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FALUN, Sweden – Results for the men’s 15km classic mass start in Falun—Cologna, Roenning, Valjas. Valjas? Yes Valjas.
While Dario Cologna (SUI) and Eldar Roenning (NOR) were busy repeating their final sprint of a week ago in the Oslo 50k, sprinter Lenny Valjas (CAN) turned more than a few heads at the Lugnet Riksskidstadion on Saturday, including his own.
“This is a surprise,” Valjas told FasterSkier, laughing at the idea he might have expected to be on the World Cup podium in a distance race.
“I don’t belong there yet [at the front of a distance race],” Valjas said. I think a few people were surprised to look over, thinking ‘the sprinter is still here, what’s going on?’”
The other big name sprinters rapidly made their way to the back of the pack—Brandsdal, Gloeersen, Hattestad, Wenzl, Peterson, Pasini, Strandvall, Pellegrino, and Retivykh, an all-star team of short distance racing took eight of the last nine spots on the results sheet while Valjas was duking it out with the likes of Cologna and Roenning, not to mention teammates Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey.
“I honestly thought Lenny could hang at the back part of the lead group,” Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said. “He definitely has the capacity to do that, but for him to be third…no way.”
Valjas earned his first World Cup podium less than two weeks ago in the Drammen city-sprint, finishing second.
He followed up with a third place a week later in Stockholm, and was a solid 21st in Friday’s prologue, and the goal today was for Valjas to try to hang in the top-15 of the overall World Cup Finals.
Instead he ended up second, 36 seconds behind Cologna.
The 23-year-old Valjas had a clear plan for the race and executed it nearly perfectly.
“My goal was to be with the group at 11k or so because that is when I start to feel better,” Valjas said. “Everyone is starting to get tired and I hit this point and I can push as hard as I want.”
He wasn’t able to explain this ability much further, saying only that if he doesn’t blow up early, it is hard for him to do so between 10 and 15k.
“I don’t know what it is,” Valjas said. “But it is when I can make up some time.”
The key is staying under control early, and Wadsworth felt Valjas “did a really good job” of doing just that.
Valjas found the early pace relaxed, and since the mass start was seeded by the World Cup Finals standings, Valjas was wearing bib number three,” which he said was a big help.
Valjas usually is back in bib 60 or higher. Not having to fight the traffic makes a huge difference.
But even with the clear start, two bonus sprints at the top of Mördarbacken provided plenty of opportunity to explode.
“When the sprints went I just totally let them go. Gaps opened up—I wasn’t worried,” Valjas said.
He was just shooting for the points (top-30), so wasn’t going to mess around up front early.
When Cologna raised the pace on the second lap heading for the preem, Wadsworth said Valjas “just did his own thing.”
“You can’t go that hard on those sprints and not pay for it in someway,” Wadsworth explained.
Heading out on the third lap, Valjas had some ground to make up.
“I just used my long stride again on those gradual climbs to keep bridging up the gap on the flats,” Valjas said.
He had been happy to be in contact after 10k and with his work on the mellow terrain, was back in strong position by the start of the last time up Mördarbacken.
Once again he resisted getting carried away.
“I crawled my way to the top where it starts to get gradual,” Valjas said of his final ascent.
At that point, as the hill begins to level, he hopped back in the tracks and began striding out.
With people dying all around, he began moving past, and he knew he had a chance for a “fairly good day,’ as he wasn’t “walking dead” at that point.
Dropping into the stadium, he, teammate Kershaw and Niklaus Dyrhaug still trailed leaders Cologna, Roenning and Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) by a significant margin, but the lead would not last.
“I pushed on the flats when they were tucking—high speed double pole. And that gave me a tiny speed advantage that brought me up,” Valjas said.
He towed several others behind, and they used the draft to come by.
“I was happy to be in top-5 and two guys went by me and I was like ‘come on,”’ Valjas said.
He dropped his head and charged, and the next time he looked up there were only four skiers in sight and he thought “I gotta go. This might be the closest I am to a distance podium for a long time, so I just went for it.”
The Falun finish is gradual up to one last steeper pitch. Valjas came flying by Dyrhaug with just 20 meters to go, crossing the line just a few meters behind Cologna and Roenning.
While Wadsworth did not expect to see a distance podium from Valjas anytime soon, he knew that the tall Canadian had the potential.
“You can just see it in the way he handles the training load,” Wadsworth explained. “He can handle the same load that Devon and Alex can at all the camps.”
Wadsworth also said that at the team’s summer training camp in Hawaii last summer, Valjas was able to stick with his veteran teammates in intervals on a regular basis, “providing glimpses” of this very day.
Kershaw, who was 5th just behind Dyrhaug said he was “super impressed” with his teammate.
“I guess you could say he is the king of the gradual uphill finish,” Kershaw said.
For his part, Kershaw was somewhat disappointed to miss the podium, but in an effort to improve his standings in the mini-tour, he had pushed hard for bonus seconds, earning 15 for his efforts.
“I went for the preems, which left me with nothing for the end,” Kershaw said, a strategy that he has employed at several other times during the season in his quest for points.
“He has put himself in a very good position,” Wadsworth said.
Sometimes, Wadsworth explained, it is necessary to prioritize the bonus over the result sheet, and that can be hard.
“But look at what it got him,” Wadsworth said. “He has the potential to be 2nd in the mini-tour, and the way he is skating anything can happen.”
The final Canadian in what now can be considered a “big three,” didn’t fare nearly as well as his compatriots.
Harvey entered the day sitting in second in the World Cup Finals after winning the prologue on Friday.
But after starting well, he ran into trouble halfway through the race.
“I tried to go for the first preem,” Harvey said. “It knocked me down and I never recovered.”
Wadsworth said “I think yesterday cost him a lot of emotional energy,” but doesn’t see Harvey completely out of the mini-tour despite sitting in 9th +1:39.
“I hope he bounces back and can go well tomorrow because big groups can come all the way back up on the podium in pursuits, Wadsworth said.”
Like everyone else, Harvey was more than a little impressed with Valjas’ race.
“It is crazy,” Harvey said. “He doesn’t cease to surprise us. We knew he could be good in distance but…”
Sandau Strong in the Shadow of Podiums
With regular podium appearances by his teammates it is easy to overlook Kevin Sandau, the fourth Canadian man racing at World Cup Finals.
As the leader of the NorAm Continental Cup series, Sandau earned a start spot at the Finals, and today he made good use of it, placing 34th.
“Overall a good day, but just missing some top end to squeeze into the top-30 for today’s race,” Sandau told FasterSkier.
Sandau started last in the field and was aggressive from the line as he wanted to move up in the field before the race hit Mördarbacken for the first time so as not to get blocked on the hill by slower skiers.
Overall, however, he wanted to stay relax and “make up some spots mainly on the climbs without pushing the body too hard.”
He said he passed the most people on the big hill on the first or second laps, but lost some of that the last time around.
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.