—Alex Harvey moves into eighth overall on Tour de Ski with 15th place sprint result—
OBERSTDORF, Ger.—Canada’s Len Valjas had his best race in three years with a 10th-place finish in a cross-country classic-ski sprint race at the midway point of the Tour de Ski on in Oberstdorf, Germany.
After narrowly missing qualifying for the head-to-head heats with the top 30 athletes in his last two sprint starts, the 27-year-old sprint specialist was determined to show his fitness and earn an opportunity to line up for a start in the knockout rounds.
“It is a good feeling to be back in the semis. I wasn’t completely happy with my qualifier because I knew I had more in me, but I was excited to get back in the heats and ski with those guys,” said Valjas, who racked up five career World Cup podiums, including two on the Tour de Ski, before struggling in his recovery since undergoing knee surgery two years ago.
“The field is so tight now. The hardest part is qualifying for the heats. Once I get in there that is where I ski better with the group – where I can be more technical and drafting. I just needed the chance to get in there.”
The Torontonian was matched in his quarter-final heat against Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov along with the winner of the first stage on this year’s Tour de Ski and sprint leader, Federico Pellegrino of Italy. Valjas skied a technically sound heat, staying out of trouble at the back of the group until he positioned himself on the inside track for the double-pole fight down the finishing stretch where Valjas earned one of the guaranteed two spots into the semis after passing Pellegrino. The top-two athletes in each heat advance to the next round along with the next fastest two times.
Surprised by a quick start in his semifinal heat, the lanky Canuck had to dig deep to make up ground on the frontrunners, but was never able to get back into contention and was forced to the sidelines after crossing the line fifth in his heat.
“It was a really fast start in the semis. One of the fastest ever and that caught me off guard,” added Valjas. “I was gapped a little bit and was able to make up some ground on the downhill, but it wasn’t enough. I wish I could have kept up because one of the lucky losers came from my heat.
“This result is huge for me though. I’ve been so close the last two years. I’ve been skiing well and it was finally nice to get in there. I’m glad I was able to come through. I just need to keep training well. I want to get back to where I was three years ago.”
With no more sprint races left on the Tour schedule, Valjas will now drop out of the Tour de Ski to join the national development athletes for an OPA sprint race in Slovenia.
Meanwhile, after missing the heats in the opening sprint race of this year’s Tour, Alex Harvey realized the importance of qualifying in the top-30 on Tuesday to keep his hopes of contending for a spot in the top-three on the overall Tour standings.
After a solid qualifying round in 13th, Harvey was matched against two of his top rivals in the lead group on the Tour in Norway’s Petter Northug and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna. The St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que. resident was in a tough fight with some of the biggest names in the sport, matching strides around the 1.2 kilometre track of man-made snow that winded its way through a field of green grass in Germany.
When the dust finally settled at the finish line, Harvey moved into third spot but it wasn’t enough to advance to the semifinal round, leaving him in 15th place for the day.
Norway’s Emil Iversen finished on top in the men’s final. Ustiugov eventually skied onto the silver-medal step of the podium, while Alexey Poltoranin, of Kazakhstan, captured his first podium of this year’s Tour de Ski, finishing third.
Devon Kershaw, of Sudbury, Ont., had one of his best sprint qualifiers this year, but came up just short in his bid to move into the round of 30. Kershaw placed 34th. Ivan Babikov, of Canmore, Alta., was 59th.
The 15th-place finish moved Harvey into eighth spot at the midway point of the Tour de Ski. Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby leads the way by more than 90 seconds with four races remaining.
Modeled after the Tour de France in cycling, the Tour de Ski wraps up in Val di Fiemme, Italy on January 12. One of the featured events on the Nordic calendar tests some of the most physically and mentally fit athletes in the world to determine the king and queen of cross-country skiing. When all is said and done, the men’s field will have raced more than 100 kilometres when they cross the finish line of the Tour, which ends with a 425-metre climb to the top of Alpe Cermis.
The fifth stage of the Tour de Ski is set for Wednesday in Oberstdorf, Germany with a men’s 15-kilometre classic-ski mass start race.
Top-Five and Canadian Results:
1. Emil Iversen, NOR; 2. Sergey Ustiugov, RUS; 3. Alexey Poltoranin, KAZ; 4. Martin Johnsrud Sundby, NOR; 5. Petter Northug, NOR
10. Len Valjas, Toronto; 15. Alex Harvey, St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que.; 34. Devon Kershaw, Sudbury, Ont.; 59. Ivan Babikov, Canmore, Alta.