One thing you can say about the U.S. and Canadian men on Sunday is that they were up for a challenge, going head to head with 19 teams from more than a dozen other nations in the 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay in Lillehammer, Norway.
They had as good a chance as anybody – if all went well – and so much of their end results depended on how they started. It was the same for everybody, and with nonstop snow increasingly becoming heavier, it wasn’t easy out there.
Lenny Valjas opened for the Canadians in his third race of the season, still recovering from knee surgery in July (in which he aimed to correct a knee problem that bothered him for years and impacted his strength training). The surgery went well, albeit slow, keeping him from cardio for eight weeks.
“I knew before the race that my shape was not at its usual level, not even close,” Valjas wrote in an email. “I really like the first leg of the relay, but for now I’m focussing on getting back into shape now that I can do intensity again.”
He completed his two laps to tag off in 17th, 1:22.9 behind Eldar Rønning, who put Norway II in first heading into the second classic leg.
“Len had a tough first leg and that put us out of the race,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth explained. “The rest of the guys just skied as well as they could, kind of semi on-their-own. We did as well as we could with it.”
The Canadians rose to 16th with Alex Harvey, who posted the 14th-fastest second leg, coming to the exchange 1:37.6 seconds behind Norway I in first. Ivan Babikov went on to ski the 10th-fastest third leg, lifting Canada to 14th. Anchor Devon Kershaw held their position, finishing 14th, 3:01.4 behind the Russian winners.
While it wasn’t the result they were looking for (the Canadians are hoping for an Olympic medal in the event), Wadsworth said it didn’t have major implications, either.
“We thought we’d go with this order given the course, and I think this is a potential order for the Olympic team, depending on how people feel at the Games,” he said. “We still have a little ways to go, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
Excited about the soft, powdery conditions, Andy Newell started for the Americans and quickly rose from around 11th to first, which U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb described as “his classic, sort of thread-the-needle move.”
“I actually got stuck out of the track at about 1 k and knew I wasn’t going to get back in line so I hammered to the front and lead the pack up the big climb first lap,” Newell wrote in an email. “I was feeling fine, but ended up freezing myself like I did in Kuusamo [last weekend] completely numbing my hands and forearms by the second lap so that was really uncomfortable. I need to figure out what’s going on there.”
Newell tagged off Kris Freeman in 16th, 1:13.7 behind the leader.
“I got strung out in the last few k’s which was really disappointing,” Newell explained. “In general, it wasn’t a great day for the men, I think we all lost about 1 minute per leg which is definitely not where we want to be, but as the scrambler I take responsibility. … I know we can do much better next time.”
For the start of the second leg, Freeman skied with Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, who was second in Saturday’s 15 k classic, but Poltoranin accelerated ahead of him to tag off 46 seconds earlier in 15th. Freeman came through in 17th, and Noah Hoffman and Simi Hamilton kept the U.S. there, skiing alone for the final two legs.
The U.S. finished 17th, 46.8 seconds behind Canada and 3:48.2 behind the winners.
“Bird [Freeman] had a good ride with Poltoranin for a little while, but wasn’t able to stay with him,” Whitcomb explained.
“Hoff skied by himself the whole time, looked pretty darn good, but when you’re not in someone else’s draft, those small attacks ahead of you move away quickly,” he added. “That was the same with Simi, who was fighting tooth and nail to catch Kazakhstan ahead of him. It was a great race for Simi but wasn’t able to get [Starostin] in the end.”
Despite Hoffman’s 13th-fastest third leg and Hamilton skiing the 15th-fastest anchor, the U.S. finished 14.8 seconds behind the Kazakhs, who placed 16th.
“I was pretty much in ‘no man’s land’ with very few other skiers close to me, so I focused on making up as much time as I could and skiing my own race,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “I cut down the time gap to Kazakhstan by a fair margin, but didn’t quite have the spark in the last 1.5 km to catch him.”
“It is always challenging to race alone in any sort of a mass start event. Sometimes that’s how it works,” Hoffman explained. “I had a great workout. I believe we, as a team, will be much more competitive in the next opportunity, the Olympics.”
After leading the U.S. men in 41st in Saturday’s 15 k classic individual start, Hoffman wrote that it was a “tough weekend” overall for the men’s team, but they were looking forward to moving on at next weekend’s World Cup in Davos, Switzerland.
“It’s always a great time to race in Norway, and with the history of skiing in the Lillehammer area it feels extra special,” Hamilton wrote. “Our team’s energy was (and is) great after such a great performance by the women and although I think my relay teammates would probably say that no one had a totally stellar day, we were still out there fighting and the journey is a long one in which patience pays off.”
— Pasha Kahn contributed reporting
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.