FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — If you close your eyes and ski the course at the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, well, go ahead and try it.
When you literally hit the wall that climbs out of the stadium, which curves upward and continues at an unforgiving grade to the top of the sprint course, you’ll realize you’re on something similar to the World Cup course in Canmore, Alberta, except you’re in the Dolomites in northeastern Italy.
For the Canadian World Cup team, they might as well be at home, head coach Justin Wadsworth said under blue skies while testing skis in the Lago di Tesero stadium Wednesday afternoon. All but one of his athletes had trained earlier in the day, before the 5- and 10-kilometer freestyle qualifying races, which opened the 1 ½-week World Championships.
Dozens of lesser-known skiers from non-skiing nations, like Iran and India, had come and gone after the qualifiers, which granted the top-10 women and men starts in the individual races at World Championships. But for Wadsworth, two Canadian wax technicians and Ivan Babikov, it was just another day in the sun – just like in Canmore.
“The first pitch is really like Canmore and the snow is like Canmore so it’s good for us, I think,” Wadsworth said. “Knock on wood, we’ve always had success in Val di Fiemme. We’ve gotten a lot of podiums here.”
And several are still fresh on the Canadians’ list of season-highs. In early January, 24-year-old Lenny Valjas notched second in the 15-kilometer classic sprint at the Val di Fiemme segment of the Tour de Ski. Teammate Alex Harvey was third in the same race, the second-to-last stage, and Babikov went on to place second the next day in the 9 k freestyle climb up the nearby Alpe Cermis.
Two years ago, Devon Kershaw was third in Val di Fiemme in a 20 k classic mass start, and a year later, Harvey placed second in the same event at the 2011/2012 Tour. All of that adds up to a lot of good memories, but the fact is, the Canadian men haven’t had the smoothest of rides this season.
Valjas injured his hand shortly before the first races in Europe, Kershaw tore a ligament in his foot not long after, but raced on it through eight-painful weeks, and Harvey dislocated his shoulder during training three weeks ago in Sochi, Russia.
On the women’s side, Chandra Crawford announced earlier this month that she was ending her season early to gear up for next year, and she flew home to Canmore before World Championships. All the adversity aside, the two other females on Canada’s World Cup team – Dasha Gaiazova and Perianne Jones – have been pretty darn consistent.
Both are coming off a podium in Sochi, where they placed third in the classic team sprint at the pre-Olympic World Cup. Three weeks before, Gaiazova tallied a career-best fourth in a 0.85 k classic sprint in Liberec, Republic. Both have guaranteed themselves trips to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, with Jones recording three top-12s in classic sprints this season.
So what does that mean for Thursday’s classic sprint? According to Wadsworth, good things for the women. Both are healthy, which is more than he could say about Valjas, who skied for the first time in four days on Wednesday. He came down with strep throat after last weekend’s Davos World Cup. Fortunately, a physician — Harvey’s mom — was traveling with them and caught the ailment early.
“It’s bad timing,” Wadsworth said, adding that they were glad to have the doctor around and believe to have remedied the effects with antibiotics. On Wednesday, Valjas told Wadsworth he felt OK in training.
“He just didn’t know stamina-wise what he had left,” Wadsworth explained. “This illness has taken something out of him for sure, but … he’s a Jedi, man. That guy can do stuff you never think he could do, so we’ll let him do it.”
That said, Valjas as well as Harvey, Kershaw and Phil Widmer (Alberta World Cup Academy) planned to start the 1.5 k classic sprint. Joining Gaiazova and Jones, Continental Cup leaders Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) and Emily Nishikawa will race the women’s 1.2 k classic sprint.
Of the six races at World Championships, Wadsworth considered Thursday’s individual sprint – as well as the team sprints, men’s relay and men’s 50 k classic mass start – to be their best opportunities for the podium. And the Canadians are shooting for at least two medals, one more than they achieved at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Norway (where Harvey and Kershaw won the classic team sprint).
“The whole season’s been aimed toward this,” Wadsworth said, as he reiterated several times this year. But sometimes, his team’s results – with all its athletes having been on the podium at the World Cup level – have come up short of expectations.
Wadsworth said that’s a matter of timing. The team did an altitude camp in Italy before the Davos World Cup, which explained some athletes’ sub-par results in Switzerland.
“Your body’s in the middle of adjusting back from altitude and we’re racing there so we knew not to expect much there,” he explained. “We have athletes that know they can medal. … Everyone knows to show up to the big event and perform. As a staff and as a whole program, we don’t expect anything but great performances.”
Harvey, for one, is ready. In a phone interview on Wednesday night, he said his shoulder wasn’t a problem and three days after the injury in Sochi, he taped it up and did intervals. Now back in Val di Fiemme, he’s looking forward to the classic sprint as well as the relay, 50 k and hopefully the team sprint – with three men contending for two spots.
“I’ve been feeling really good in training in the last month,” Harvey said. “I always have had good feelings on these courses and this type of snow.”
Too much rest leading up to Davos hurt him, but now that he had his 39th in the classic sprint out of the way, he was feeling good about his chances. Asked what event he was most looking forward to, Harvey said the relay, in which the Canadians (Valjas, Kershaw, Babikov and Harvey) placed fifth at the opening World Cup in Gällivare, Sweden. They did not compete in the second relay of the season in La Clusaz, France.
“It’s been a slow start to the season, but we didn’t want to compete for overall World Cup,” Harvey said. “The championships was the only target this year. … We know we’ve done pretty well on this course. Everyone likes this area, just extra confidence.”
According to Wadsworth, it’s undecided whether Harvey will skip the 15 k freestyle next week or Saturday’s 30 k skiathlon to rest for Sunday’s team sprint. Kershaw would likely sit out the skiathlon and compete in all five other races, Wadsworth said.
“We made a big call in Oslo by skipping the 15 k classic,” Wadsworth said. “Devon and Alex could’ve medaled in that I think, and we sucked it up and skipped that race and got a gold medal out of it [one day later]. I don’t see why that strategy should change here too much.”
Gaiazova, Jones and Dupont will focus on the sprints, while Nishikawa and Brittany Webster (Highlands Trailblazers) will represent Canada in the distance races. Babikov and Graham Nishikawa will be ones to watch in the men’s distance events, and Wadsworth said both Nishikawas are feeling better after a long bout with illness.
“Every day we should have somebody that’s in the hunt,” Wadsworth said.
Thursday’s 1.2/1.5 k classic sprints
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.