GÄLLIVARE, Sweden – When Alex Harvey said yesterday that Canada could win today’s 4 x 7.5 k World Cup relay, he wasn’t kidding.
It might seem surprising after the results the Canadians turned in on Saturday, with just one racer breaking the top 20 in the 15 k skate. But Sunday was a new day, and relays always generate a little extra something for the athletes.
“I love racing the relay,” Devon Kershaw told FasterSkier. “It means a lot to me.”
“Last night we were pretty excited, for sure,” Lenny Valjas agreed.
And while the Canadians were never quite in it for the win, they likely could have secured a podium spot – something that seemed doubtful at the beginning of the race, but became more and more apparent as each racer tagged off to the next.
And by the time the drool had dried, Canada had still turned in a best-ever 5th in World Cup relay, matching the team’s result at the 2009 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic.
Valjas, who skied the scramble leg, was particularly excited for the competition. After breaking a bone in his hand two and a half weeks ago, he has had to refrain from racing. He’s also still in a cast, but he said he had cut the cast a bit so that he could fit his pole strap around his hand. Today was a chance to get in a hard effort before the mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland, next weekend.
“I’m so excited to be back,” he said. “I really wanted one good race before Kuusamo.”
While he said others were worrying about the hand – a sort of, “don’t worry Mom, I’m fine” moment – he had no pain today and was hoping to progress to just wrapping it sometime in the next week or two. Nonetheless, putting Valjas on the opening leg of the relay, where there is the most pushing and shoving, was a risk.
“There were no wipeouts, and that’s what I was worried about, that I would fall, because I’d put my hand out and potentially, I don’t know if the bone is quite healed yet,” he said. “But it was fine. I could only really hold on with three fingers to the pole.”
Rather than broken bones, Valjas would rather talk about skiing. And for someone who skipped the pre-World Cup races that most of the rest of the field competed in, he seemed to survive just fine, tagging off in 14th place about 17 seconds behind Emil Jonsson of Sweden.
“First race in a long time,” he said. “The second loop I went a bit hard trying to catch up to the leaders, because I was sitting probably in about fifteenth or twentieth when there was the attack. So once I got up there I was pretty winded, and just kind of hung on for the last lap. I think the shape is there – I just needed something hard to clear the lungs out.”
Kershaw has been racing, but it hasn’t been at all satisfying so far. In yesterday’s 15 k skate, he placed in the 40’s. Luckily, things improved today, a good sign not only for the relay but for the 2012 World Cup runner-up’s hopes next weekend.
“I felt a lot better today than yesterday, and for sure the first lap I just tried to stay super relaxed because I didn’t have very good feelings,” Kershaw said. “But then the last two laps were great. I wish I had another lap to do some damage. But I was happy with the way I skied, and I’m glad I’m feeling good in classic.”
Kershaw’s hard work made up ten seconds towards first place, and by the time he finished his third 2.5 k loop he was sitting in seventh place. That meant it was time for Ivan Babikov – the only Canadian to have a good result in the individual race, where he placed 14th – to take over and skate.
And Babikov continued his recent string of good performances, skiing an aggressive race to gain two more spots; the main time that he lost was on Norway’s Sjur Røthe, who skied away from the rest of the field. Russia and Germany also pulled away slightly, but Babikov was right in the chase when he handed off to Harvey.
The Quebec native caught on with Sweden’s Marcus Hellner as he went past, and along with Roman Furger of Switzerland skied his way up to the German and Russian anchor legs. For almost five kilometers, the five men raced around together.
“I felt way better than yesterday,” Harvey told FasterSkier after the finish. “It felt good – when Hellner was pushing, I felt like on the top of the uphills, he was fading a bit and I was still strong, so it felt really good.”
For one lap, Harvey mostly sat on Hellner’s shoulder, staying out of trouble. But a Canadian podium was not to be.
“Tactically it was really bad,” Harvey said of the last 2.5 kilometers. “When Ilya went by me I should have been more aggressive and gone right behind him, but I let the Swiss guy go ahead. It was not good. I’m really disappointed to let these guys down.”
Usually, Harvey is the guy you can depend on in a finishing sprint – he has the tactics, and he has the speed. But the 2011 World Champion in the team sprint, where he joined up with Kershaw in Oslo, chalked his failure today up to a summer away from mass start racing.
“I fell asleep,” he said. “That’s the thing – those guys, they race in the summer with rollerski races. They have a lot of stuff against each other. For us it’s intervals, but when you’re on rollerskis you have a 10 meter wide road and you can go by any time you want. But here, it’s a windy course and I didn’t have my usual aggression. So I was a bit disappointed. I’m really disappointed. My teammates skied really well. I think the podium was really reachable today.”
It certainly seems to be reachable in the future – for instance, when Valjas can hold onto his poles with five fingers instead of two. And that’s a day Kershaw will relish.
“I have a huge goal for me – I don’t know how long I’m going to keep skiing, I’ll ski for sure until 2015, but in the next three years I’d like to see our team medal at least, if not win, a relay,” he said. “In my career, I think that would be something phenomenal. We’re not quite there, but I think we’re all capable if we’re in good shape.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.