take.

  • John Forrest Tomlinson

    March 4, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I didn’t expect better for the US team, but like Martin Hall says, our younger racers need the experience.

    If Harvey and Kershaw had raced I’d hoped the Canadians would do better.

    I’m objecting more to this article making out that there was a big competition at the back of the race.

  • Howdy

    March 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Awesome that we raced. The experience is key, as Marty said. However, putting a positive spin on a less than positive result is NOT what we need.
    We don’t need to get down on the athletes in a relay of this experience level, but writing a whole story about fighting to stay close to our neighbor’s B-team at the back of the pack is sending our racers the wrong message; that they will be lauded for mediocre results.
    Don’t spin it. We as a nation should be doing much better. End of story.

  • John Forrest Tomlinson

    March 4, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    +1 Howdy

  • davord

    March 4, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    I don’t think we need to throw stones or spit at the athletes, but we have to be a bit more critical of the way things are run. Having said that, what you see is what you get. Newell and Koos lost a lot of time in the second part of that sprint relay. That was a bad omen for Newell and his relay prospects today. You wouldn’t really expect him to hang to a ferocious pace set by Rickardsson and Vylegzhanin, but 2:33 is too much to lose, even if he is far from a distance specialist. He lost 2 minutes in the second half of his leg! He seems to be struggling with endurance. That’s one of the reasons why he has a hard time advancing past the quarters of sprints. It’s one thing to have one maximum effort of 3 minutes, but it’s a whole different level to do it 2 or 3 more times, and with only that much time in between, as is the case in the sprint relay. Freeman looks to be in decent form, but not in the form he showed earlier in the year and 2 years ago in Liberec. That’s a bummer. Elliott and Hoffman are rookies on the WC tour, and the only direction for them is up. It’s a win win for them at this point, even if the relay didn’t go their way. There are some question marks in the team, but there also some real bright spots, particularly on the ladies side.

  • T.Eastman

    March 4, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    The guys that raced qualified for the event, I would think that the disappointed commenters did not…

  • lsiebert

    March 5, 2011 at 7:42 am

    I once dropped out of a race in high school because I wasn’t feeling 100% and was struggling with bad skis and difficult conditions for me, which led to a rival team tying us for the win, the first time we hadn’t won a race outright in years. My coach told me something the next day that I will never forget: “You don’t drop out unless you break a f**king leg”. In my mind, the only thing worse than dropping out is not showing up. You lose 100% of the races you don’t enter.

  • mygatt

    March 5, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Also, for those of you who don’t like how this article is written, remember something basic. FS is a North American website, and guess what, its readers care about how the Americans and Canadians do. FS needs to cover NA results, even when results are by no means stellar, and both sides know they aren’t coming away with bragging rights.

  • FasterSkier

    March 5, 2011 at 9:57 am

    We don’t feel this article was spin. We work to present the “story” of the race. The results speak for themselves – there is really nothing to write about the US and Canada in relation to the top teams. Both squads were out of the race by the 5km mark.

    We had good information on what happened to Newell and the like, so did cover the “what happened?” angle. Given the issues that Newell and the team that Canada fielded, the results are not surprising.

    The interesting thing is that most of the time we get accused of being too negative toward US athletes. We tell it how we see it, and this time we saw US and Canada battling.

    The entire first part of the article deals with how far back both teams were – hardly a positive spin.

  • nyctvt

    March 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Kris “Mr. Excuse” Freeman said it did not work for him to go home mid-season that he should have stayed in Europe. At this stage of his career and with his experience he should know what works and what doesn’t work!

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