The Canadian women went to Oberwiesenthal, Germany. Lenny Valjas went to Egypt. Wherever their respective travels took the Canadian World Cup Team, it worked, at least for the sprinters on Saturday.
Perianne Jones led the three-person women’s squad in the qualifier, posting the seventh-fastest time in the World Cup classic sprint in Liberec, Czech Republic. For Jones, it was by far a personal best.
“All my qualifiers before this year have been by the skin of my teeth,” Jones said with a laugh. “So I’m happy to be consistently in there and really in the mix instead of the last one or two.”
But it got better for the Canadians: Dasha Gaiazova qualified in 10th, Valjas advanced in 16th and Crawford made it through in 27th. All four of the Canadians that raced in Liberec – including Valjas, who finished his first Tour de Ski last Sunday – made the heats. Then Jones, Gaiazova and Valjas advanced to the semifinals to secured top-10 results.
From there, Gaiazova carried the most momentum, finishing neck-and-neck in the semifinal with eventual overall winner Mona-Liisa Malvalehto of Finland, who won the semi in a photo finish. Gaiazova joined her in the final, where she latched onto Malvalehto out of the start.
Running in second for the first half of the women’s 850-meter race, Gaiazova attempted to hold off Poland’s charging Justyna Kowalczyk, but lost some speed when Kowalczyk jumped ahead of her in the track before the last hill. With Malvalehto skiing away to the victory, Gaiazova, Kowalczyk and Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla battled for second, where Kowalczyk won the three-way photo finish. All three came in 1.7 seconds behind Malvalehto (who won in 2:03.8), with Falla edging Gaiazova for third.
So close to a podium, Gaiazova said on the phone she was simply glad to be in contention in her signature event.
“It was a short course and you had to go all out from the start,” Gaiazova said of the less-than-one-kilometer course, shortened from 1.7 k after the coaches voted Friday night.
“At the end, it’s just sort of like a drag-race double poling,” she said, adding that she didn’t think in the final moments, she just went for it. “I did the best I could and I’m definitely happy.”
Not far down the results list in ninth, Jones also notched a World Cup individual best. She was second in her quarterfinal to Germany’s Hanna Kolb and fifth in her semifinal – the same one Gaiazova and Malvalehto won.
Jones said she scrambled after bad starts in both the quarterfinal and semifinal. While she made up for it drafting and passing others on the big downhill in the first heat, she failed to pick off as many people in the semi.
“I tried to make my same move coming up the last hill like I did in the quarterfinal, but it wasn’t enough to move on to the final,” Jones said. “I was happy with it, but I know what I need to work on now and that is my starts.”
As for Gaiazova, who’s top-six secured a trip to the 2014 Winter Olympics, Jones said she was fun to watch.
“Dasha skied tactically super well the whole day and she’s in great shape,” Jones said. “It was really exciting to see her be so close to a podium. We were really cheering hard for her.”
Valjas ended up 10th in the men’s 1.6 k sprint after advancing out of his quarterfinal in fourth with one of the fastest times. The lone Canadian man racing, Valjas went on to place fifth in the semifinal.
“I felt the final hill,” he said. “I could feel the legs just didn’t have the same snap or speed … There’s nothing I can change. I can only go as fast as my body would let me. Today I was just out there having fun and seeing how fast I could go.”
Earlier in the week, Valjas took three days off completely at an all-inclusive resort in Hurghada, Egypt, where he traveled solo. There, he met up with the women’s alpine technical team and said he mostly “sat tanning [and] tried to recover” after placing 23rd in the Tour, an overall result he was pleased with.
“I really didn’t know what to expect for this race and I’m happy with making the semi and cracking the top ten just after the Tour,” he said.
In both his heats, Valjas struggled to find an open lane to test his finishing kick. He skied right behind Germany’s Tim Tscharnke into the last stretch of the semifinal, but Tscharnke moved ahead and Valjas dropped to fifth.
“We picked the same lane and I don’t know why, but I kept going to the left lane up the hill, which is the outside when you come into the finish,” Valjas said. “It’s just way further. Maybe I could’ve done something tactically better. … I couldn’t keep up with them on the last uphill anyways so it didn’t change too much.”
In an email, Crawford, who was 29th overall, wrote that she was inspired by her teammates’ performances despite feeling a little off in her first World Cup in nearly a month. She was sixth in her quarterfinal, 7.6 seconds behind Kolb as the heat’s winner.
“I feel sluggish like I usually do coming off a block without racing,” Crawford wrote. “It looks like it will take the usual race into shape plan. … Couldn’t quite dance around and make moves as I pleased – the main move I wanted to make being closing the gap to the group.”
In the scheme of things, this race – with several Tour competitors sitting it out – wasn’t the end-all of the season. Most of the Canadian women, for instance, had their sights on the classic sprint at World Championships Feb. 21 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“My teammates Peri and Dasha are classic sprinting like complete bosses so I’m looking forward to our prep together this next month,” Crawford wrote.
The three spent the last few weeks of December training at home in Canmore, Alberta, before flying to Oberwiesenthal in early January for Alpen Cup races (a classic sprint and 5 k freestyle). According to Canadian women’s coach Eric de Nys, the races were tune-ups before resuming the World Cup schedule.
Reacting to the results in their first race back, de Nys wasn’t surprised, but rather somewhat relieved given the nature of sprinting.
“I think sprinting is still so volatile, especially on today’s course,” he said. “We have three high-quality women that can go to the podium any day … all of our cards have to fall the right way.”
One shot around an 850-meter course made it even tighter, but de Nys advocated the shorter sprint. After previewing the 1,700-meter course Friday, he estimated it would take the women between upwards of four minutes to complete. In his opinion, anything over three minutes wasn’t a true sprint.
“If you want to talk about a sprint today, if you’re an 800-meter runner for a woman, it’s about 1:55, I think, and today we were 2:04,” de Nys said. “Now we’re starting to be in the right ballpark of time to really call it a sprint, if you want to call 800-meters a sprint.”
Like most of the Canadians, Jones welcomed the news of a shorter course. The women first skied in Liberec on Friday with a typical pre-race workout at Zone 3.
“It took us six minutes to do two laps,” Jones said with a laugh. “So we’re like, ‘OK this is gonna be a really long sprint.’ At the coaches’ meeting, they decided to shorten it, which was pretty awesome for everyone. Even the men’s race looked a little like a distance race on TV … I think it’s good to keep sprints sprints.”
Valjas felt similarly after the men’s 1.6 k course took about 3 ½ minutes.
“The sprint, I think, should be really a lot shorter,” he said. “The course yesterday that they had for the training was a lot longer so this morning they cut it … it would’ve been four minutes yesterday.”
On Sunday, Gaiazova and Jones will pair up in the team sprint and Valjas will enjoy the day off.
“It will be a really, really exciting race I think,” Jones said. “All the teams here are pretty close and anything can happen. Team sprints are just so crazy that way. … They’re my favorite.”
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.