(Note: Based on two different formats of results on the FIS website, there was some discrepancy over whether Valjas placed 22nd or 25th. This article has been amended to show that he placed 22nd based on the PDF version of the final results.)
There are a couple reasons the cross-country World Cup starts in Kuusamo, Finland, each year. For one, it’s almost a sure-bet for snow in November. It’s also really, really hard.
“After training in North America all summer, this is the first chance that we have to compare against European athletes,” Canadian World Cup sprinter Lenny Valjas said on the phone after Friday’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint — the first race of the World Cup season held annually in Kuusamo.
It’s also the first of a three-day mini tour, the Ruka Triple, and on Friday, Valjas was the lone Canadian to qualify and ended up 22nd on the day.
He was one of eight Canadians to race: after him, Alex Harvey missed qualifying in 47th, Jess Cockney was 65th, Devon Kershaw was 88th, Ivan Babikov 96th, last year’s NorAm leader Michael Somppi 97th, and Graeme Killick 103rd of 115 men. In the women’s sprint, Emily Nishikawa finished 58th of 86.
According to Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth, with temperatures right around freezing, waxing difficulties were a factor in some of his athletes’ results.
“We went for a little more grip, which seemed to work for the most part, though there was a bit of icing up in the qualifier,” Wadsworth said.
Some skiers used klister and some went on hairies, U.S. Ski Team member Andy Newell explained. He went for a klister-covered wax and ended up fourth overall.
Valjas said he thought the Canadians has “the best grip of all nations.” The trouble was, they had to deal with hard, icy track, four centimeters of west snow from the night before, and windy, changing conditions throughout the day.
“Today’s goal was just to qualify and to make it into the points. There was no huge expectations,” he explained, adding that specific results are always a bit of an unknown at this point in the season.
He qualified in 22nd, 8.32 seconds behind Norway’s Pål Golberg, who won the qualifier in 2:32.62. In the quarterfinal, Valjas placed fifth, 4.61 seconds behind the winner of his heat, Norway’s Petter Northug. Northug went on to finish third in the final. Also in their quarterfinal, Sweden’s Teodor Peterson placed second (+0.2) and France’s Baptiste Gros was 0.52 seconds back in third.
“Len’s skis seemed to be slow in his quarterfinal,” Wadsworth observed.
Valjas said his race strategy included being quick off the start, staying in the middle of the pack and hammering up the last hill in order to advance to the semis. A quick start was essential.
“For me, it is difficult to pass from the back to the front,” he said.
On a downhill, he slipped from third to last, which may have been due to trouble with glide.
For Valjas, the Kuusamo course has been both “terrible and amazing,” he said. Slick conditions made it more difficult than usual, he said, with tracks that were “broken and wide, especially the downhill corners, which were icy and hard to get an edge on, just super sketchy.”
With the option to pick his quarterfinal heat, Valjas chose to race with Northug, figuring Northug would set a slower pace. Northug’s quarterfinal win ended up being the second slowest (Italy’s Federico Pellegrino was slower en route to the win), but that meant Valjas needed to be first or second behind him to advance to the semifinals.
While that didn’t happen and his race ended there, Valjas wasn’t too concerned. He said he was confident his form would progress according to plan. After dealing with injuries the last two seasons, he’s happy to be qualifying in the first place.
As for the rest of the weekend, Valjas will race the 10 k skate and 15 k classic pursuit “as long as I remain in good contention throughout the weekend,” he said.
According to Wadsworth, the rest of the Canadians also felt good on Friday, despite not having the quantitative results. Harvey was reported as feeling good, “but just not as sharp” at this point in the season, Wadsworth said. He added that Kershaw was frustrated with his skis as they seemed to be icing up on the hills.
Nishikawa told Wadsworth she felt good, “which is the main thing, as she’s a distance racer,” he said. He remained confident for Sunday’s overall mini-tour finishes as his athletes “don’t always perform well at this stage in the season, especially on a classic course like this,” he said.
“Ideally we would want a better start [to the season], but it is what it is, we have to be patient and we’re focusing on the positives for now,” he added.
All of the Canadians were expected to race in all three events this weekend, and Nishikawa will remain the lone women’s starter.
“We’d love to start more women in Kuusamo, but our funding is limited and only people who have been in the top 30 will be starting this [World Cup] period #1,” Wadsworth explained in an email. “However, we do have a trip racing WC period #2 where there are more women (4) selected then men (1) (as is the case with our development team that was named this year).”
Expanding on this, he said Knute Johnsgaard and four women from the national-development team (Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt, Cendrine Browne, Dahria Beatty, Katherine Stewart-Jones) will race Period 2 World Cups in Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Nishikawa will also be part of that trip, while the Tour de Ski participants will be chosen based on World Cup points in Period 1.