If you ask Canadian National Ski Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth, things are on the upswing for his World Cup team. And he’s not just blowing hot air; three of his six athletes posted top-12 results on Saturday to back that up.
Leading the team was its youngest member, 24-year-old Lenny Valjas, who placed sixth in the 1.5-kilometer classic sprint in Davos, Switzerland. It was his fourth World Cup top-10 of the season and best non-stage result (Valjas was third in the freestyle sprint at the Tour de Ski).
But Valjas has been strong all season, as has Dasha Gaiazova, who placed 12th in Saturday’s 1.5 k women’s sprint. The most improved went to Devon Kershaw, who tied his season-best of eighth, which he notched two weekends ago at the pre-Olympic World Cup in Sochi, Russia.
“Devon was the snappiest I’ve seen him skiing all year,” Wadsworth said on the phone.
Kershaw, 30, used the same adjective to describe his form all the way through the semifinals, and this time, he was using it in a good sense.
“When I wanted to change gears I could and I was super pumped,” Kershaw said. “That’s been something I’ve been missing all year long. Even in Sochi, when I was eighth, I couldn’t change gears like you need to in a sprint, and while the result was the same today I felt much better.”
As for Valjas, he’s just a beast, Kershaw said. The Canadian World Cup team veteran recalled racing with Valjas in the semifinal. Both started off the back, and Kershaw later made a move before the two-tiered climb on the second lap.
“Up the first part of the climb, I was feeling awesome and Lenny just went by me,” Kershaw said. “I had a moment where I was like, ‘He’s 6-6 and he’s moving his legs faster than I am!’ It was fun to watch Lenny race so well today. He’s probably not a favorite to win, but he’s definitely somebody everyone’s thinking about to snag a podium at the World Championships.”
Kershaw lost some steam on the last part of the hill and finished fourth in that heat, 2.72 seconds behind semifinal winner Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan, who also won the final. Valjas was third, just 0.66 out of first and about two-tenths of a second behind American Andy Newell, who went on to place fourth in the final.
Valjas advanced to the final as well, where he ended up sixth, 12.34 behind Poltoranin. After a strange start to his morning, in which Valjas felt lightheaded and was “seeing stars” when he stood up too fast, he drank a hefty amount of water after the qualifier. (He advanced to the heats in 12th.)
Kershaw qualified in 23rd and Alex Harvey missed the top 30 by about 1 ½ seconds in 39th (+10.54 behind top qualifier Frederico Pellegrino of Italy.) Phil Widmer of the Alberta World Cup Academy also represented Canada in a tune-up race before World Championships, and placed 46th (+13.0).
And while Kershaw cruised to a relatively comfortable second-place finish in his quarterfinal (minus a late charge by Germany’s Alexander Wolz, which resulted in a photo finish for second), Valjas had to give every ounce of energy he had to advance.
Positioned in sixth the first time up the big climb, he got stuck behind Cyril Miranda of France, who “fell on his face and took two Russians [Gleb Retivykh and Anton Gafarov] down with him,” Valjas described in an email. “I was stuck behind these three guys with no room at all to move around. So I waited out the storm.”
When he reviewed the video, Valjas realized he stood there for a full six seconds as the three untangled their equipment.
“By this time the two leaders had a huge lead on our group,” he explained. “In my head I was telling myself, ‘Well I’ll finish 3rd in the heat and just end up top 15 in the overall.’ ”
But when he entered the stadium to start his second lap, Valjas heard one of his wax techs, Joel Knopff, screaming that he could catch the leaders.
“I really didn’t want to let him down so I attacked through the stadium and caught the leaders in the climb,” Valjas wrote. “I actually surprised myself with the acceleration, but deep down I knew that this effort would come back to haunt me later today.”
In the semifinal, he shared a similar tactic as Kershaw, letting anyone go on the first lap if they wanted to push the pace. No one did, and on the second lap, Valjas attacked a little later on the climb. Just behind Newell, he nabbed the lucky loser spot.
“[The] final is easy to explain. I had nothing left in the tank,” Valjas wrote. “The two hard heats left me with no energy to work with. I suffered through the final and ended up 6th. Overall I am happy with how the day turned out, I feel like my shape is good for World Champs next week. Our team is skiing really fast and I have a good feeling about next week.”
Harvey in 39th wasn’t quite so pleased with his effort, explaining in an email that he couldn’t push very hard. According to him, his shoulder was fine after dislocating it in Sochi two and a half weeks ago.
“Since I haven’t raced in a whole month, the goal was to put a race bib on and get two good hard efforts in,” Harvey wrote. “Today didn’t really work that way so tomorrow better be better! Although I’m not really looking for a great result in the 15 km [skate] … it’s the event I plan in skipping at Worlds.”
Overall, Harvey explained he’s feeling confident. Wadsworth elaborated, saying Harvey struggled a bit with the altitude in Davos at 1,560 meters (5,120 feet) above sea level.
“Alex is in good shape but it was an off day for his body,” Wadsworth said. “[His] shoulder isn’t 100 percent, he’s still taping it for stability and more feeling, but it’s definitely getting better. We don’t consider it a problem unless he would fall on it.”
As for Widmer, the 29-year-old was just happy to be back in Europe.
“I was dreaming of a better outing today, but it was good to get the feet wet and get going on this trip overseas,” Widmer wrote. “Top 30 was my goal for the day, but I came up short of that.”
The course and conditions played a major role for everyone, he explained with tough, steep climbing and what he described as “slippery” conditions.
“It was a tough course and my pacing could have been a little better,” Widmer wrote of his qualifier. “I’m feeling good, training has been going well and with a little bit of fine tuning, I’ll get ready for a better showing in Val di Fiemme.”
“I think the whole team is doing well and we’re looking forward to World Championships,” Wadsworth said. “It’s exciting to feel like we’re coming on at just the right time.”
Kershaw will sit out Sunday’s 15 k skate to rest up for World Championships, which begin in earnest on Thursday. Harvey will race, along with Ivan Babikov and Graham Nishikawa. Emily Nishikawa and Canadian biathlete Zina Kocher will compete in the women’s 10 k.
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.