Sweden’s Teodor Peterson wasn’t the only one knocking at the World Cup’s “Ruka Triple” mini-tour opener in Kuusamo, Finland, on Friday. Another 23 year old, Lenny Valjas of Canada was right there with him.
After cutting it relatively close in the men’s 1.4-k classic sprint qualifier, making the top 30 in 24th and 8.86 seconds behind leader Anssi Pentsinen (FIN), Peterson was one of two to advance from the quarterfinals. There, Valjas edged out four others with him.
Peterson went on to win his semifinal heat and ultimately the final, nabbing his first World Cup victory since he started the circuit in 2009. Two weekends ago, he came close, placing second in an FIS sprint in Bruksvallarna, Sweden.
“I was lucky today,” Peterson told the FIS Ski. “Two good races before (the) final made me fast in the end. Tomorrow, I will do my best, but I don’t have the same expectations.”
Valjas, who finished fifth in the final after qualifying in fourth (+4.38), knew the sprints were his strength, but he hadn’t entirely anticipated Friday’s result.
“I wasn’t expecting this at all so I’m very excited,” said Valjas, a second-year World Cup competitor, in a CCC press release. “I felt strong all day and this gives me so much confidence. Now more than ever I believe I can reach the podium. That is my goal.”
Valjas followed Russian Nikita Kriukov, who was second in the final and third in the qualifier, and Norway’s Oystein Petterson and Eirik Brandsdal, who placed a respective third and fourth in the final. Of 124 total starters, Valjas was one of the last six standing after nabbing fourth in the semifinals and advancing as a “lucky loser.”
The youngest member of Canada’s men’s team, Valjas was 17th in his first World Cup sprint last year. He went on to place ninth at a World-Cup freestyle sprint in late February, four days before finishing 15th in another short-distance skate at the 2011 World Championships.
In Bruksvallarna this year, he notched a career-best distance result, placing 18th in the 15 k freestyle. When asked the key to his early success, Valjas couldn’t pinpoint it.
“I’m not exactly sure,” the 6-foot-6 Valjas said. “I have been training extremely hard over the last few years and really working on getting stronger and bigger to use my height to an advantage.”
Canada’s head coach, Justin Wadsworth, noted Valjas’ intense training over the last year, which was especially evident in training camps and when he kept up with teammates Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw.
“He really is quite a different athlete than he was last year at this time,” Wadsworth told FasterSkier on the phone from Canmore, Alberta. “He’s really put a lot of time and energy into really stepping up his training like a real professional, and it’s paying off.”
When it came to expectations for Valjas, Wadsworth chuckled. The day before the Kuusamo sprints, he told someone he wasn’t sure how Valjas would do.
“I said he could win or he could be like 30th or 40th,” Wadsworth said. “He’s so early in his career with big World Cup races that you know he has the capability of doing it. But so far, he hasn’t shied away from the competition, that’s for sure.”
Harvey had the next-best day for Canada, narrowly qualifying in 29th for the quarterfinals, where he was eliminated. Kershaw was 56th in the preliminaries and did not move on, along with teammates Drew Goldsack (87th), Graham Nishikawa (91st), Ivan Babikov (100th), and Kevin Sandau (111th).
Wadsworth said that while some of his athletes might be disappointed with their results, mini-tours aren’t won in the sprints. Case in point: Of the top 10 in last year’s distance pursuit on the final day of the Kuusamo mini-tour, only Kershaw qualified in the sprints (he was 16th in the sprint; 9th in the freestyle pursuit).
Wadsworth said he reminded his skiers about that, and some, like Babikov, already knew.
“Ivan skied more relaxed and had a better race than he did last year,” Wadsworth said. “So you don’t ever expect Ivan to qualify in a sprint, but at least he felt good. … Things should be fine for those guys and it will be fun to see, for the whole team in general, we could have some good racing tomorrow (in the 5 and 10 k).”
Looking ahead to Saturday, Kershaw acknowledged that his best performances don’t usually stem from individual freestyle starts, but he was still awaiting a satisfactory performance. After placing fourth in the 15 k in New Zealand in August, he struggled to crack the top 30 in an FIS race and was 37th last weekend in the 15 k freestyle.
“They say ‘patience is a virtue,’ ” Kershaw wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “And I am probably the least patient person around — so maybe it’s a test.”
He joked that he tended to overanalyze and retracted that possibility.
“It’s only November 25th. There’s a lot of season left, a lot of chances and the Tour is still over a month away — which is a big objective for me this season,” Kershaw wrote. “Everyday I wake up hoping I’ll feel better — but so far no. That’s all I can do. Keep believing, keep being patient and just get up, put one leg through my tights at a time and get out there and race my hardest.”
How the Americans Fared
For the U.S., Andy Newell was the top male and lone qualifier in 19th, but he failed to advance to the semifinals. Kris Freeman was 82nd, followed by Lars Flora (102nd), Noah Hoffman (120th) and Tad Elliott (122nd). Simi Hamilton did not start because of illness (sore throat) and is therefore ineligible for the rest of the weekend’s races.
He tweeted: “Not a great morning to wake up sick. Lying in bed …”
After Newell placed sixth in the Kuusamo sprints last year, he wasn’t exactly satisfied with Friday’s result, but intended to learn from his mistakes.
“I broke the number one rule of Kuusamo which is to make sure you have an open track on the big climb,” Newell wrote in an email. “I took some big chances but still got caught in open traffic on the climb and then blocked again going into the lanes. Then to top it off I lost the lunge for third place.”
While Newell wouldn’t make excuses for himself, U.S. head coach Chris Grover gave him the benefit of the doubt. He had not done a sprint race since training in Lake Placid in September, Grover said in a phone interview.
“I think he probably was just a little bit rusty, but I think he felt good,” Grover said. “The qualification with the exception of the guy who won … was extremely tight, as it often is here.”
In the qualifier, Newell was only about 3 ½ seconds behind the prologue’s runner-up (Jesper Modin of Sweden).
“It’s so tight that you often see guys that are incredibly great sprinters that don’t even make the rounds,” Grover said.
He referenced John Kristian Dahl (NOR), who won last year’s sprint there. He was 48th in Friday’s qualifier.
Grover said he wasn’t too concerned with the rest of his athletes’ performances in the men’s sprint. Freeman was 87th in the same race in 2010 and made a run to crack the mini-tour’s overall top 10 (but his pole broke on the last lap of the final day).
“Because there’s two distance races, the small deficit that the sprinters have gained on the distance skiers gets erased in a hurry,” Grover said. “It gets mostly erased tomorrow and it gets totally erased by Sunday.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.