As a sphere, the Earth is a tidy shape and can be divided into equal segments. It takes roughly 24 hours for the planet to rotate on its axis once, constituting a single day. So there’s 24 time zones, one for each hour of rotation. On Friday, the tidiness was disrupted a bit for European-based World Cup skiers. PyeongChang, South Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Olympics, was site of the men’s World Cup 1.5-kilometer classic sprint.
PyeongChang sits a full eight hours ahead of Central European Time, a time zone most World Cup skiers are adjusted to. To accommodate the time shift, the sprints were run at night, under the lights.
“It’s been tough. We knew the races were going to be really late here in Korea so that the T.V. time works in Europe,” U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Andy Newell said on the phone. “But as far as adjusting, you go in and out and definitely feel pretty tired at times, like when you’re trying to fire it up and get ready to race. But once you’re racing, it seems like it’s OK. You don’t notice the jet lag once you’re out there on the track.”
In a field of 55 skiers, Newell was one of two North Americans to make the men’s final; the other was Canada’s Lenny Valjas. Newell placed sixth in the final (+17.1), Valjas fourth (+0.74) in a photo finish with Russia’s Andrey Parfenov (+0.73), who skied to third overall.
“It was really close between me and Lenny,” Parfenov told the International Ski Federation (FIS), according to a press release. “I know he was next to me. I was lucky have a better lunge. It was a good track for classic. There is not so much double poling sections, more uphills and that was good for me. I am really happy for my second podium of my career.”
Russia’s 26-year-old Gleb Retivykh won the final in 3:30.79, ahead of Norway’s Sondre Turvoll Fossli in second (+0.30). It was Retivykh’s first career World Cup win and first time on the podium, despite finishing in the top 10 in World Cup sprints on 10 other occasions. And despite his comments to FIS, the Russian’s speediness may just have allowed him to momentarily outrun the jet lag.
“I arrived here yesterday so I am still jet lagged,” Retivykh said. “I knew Sondre is very strong. I did not think I could win. I was hoping for a good result. I had to wait six years for my first victory and it is great.”
Valjas Leads Canada in 4th
Time zones and new food be damned. For seasoned athletes like Valjas and Newell, planes, shuttle buses, and exploratory cuisine are all part of the international skiing life. Despite the time-zone-shift-wormhole, both skiers delivered.
For Valjas, of Canada’s World Cup A-team, the vagaries of food prep in South Korea flummoxed him.
“Adjusting to the time change went fairly well, but I ran into some trouble with the food here,” Valjas wrote in an email. He is allergic to peanuts and fish; two ingredients in the form of peanut and fish oil that’s ubiquitous in Korean meals.
“The last two dinners I have not been able to eat because I had reactions,” Valjas added. “Even the ‘safe’ boiled potatoes ended up having peanut oil dribbled all over them. The language barrier makes it very hard to understand which foods may or may not kill me. I could feel my energy getting lower and lower today, could have been my inability to eat well or the jet lag after flying here two days ago.”
Despite the lack of food intake, Valjas qualified in second place, 1.97 seconds back from fifth-place overall finisher and first-place qualifier Alexander Panzhinskiy of Russia.
Valjas’s progression looked like this: second in his quarterfinal then advancing to the finals as the second lucky loser from the first semifinal. And ultimately his fourth place in the final — where he missed his eighth-career World Cup podium and his third of the season, by 0.01 seconds.
“I have mixed feelings about today,” Valjas wrote about his PyeongChang classic sprint experience. “It’s tough to be that close and come up short.”
Mindful that the day was also about gaining pre-Olympic beta, Valjas noted his time in South Korea was well spent.
“On the bright side, I learned so much skiing the Olympic course today. It’s a very tough course, but it is built amazingly well,” he wrote. “The climbs are the perfect grade for striding, and racing at night with all the lights was really cool. … I hope I can use the valuable info I learned tonight to my advantage when I race here next winter in the Olympic sprint.”
Jess Cockney, of Canada’s World Cup B-team, placed 10th after qualifying 16th. Cockney skied to first in his quarterfinal after avoiding several skiers involved in crashes, including one involving U.S. Ski Team member Simi Hamilton.
“I felt that I could ski relaxed and work my way through some positions in the second half of the course and it ended up being really good to also avoid the crashes in my heat,” Cockney wrote in an email.
In his semifinal, Cockney was on fumes and finished fifth.
“He gave it all on the quarterfinal so he lost a lot of energy there, but still making it to the semi is very good,” Charles Castonguay, Canada’s lead coach in PyeongChang, said on the phone. “But at the end, I think he did really well, too. Top 10 for him is really really good and he is pretty confident that he can repeat that for Lahti in two weeks [at World Championships]. We had a little chat after and he said he was pretty happy; he said he gave it his all. … It’s his best result since [last] year in Quebec [where he placed 10th in the freestyle sprint]. So yeah, it’s promising for him for the Otepää World Cup and the Worlds at Lahti.”
The next best Canadian was Simon Lapointe, of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH), who qualified 25th and finished 27th overall. Friday marked his first international World Cup and his previous personal best was 70th in a Ski Tour Canada stage last year.
Bob Thompson (NTDC Thunder Bay) missed qualifying by one-hundredth of a second in 31st (for his best World Cup result by 21 places), and Julien Locke (Alberta World Cup Academy/Canadian National U25 Team), in his first World Cup, placed 36th.
