FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — Canada’s Jess Cockney and Lenny Valjas could see exactly where they needed to be in the men’s 6 x 1.4-kilometer team sprint on Sunday, they just couldn’t quite get there before the finish.
That was the difference between the pace during something like a World Cup, where they placed eighth in the freestyle team-sprint final last month in Otepää, Estonia, and the Nordic World Ski Championships.
“We tried to stay, obviously, in the group, in the front of the group if possible,” Valjas said after Sunday’s race, in which the Canadian men missed advancing to the final after placing seventh in their semifinal for 13th overall.
“The first couple of laps [we were focused on] just spending as little energy as possible, and then on the last laps give everything we had and stay out of trouble,” he added. “Everything worked to plan, it was just we were a little bit too far back, a second or two.”
In his first World Championships, Cockney, 25, skied them into fifth on his first of three laps in the second semifinal. Valjas then slipped to eighth, where they remained for the next two laps.
With Petter Northug, who anchored Norway to the semifinal and ultimately the final win on Sunday, leading up front, the pace slowed significantly on the semifinal’s fourth lap. Despite Valjas posting the fastest course time of anyone on that lap, he tagged Cockney in the same position in eighth.
The fact that the race was slowing wasn’t necessarily good for the Canadians, which regained contact on that lap but struggled to pick off the places. In order to guarantee themselves a spot in the finals, they needed to finish in the top two. Beyond that, the six fastest teams between the two semifinals move on. Since the first heat was faster, that didn’t leave teams outside the top two with much hope in the second semifinal.
“You can hear in the stadium, they were saying this heat is six seconds slower than the first heat, so you start to think,” Valjas recalled. “You got to be ready to go. You know that the heat can go six seconds faster, so just being in a spot to react when it does get faster.”
On Cockney’s final lap, he rose to fifth once again — behind Russia, Norway, Germany, and the U.S. — with the third-fastest time on that leg. From there, Valjas dropped two places to finish seventh, 2.27 seconds behind the Norwegian winners and 1.24 seconds away from a lucky loser spot. Norway and Russia advanced out of their heat in first and second, as did the U.S. in third, Poland in fourth and Germany in fifth. Belarus did not qualify in sixth (+2:07).
The first semifinal was about nine seconds faster than the second, with Italy winning it in 15:34.02. Norway won the second heat in 15:43.06.
“We were hoping to ski ourselves into the final, for sure, and fight for the top two, top four spots in the heat, so that’s where we thought we would be,” Cockney said.
“I just wish I was with that group of four in the front,” Valjas added. “I was a second and a bit behind them; there’s no coming back from that. When you are that far back, there’s no draft, you’re kind of stuck.”
Overall, the two explained they felt better than they had earlier in the week and earlier this season.
“It felt better today, for sure, than the classic sprint,” Cockney said. He was 49th in the classic sprint at World Championships three days ago. “I think my skate skiing is decent right now. I don’t think I’m in 100-percent top shape. I think I was pretty good at the start of the year, before Christmas, just trying to find that shape again. Still have a little bit of racing here to do.”
In the same sprint, Valjas placed 14th.
“I’m feeling better — first half of the year, it was tough,” Valjas said. “Made some changes with intensity, and I feel much better. … We have one more [race], hopefully the relay, if I get selected, so gotta just keep getting the fitness better. It’s coming, it’s going in the right direction.”
Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth called it a “good effort. I think they skied pretty smart,” he said.
“They just weren’t quite there at the end,” he said. “If they both could of just made a spot each on the big uphill there, I think it would have put them in a little bit better contention for the final sprint.
“This is a really fast finish, especially when the conditions are like this and the skis are running fast, it is hard to pass a lot of people,” Wadsworth added. “You’re trying to get around from eighth to fourth. I was trying to yell at them that they needed to be top four from the times we were seeing, but they were just trying to stay the pace.”
The Canadian women did not field a team sprint, as two out of three women on its World Championships team (Emily Nishikawa and Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt) planned to arrive in Falun on Sunday after recovering from illness in Östersund, Sweden.
— Gerry Furseth 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.