Canadian Len Valjas double poled past Italian sprint star Federico Pellegrino — the Tour de Ski sprint leader heading into Tuesday’s 1.2-kilometer classic sprint — at the end of the first men’s quarterfinal to earn a spot in the semifinals and ultimately lead the North American men in 10th in Oberstdorf, Germany.
“I was really thrilled to make it to the semi,” Valjas, 27, told FasterSkier in an in-person interview after Stage 4 of the Tour de Ski. “I haven’t been there in maybe a couple of years.”
After undergoing knee surgery in May 2013, ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Valjas struggled to recover. His last semifinal was in March 2013 in Lahti, Finland. Earlier that season in 2012/2013, Valjas racked up two Tour de Ski podiums and a national title, but struggled to train after the surgery.
In four preceding sprints this season, Valjas qualified for the heats once (in the only other classic sprint in Kuusamo, Finland, where he ended up 22nd). Twice in the last three skate races, he finished just outside the top 30 needed to qualify in 31st.
In the second-and-final sprint of the eight-stage Tour (Valjas’s last race before skipping the rest of the Tour to prepare for other World Cup sprints), the Canadian World Cup Team member was looking for something more than an almost-top 30. He got what he was looking for on Oberstdorf’s slushy manmade course, marked by a couple troublesome downhills and corners.
“The organizers have done a great job here with so little to work with,” U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman said of Obertsdorf’s extreme lack of snow. “The fact that we’re racing in Obertsdorf at all right now is kind of amazing.”
The sprints started off with a number of crashes in the women’s quarterfinals, leading organizers to spend some additional time raking and shoveling snow back onto the course.
Despite a couple years of reduced head-to-head opportunities in sprints, Valjas was still on top of his tactical game on Tuesday.
“I knew even up the first hill, if I was slightly gapped, that everybody in the group kind of snowplows and doesn’t take the corner as well as they could,” he reflected. “I didn’t stress going over the top, gave a couple of hard pushes, and as long as I could step turn I came right back to the group.”
This tactic worked perfectly in his quarterfinal, as Valjas finished second in a photo finish with Russian winner Sergey Ustiugov. He automatically advanced to the semis 0.07 seconds back in second and ahead of Pellegrino, another 0.19 seconds back in third.
While Valjas moved on, he let a gap open up too wide in his semifinal and had to recover from falling off the back of the pack by the final descent. He finished fifth, 1.4 seconds behind Ustiugov, who again won the semifinal and went on to place second in the final.
Alex Harvey was the second-best Canadian on Tuesday, finishing 15th on the day after placing third in his quarterfinals, behind Norway’s Petter Northug and Germany’s Sebastien Eisenlauer, respectively. That moved him up one spot to eighth overall in the Tour (+3:22.2).
In a post-race interview with FasterSkier, Harvey said he was pleased to qualify for the heats. He failed to do so in every other sprint so far this season (he placed 33rd in the Tour’s opening skate sprint on Jan. 1 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland).
“The speed is there,” Harvey said. “But the tactics [were not]. I was lacking some aggression in the first half of the race, letting gaps open, letting guys take the spots.”
A small gap opened up between Harvey and heat leader Eisenlauer on the first hill, after the German jumped to the front out of the start.
“But then Northug was able to sneak in the lane, and then kind of stop over the top and go — he does that a lot — I kind of got f*cked there,” Harvey said.
After Northug apparently held up Harvey, the other three squeezed him out on the corner and back into sixth.
“On the last uphill, I was able to jump behind Northug, but then he kind of slowed down again, let two guys go, eased up, then punched it again, so then a huge gap opened to the top two, and then that was it,” Harvey recalled.
The Canadian fought back to catch Sweden’s Carl Quicklund and move into third, but he couldn’t reach Eisenlauer and Northug, and ended up third, 1.22 seconds behind Northug and 0.78 behind Eisenlauer.
Newell 17th for U.S.
Leading the U.S. men in 17th, Andy Newell had the best qualifier of the North Americans in ninth and finished fourth in his quarterfinal, 2.15 seconds behind Norway’s Emil Iversen, who won the heat and went on to achieve his first World Cup win.
“I don’t know what happened between going over the bridge and going into the lanes, but it wasn’t great,” Newell said of his quarterfinal finish. “I somehow got caught in some soft snow, or maybe my skis were dragging a little bit more than others.”
Unlike the Swedes, who had visibly fast skis in the finishing straight all day, Newell was not gliding as well at the end despite looking poised into the final corner. He ended up behind Iversen, Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, and Sweden’s Emil Jönsson in the second quarterfinal.
The rest of the North Americans started recovering for the next stage earlier in the day, with Canada’s Devon Kershaw missing the top 30 in 34th, 4.02 seconds behind qualifying winner Martti Jylhä of Finland and more than two seconds from qualifying. American Erik Bjornsen was 38th (+5.12), Canadian Ivan Babikov was 59th (+11.21), ahead of Hoffman in 61st (+11.73).
Neither Hoffman, still 25th in the Tour standings (+5:43.8), or Babikov (37th and 7:21.9 back overall) had any expectations for the sprint day.
“We’re halfway done now,” Hoffman said, “and we’ve got both sprints out of the way so I’m looking forward to what’s coming. That was not my best classic sprint, but the difference between my best and my worst is kind of insignificant in the course of the Tour.”
Additionally, Bjornsen ranks 32nd in the Tour (+7:01.8), Kershaw is 41st (+7:53.4), and Valjas 61st (+10:54.3), although Valjas is done with the Tour. Newell plans to race once more in Oberstdorf before withdrawing and ranks 71st (+13:11.7) heading into Wednesday’s 15 k classic mass start.
American sprinter Simi Hamilton did not start Tuesday’s sprint despite looking forward to it, and thus withdrew from the Tour earlier than planned.
“I have no doubt that Simi could have gone out and qualified today, gotten into some heats, and gotten a tremendous chest cold,” U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier. “We need him healthy as an athlete for this winter, not just for this Tour.”