In a World Cup sprint, 31st has a little extra bite. Ask Len Valjas. He’s been in that position twice in the last three freestyle sprints.
On Friday, the Canadian World Cup Team sprinter finished one-hundredth of a second behind 30th, which would have qualified him for the heats in the 1.5-kilometer skate sprint, the first stage of the Tour de Ski in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Just over two weeks ago at another Swiss race site in Davos, Valjas ended up 31st, four-hundredths of a second out of the top 30, in the first World Cup skate sprint of the season.
Back then, the 27-year-old Canadian clocked in 4.64 seconds behind the winner. On Friday, he was 6.86 seconds back from qualifying winner Federico Pellegrino, the Italian who went on to rack up his third-straight World Cup sprint victory.
“It’s two races that could have gone way better…,” Valjas told FasterSkier after Friday’s qualifier. “It’s almost harder than being far back when you can just accept that you sucked today. But 1/100th, that’s the difference between having a potentially sweet day here ’cause I love the heats. Qualifying is always hard for me; I’m just disappointed. I couldn’t see what I could have done today.
“It just shows I’m not exactly at the level I was, like, it used to be easy,” he added. “I know I’d be between 25th and 20th on any given day and now I’m between 25 and 35, so I need to get a little bit stronger and fitter so I don’t have this disappointment.”
Leading up to this World Cup season, all had gone according to plan, Valjas explained.
“I’m healthy, just need to get a little bit snap back, just a few parts of my skiing I just need to figure out,” he said, adding that he plans to race the Tour through the fourth stage, a classic sprint in Obertsdorf, Germany.
Just 0.15 seconds back from Valjas’s time, his teammate Alex Harvey placed 33rd (+7.01). Devon Kershaw was 9.72 seconds back from the qualifying winner in 60th, and Ivan Babikov finished 92nd (+18.92) of 100 men in the opening stage.
Two of four American men fared better, with Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell qualifying in 13th and 17th, respectively. Erik Bjornsen did not advance in 69th (+12.61) and Noah Hoffman was 85th (+16.44) in the qualifier.
Bjornsen called his qualifier “really bad,” while Hoffman, a distance skier, said he felt good.
“A tour with six distance stages and two sprints is a great tour for me,” Hoffman told FasterSkier. “Today is just something to get ready for tomorrow.”
Saturday’s second stage of the Tour holds a women’s 15 k and men’s 30 k classic mass start. Hoffman called the course “awesome” and especially opportunistic for him with a longer hill than previously used at the Tour two years ago.
“The weather should be a little interesting. It’s going to be a little mix of rain and snow and sun,” Hoffman said. “Obviously I was frustrated with Period 1, but I feel like I am ready to go. I will continue to take care of the things I can control, and hopefully it will come around.”
In the women’s 1.5 k qualifier, four of seven U.S. women qualified. Sophie Caldwell led the team in second, 2.98 seconds behind the qualifying winner Ingvild Flugstad Østberg of Norway. Sadie Bjornsen qualified ninth, Jessie Diggins was 14th and Ida Sargent 26th.
Rosie Brennan placed 47th, 3.44 seconds out of 30th and 13.03 seconds back from Østberg. Also for the U.S. Ski Team, Caitlin Gregg was 49th (+13.29) and Liz Stephen 68th (+19.24) of 71 finishers.
“This is straight-up my favorite race series of the year and time of year, and mentally I’m psyched to get going.” — Liz Stephen after Stage 1 of the 2016 Tour de Ski
Brennan explained that she’s mostly focused on classic races, and aims to complete the Tour.
“I would like to feel like I skied well to the end, not just like, ragged across the line,” she said.
For Gregg, also programmed to finish the Tour, it was her first skate sprint in almost a year (since placing second to Brennan at 2015 U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich.).
“It’s one thing to do a skate sprint at U.S. nationals and it’s one thing to do a skate sprint on the World Cup,” Gregg observed. “All said and done, I was like three seconds out of qualifying. It’s kind of a ways, still also … definitely as close as I’ve ever been. I think I felt great … I kind of wish the skate sprint was in the middle of the whole series.”
Looking ahead, she’s most excited for the 5 k races and the hill climb, which she has never done before on the World Cup.
“Just the whole thing, I think, it kind of suits when I am feeling good and I can kind of build throughout the series,” Gregg said. “The goal coming in was to be … maybe a little bit undertrained. I took a number of days off over the Christmas break, probably a total of four out of the 10 to kind of to reset, recharge the batteries and then come into this and be able to build instead of trying to hold on.”
For Stephen, who ended up fifth in the overall standings last year for the best-ever finish by an American in the Tour de Ski, it was just a matter of getting started.
“I feel like I’m in a good position, shape-wise for the rest of the Tour,” she said. “I mean, this is straight-up my favorite race series of the year and time of year, and mentally I’m psyched to get going. Tomorrow’s 15 k should be really awesome here.”
For that race, Stephen explained she’ll try to get toward the front of the pack within the first 2 k to avoid the “bottlenecking” effect on what she called a “steep kicker” shortly after the start.
“My plan is to get as good a start as I can possibly get and try not to get on the back end of that bottleneck,” she said. “Which generally tends to make you chase the rest of the race…”
U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb was thrilled with the team’s start.
“This is a team that’s on the roll right now. I’m excited to see these four girls who did well sprinting today mix it up in the classic race, but I’m also excited to see Rosie and Liz and Caitlin get things going,” he said. “I’m excited to see our distance skiers start to mix it up too. Tomorrow is going to be a big day to hit the skis and I think our team is 100 percent ready to go.”
— Chelsea Little and Jason Albert 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.