All in all it was a great day for the Canadian team in Drammen for the World Cup classic sprint. Lenny Valjas earned his first World Cup podium, placing second, Chandra Crawford reached her first classic final and took 5th while Dasha Gaiazova matched a career-best placing 8th.
The only negative was the luck of Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw, both of whom looked back in top form after a long altitude camp in Italy.
A crash and a broken pole took the two men out of the race in the quarterfinals.
Crawford made her name as a skate sprinter, winning Olympic gold in the event at the 2006 Games, and taking the top spot in several World Cup events since.
After several down years, Crawford focused on her fitness and improving her classic skiing, bringing about a resurgance this year.
Her hard work on the classic side was evident in Drammen where she advanced through a stacked field to reach the final.
“I was not expecting it go that well,” said Crawford after the race. “I have been relentless on improving my classic skiing. My stride has opened up and is much longer.”
In her semifinal, Crawford was the only woman able to follow Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), who attacked hard from the gun. The race came back together on the descents, but Crawford showed off the long stride she mentioned, staying close to the Kowalczyk and well clear of Aurora Jean (FRA) who ultimately advanced as a lucky loser.
In the final, Crawford ended up on the wrong side of an early break, and was left fighting for fourth for most of the race. When Kowalczyk crashed on the final corner, the podium was momentarily back within reach, but the Canadian ran out of gas on the homestretch.
Several days earlier, Gaiazova set a personal best when she qualified for the Lahti sprint in 8th place. She was just a tad behind in Drammen, posting the 11th best time, but fared better in the heats.
Gaiazova drew a brutal quarterfinal, headlined by Marit Bjørgen (NOR), Kikan Randall (USA), Natalia Matveeva (RUS) and Charlotte Kalla (SWE).
She did not back down, however, and the strength of the heat, and the faster conditions as the first to quarter, allowed Gaiazova to advance as a lucky loser after placing third behind Bjørgen and Randall.
“My plan was to try and follow Marit and Kikkan for as long as I could and then just go my hardest on the gradual uphill finishing stretch,” Gaiazova wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “Classic striding is one of my strengths, so I knew I would be strong in the finish, and I used that uphill section of the course to pass people when I could.”
Gaiazova ended up facing Bjørgen and Randall again in the semis and opted for a similar strategy.
“I tried my best, and I was very happy with the outcome of the race,” Gaiazova said. “Of course, advancing to the final seemed really within my grasp, and I think given the similarity of the race course in Stockholm (long uphill finish, lots of double pole), I have a great opportunity to try it all again and fight for a good result.”
She also finished 8th in a classic sprint in Otepaa, Estonia in Januray 2011, and has qualified for the heats in her last eight sprint starts, a run that includes two appearances in the semifinals.
One and Out for Harvey and Kershaw
It looked like it was going to be a good day for Harvey when he posted the second fastest qualifiying time, behind only eventual winner Eirik Brandsdal (NOR).
“I felt very good today,” Harvey wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “My speed is definitely back.”
Despite reaching the podium in the skiathlon last Saturday in Lahti, Harvey has been feeling the effects of a 12-day altitude camp that limited his top gear. He and Kershaw both failed to qualify for the heats in the Lahti sprint on Sunday.
“For the heats I wanted to be top four at the top of the climb and save energy for the second time up the hill…I just forgot about the ‘staying on my skis’ part,” Harvey wrote.
He crashed on the flat backstretch when his klister grabbed as he initiated a doublepole.
He said that his wax was catching earlier but he has been able to free it before anything happened.
“It was just bad timing—so next thing I knew I was on the ground and my butt was soaked! It took me quite a while to get back on my skis too. I hammered the flat section and was able to reel in two guys but it wasn’t enough,” Harvey said.
He wasn’t the only skier to go down unimpeded during the day. American Kikkan Randall ripped the binding out of her ski when her klister caught, and Kowalczyk lost her chance at the win when she fell late in the race on a flat corner.
With the crash, Harvey lost a valuable opportunity to make up ground in the overall World Cup standings. With several distance skiers surrounding him in the fight for the top-6, every point was bonus in Drammen.
Kershaw didn’t actually fall, but had a pole broken near the top of the course by a Finnish skier, at “the worst possible place,” where people were attacking.
It was some moments before he got a replacement pole, and though he was abe to regain contact, he ended up boxed out on the last corner.
“I tried to get around people because I was feeling so good, but ended up a very disappointing 5th in my heat—it just didn’t go my way,” Kershaw told FasterSkier. “Still though, a great, great day for North America!”
Despite the disappointment and the fact that he wasn’t able to do much to help his cause in the overall either, there was a silver lining for the Canadian star.
He described the Drammen sprint as “a bit of a ‘Moby Dick’ situation for me. I keep chasing it around, for years, but never was able to make that elusive top-30”
This was his eighth try, and he finally broke through, but not without a struggle.
Like Andy Newell (USA), he opted to double pole the qualifier, a move he ended up regretting.
According to Kershaw only himself, Newell, and Dario Cologna (SUI) advanced on skate gear.
“Warming up Alex, Len and I talked a lot,” Kershaw said. “They were sure that classic skiing was faster, but having been burned here for so many years, I decided to go against the grain a bit and double pole the qualifier. It barely worked out for me, and I know I would have been way better on classic skis, but at least I made it.”
With Petter Northug (NOR) idle again, and second in the overall World Cup, just ahead, Kershaw was in position to make up some serious ground.
But the failure to qualify in Lahti and the early exit in Drammen did not help matters.
But Kershaw believes that a rested Northug will be very difficult to catch regardless.
“I’m trying not to think about all that too much,” Kershaw said of the overall. “Of course it’s been a huge goal for me this year [to finish in the top 3 overall], and I know there are only five races remaining—we’ll just have to see how the body reacts. It’s been an extremely heavy load for me these last months with a lot of stuff going on, so we’ll just have to take it race by race.”
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.