Len Valjas (CAN) led the Canadian men on Saturday in Lahti, Finland, with an strong eighth place finish.
His performance was just as fueled by frustration as it was fitness. Valjas toed the line today after a miserable run of sickness.
“I was sick for nine days,” he said. “I had strep throat, then a chest cold, and laryngitis. It felt good to get out of bed.”
The timing of the sickness couldn’t have been worse, as it forced him to sit out World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, last week.
“It sucked,” Valjas said. “We planned for two years for worlds, but that stuff happens. And now all I can do is have a good spring.”
Prior to the World Championships, Len showed strong signs of form in Davos, notching a sixth place finish. Twenty-one days hence, in a different technique, a strong result was anything but assured. Valjas, however, was quietly confident.
“I know the shape is there, I felt good in Davos before worlds. All I did at Worlds was rest.”
Valjas delivered a strong qualification, finishing in 2:26.37, just 1.85 seconds off the pace of frontrunner Gleb Retivykh (RUS).
The course, just 1.55 k long, favored pure sprinters, in contrast to the longer courses on the circuit like Sochi or Davos.
“It was a short, fast course — a real sprint course,” Valjas said. “It was a nice change from Sochi and a few of the other ones that were super long.”
The track, lacking steep walls or a decisive climb, demanded a strong V2 and V2-alternate rather than a dynamic V1. Valjas, who missed out on Quebec’s gentle terrain, welcomed the change in profile.
“I like the fact that the hills aren’t that steep, so it’s a lot of 1-skate,” he said. “It’s nice having a skate sprint on a gradual course.”
The shortened, narrow track favored a strong start. Valjas was seeded in the third quarterfinal heat, and the start was full gas right from the gun.
“The quarterfinal was crazy fast,” Valjas said. “I had two Norwegian distance skiers in my heat, so they knew their only way to get through was to push the pace. It was surprisingly fast and it made me a bit tired.”
Sindre Skar (NOR) took the pace right from the gun along with compatriot Finn Hagen Krogh (NOR). Vajas kept his head and settled into fourth position leading into the first hill.
Over the roller, Valjas ate up the track and closed the space on the charging Norwegians, but fell back going through the switchback leading into the finish.
Instead of fading in the final stretch, Vajas charged. “I had a good kick in the last 100 meters of the quarterfinal and I was able to go from fifth to third,” he said.
Finn Haagen Krogh took the quarterfinal, with the trio of Jovian Hediger (SUI), Valjas and Skar stretching for the line just behind in a photo finish. Valjas was awarded third place for his lunge and a lucky loser position.
It was a last-grasp effort to get through, but Valjas was pleased, saying, “My legs were heavy for the semifinals, but I was happy to get that lucky loser spot.”
In the semifinal Valjas was seeded in the far lane and pitted against Retivykh, the qualification winner, a resurgent Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR), hard-charger Jovian Hediger (SUI), and outsiders Anton Lindblad (SWE) and Nikolay Morilov (RUS).
The fatigue of Valjas’s quarterfinal charge immediately manifested itself.
“In the semifinals my legs felt a bit heavy, so I was stuck at the back again, my usual spot,” Valjas said.
On a longer course, a slow start can be remedied. On Lahti’s course, a slow start is usually fatal. Hattestad assumed leadership duties from the start, and Valjas drifted to the back of the pack.
Into the switchback leading into the finish Valjas trailed in last postion without enough track to reclaim some places.
“The finishing straight was just not long enough for me to get the top two guys,” Valjas said.
Valjas was awarded fourth place after a photo finish with Nikolay Morilov. The heat finished in 2:25.21, which wasn’t fast enough to get through to the final, ending Valjas’s day.
With an eighth place finish, the Canuck moved up to sixth overall in the World Cup sprint standings with 198 points, just 12 points behind Dario Cologna (SUI).
“I’m happy with today’s race,” Valjas surmised. “I moved up in the overall. I’m sixth in the overall, so I’d like to hold on to that in the next two sprints.”
Canadian national team coach Louis Bouchard was pleased with Valjas’s performance.
“It was really good for Lenny,” Bouchard told FasterSkier. “It was a good race. He did well in qualification, he was strong. He was missing a little, but it was good, definitely.”
Valjas won’t take part in tomorrow’s 15 k classic examination. He’ll rest up in preparation for Wednesday’s sprint in Drammen, Norway.
Fellow Canadians Jesse Cockney, Alex Harvey, and Graeme Killick also took part in Saturday’s race, but failed to qualify for the heats.
Cockney was subdued in his assessment of his race, saying, “the qualifier was really close to perfect, I maybe didn’t feel amazing but I had a good warmup and parts of the course felt really strong. The short course was good but I would have preferred more climbing.”
Cockney was the next-best Canadian behind Valjas, finishing in 50th place in a time of 2:30:46, 5.94 seconds off the pace.
Alex Harvey, the recent World Championships bronze medalist in the classic sprint, finished 56th place but was unavailable for comment at press time. He finished in 2:31.34, 6.82 seconds out of first.
Bouchard expected as much, saying, “Alex knew a little bit before that it was a really short sprint. He’s never been good there. He needs a long sprint to be good.”
Harvey will take part in the individual 15 k classic tomorrow.
Michael Somppi finished the qualifier in 74th position. The 24-year-old was not happy with his performance.
“The race didn’t go well,” Somppi said via email. “I felt good warming up and thought I skied the first half OK, but some nervous tension got the better of me over the second half of the course.”
Somppi will be racing on Sunday and looks to get more comfortable on the World Cup circuit.
“I think my form is as good as it’s been all season and I just need to get past the nervous feelings of racing World Cups in Europe. I am racing tomorrow and hope to get more comfortable in a World Cup racing bib,” Somppi said.
Notable absentee Devon Kershaw won’t race in Lahti, and is taking the weekend in order to recuperate after a tough world championships.
“Devon is not here,” coach Bouchard said. “The strategy for him is to take some rest before the final World Cups. We think the rest and recovery time for him will be good for the rest of the winter. He will be in Drammen.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.