DAVOS, Switzerland—It has been a long road back for Canada’s Lenny Valjas.
After podiums in World Cups, Tour de Ski stages and mini-tour stages in 2012 and 2013, Valjas was looking for the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to be the highlight of his career up to that point. Instead, what was supposed to be a routine knee surgery turned into a debacle that knocked him back months of training, and he never skied well last season. He made it to the Olympics, but besides all of the other challenges, once he was there he got sick.
So when the Toronto, Ontario, skier qualified in tenth position for today’s World Cup freestyle sprint, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders – or maybe off that formerly-bum knee.
“It’s nice to cross the line and the announcer is kind of excited about the finishing position,” he laughed. “So yeah, this week I was just really trying to stay focused and put the whole year and a half behind me. I haven’t qualified in a year and a half. I just needed a good race, and I felt good yesterday.”
Still, even though he was feeling strong, he wasn’t expect his first qualification of the season to be quite so good.
“Especially in 10th, I was not expecting that,” Valjas marveled. “It felt just as bad as last weekend [placing 45th]… It hurt. And the second lap, I felt like I was going slow, but I guess it wasn’t too bad!”
Relaxed and happy to make it to the quarterfinals – an honor reserved to only the top 30 finishers from the qualifying round – Valjas nonetheless wasn’t going to sit back and enjoy the moment. He had a plan, and knowing that he was the tenth-fastest man around the course a few hours earlier gave him confidence that he could make it through to the next round.
“I just wanted a good position, which I didn’t get right off the bat,” he said. “If I ever get this race again, a.k.a. next weekend, then I want to fight harder at the beginning just to stay up front.”
Placed in a heat with the fastest qualifier, Federico Pellegrino of Italy, along with Maciej Starega of Poland, Gleb Retivykh of Russia, and hometown hero Roman Schaad of Switzerland, Valjas quickly found himself in fifth position. It’s not where he wanted to be.
The two-lap Davos sprint course is a few hundred meters shorter than usual, and features only one climb per lap. That climb is preceded by a sharp corner, and it’s virtually impossible to make up ground on the hill – only a few skiers pulled off that feat all afternoon.
“I was sitting in fifth place up the first up the first hill, and that leaves too much work for the straightaway,” Valjas said.
But he caught a break when the tight pack of skiers ahead of him all came into the last sharp corner together. As they tried to negotiate it, at speed, and then divide into finishing lanes, they were forced to slow down to avoid crashing into each other and definitely ruining their own days.
That meant there was an opening for the Canadian.
“I was coming in with a couple of meters of space,” Valjas said. “I could see everybody fighting – one guy even had to snowplow a little bit. So they all jammed up in the corner, and I had an opening. I don’t think I was even on the camera when I came around. But I knew when I saw everybody fighting that I was going to come right onto their tails, and with the extra speed they can’t re-accelerate.”
As the other three divided into finishing lanes, Valjas shot into the middle and moved towards the front. Pellegrino still crossed the line first, but Valjas made it all the way up to a photo finish for second with Starega. Unfortunately, he came out on the wrong side of the photo finish, and the time wasn’t fast enough to snag a lucky loser spot in the semifinals. His day was over.
“I needed an extra meter or two,” he said. “It was just a little bit too late.”
In fact, Valjas was the fastest man not to make the semifinals; he finished 13th.
Even though he’s thrilled to be back on form, being just a photo finish away from the semifinals is tough to take. And it’s a bit symbolic of Canada’s weekend, where teammate Jesse Cockney was only half a second out of qualifying in 37th, and Alex Harvey, despite feeling that the course was far too short for him to have any hope, was still less than a second out of the top 30 in 45th.
Devon Kershaw placed 59th; Perianne Jones was 40th in the women’s race.
“I don’t think the general mood is ‘happy’,” Valjas said. “It’s more like we’re happy that we have the redo next weekend. Especially, Jesse skied fast enough to be in today, but he missed. He’s there. This week we just have to ski together and figure out the course together. Next weekend should be totally different. We might even have three or four guys in. We’re all skiing fast enough.”
And for Valjas in particular, he’s happy to have another crack at sprinting now that he knows he can actually sprint, for the first time in so long.
“Next weekend’s the exact same race, so it will be good,” he concluded. “I’m happy to feel kind of like I used to. It’s been too long since I’ve been in the heats.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.