Newell Sixth in Final
The 1.5 k men’s course was a no-rest affair. Thirty seconds of initial double poling brought skiers into a roller coaster of a course — two big ups, quick downs, and a straight away finish all under the brights lights.
Leading the U.S. was veteran USST skier Newell in sixth overall. He qualified seventh (+5.18).
“For me in the qualifier, how I gauge a good or bad qualifier, usually it doesn’t even necessarily depend on what place I finish, a lot of it is seconds back and a lot of it is how I feel if I nailed the course or not,” Newell said on the phone Friday night.
A thorough student of the classic-skiing sprint scene, Newell adjusted after sensing he hadn’t skied the second major hill effectively.
“I know my strengths and weaknesses on a course like this,” Newell said. “I know I can be as good as anyone on those hills and so that was kind of the goal, was to make sure I was in a good position.”
Newell was matched with top-qualifier Panzhinskiy in his quarter and semifinal. Panzhinskiy and Newell placed first and second in both, respectively, with Newell 0.63 seconds back in the quarter and 0.34 seconds back in the semi.
“[Panzhinskiy] was the top qualifier so I knew he was going to be fast and so we were kind of really able to kind of get away from anyone in our heats in both the quarterfinal and the semifinal up that [second] hill,” Newell said.
As a made-for-television production, the heats run on a tight schedule. And due to clearing the course after several crashes, organizers were running behind schedule. The time after the Newell’s semifinal to the final was reduced, hampering both Panzhinskiy’s and Newell’s normal pre-final recovery period.
“Maybe we pushed each other a little too hard in the semifinal because I think we were both a little tired,” Newell reflected. “It just so happened that the schedule they were running behind with the heats today, which means the semifinal went off five to ten minutes late, but they have to keep the final on time. … That kind of took us by surprise because I think we both pushed each other pretty hard in that semi and then to have a short ten-minute recovery as opposed to one that’s fifteen or twenty, that was definitely a tough turnaround.”
Newell skied from the back in the final. According to the Vermont-based skier, he changed skis in the final, and that decision compounded with his less-than-normal, pre-finals recovery period impacted his overall placing.
“I swapped out for a different pair of skis and was using a different pair of skis in the final,” Newell said. “It was an easier-kicking pair of skis, which probably worked out great for the first few heats, but in the final I think one of the things that came to bite us was the fact that [my wax tech] Mark and I kept adding a layer of wax to make sure we had good grip up that big climb because it was such decisive part of the race. But by the final I think we were dragging a little bit too much wax, which really played a big role in me getting shelled off after about half way through because yeah, kick was dragging considerably in the final, but you know that’s all part of the game.”
Newell ultimately finished 17.19 seconds back in sixth after realizing his efforts were in vain. But being present and racing well in PyeongChang remained important for Newell.
“This race in particular was kind of one of the races I wanted to make sure I was at,” Newell said of how he planned out his current World Cup campaign. “My goals are really quite focused towards the Olympics next year. For me, the excitement was there today just because it’s a new venue and it’s the place where the Olympics are going to be taking place next year and I know I can be competitive in these classic sprints.”
Newell will skip Saturday’s skiathlon to prep for Sunday’s freestyle team sprint. He’ll be racing the team sprint with Hamilton.
“I was not feeling great all day, and it’s been kind of a tough week for me in general,” Hamilton wrote of his adjustment to South Korea. “I was definitely struggling with how my body was responding to big travel and a pretty significant time shift, but still, I think it is extremely valuable to be able to be here experiencing the courses and the layout of the land before 2018.”
Hamilton qualified 12th, which he was dissatisfied with.
“I felt like I had a pretty weak qualifier, and was struggling to find big power and big glide on the two big climbs,” he wrote.
Hamilton’s focus this year has been on skate sprinting: a traditionally strong technique for him.
“But with so many skate sprints this year and the fact that the sprint in Lahti is skate, I haven’t really been thinking too much about classic sprinting or gearing my training towards classic sprinting,” he explained. “So I think with some focused training I’ll be able to dial in my preparations for this course specifically and hopefully feel much better in qualification the next time we are racing here.”
In his quarterfinal, Hamilton was well positioned for the second climb — sitting back a few meters from the leaders.
“Coming down the fast descent into the bottom of that hill, I made a slingshot move to the outside, open track on the far left, and was carrying some really good momentum past the two Norwegians in my heat,” he recalled.
With his momentum carrying him up to the leaders, Norwegian Daniel Stock swerved into Hamilton’s tracks. (Stock was eventually relegated to 30th overall due to his obstructing Hamilton.)
“I think he skied right over both of my bindings with his left ski as he was skating into that track. My feet were basically stopped dead in their tracks as the rest of my body was hurling up the hill.”
A broken pole and stopped dead, Hamilton’s chances of advancing had been squelched.
“As I got to my feet, the pack was already about 10 meters ahead of me and I realized that my night was over,” Hamilton added. He finished 17th overall.
Another American, Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) scored his first career World Cup points. Gelso had earned the World Cup starts as the Period 1 SuperTour leader.
“It’s great to score my first ever World Cup points in my second-ever sprint,” Gelso wrote in an email. “Never thought my first points would come in a sprint. I skied the transitions well in my qualifier and accelerated through the course. I probably could have started harder but overall pacing was pretty good.”
Gelso qualified 29th and placed 29th overall after finishing sixth in his heat.
Also for the U.S., Scott Patterson (Alaska Pacific University) finished 44th and Noah Hoffman 48th in the qualifier.
— Harald Zimmer, Chelsea Little and Gabby Naranja contributed