—Valjas finishes 11th, Beatty beaming with career-best 15th in women’s sprints—
CANMORE, Alta.—Len Valjas stretched his arms out in relief while crossing the finish line of his semifinal heat on the punishing Canmore Nordic Centre classic-ski sprint course where he ended up in 11th spot on the day.
It was the second best result of the season for the 27-year-old Torontonian who has dealt with a series of near misses throughout his World Cup season.
A sprint specialist, Valjas has qualified in the top-30 for the head-to-head heats only four times this year, and finished 31st on three separate occasions.
“Those outstretched arms were my airplane and a sign of relief for me,” said Valjas. “I do that at the end of almost every distance race, and today that sprint course was a tough one. I left it all out there and I was nothing but happy with my performance.
“It was a dream come true for me to get back into the semis for just the second time this year, and I couldn’t pick a better day than to do it than here. My season was so close to being a great year, but I’ve had so many close calls of getting into the heats.”
Valjas exploded up the two punishing hills, and down the descents to qualify 18th on the deteriorating snow conditions with spring temperatures climbing well above zero. The top-two in each heat move on to the next round. Valjas finished third in his quarter-final heat, but advanced to the semis after posting one of the next two fastest times.
His day came to an end after crossing the line fifth in his 1.5-kilometre semifinal trip around the world-renowned Nordic venue that is playing host to the final four stages of the inaugural eight-race Ski Tour Canada.
“I used a similar tactic to sit at the back of both heats. On the second climb I just emptied the tank and would use the downhill to attack on the final sprint finish. In the quarter it all worked out to perfection, but the semifinal I had nothing left. One extra push at the top of the hill can mean separating yourself 15 metres from the pack on the downhill. I did everything I could, and am thrilled to get this result in before the end of the year.”
Italy’s overall World Cup sprint winner, Federico Pellegrino won the fifth stage. Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal was second, while Maurice Manificat grabbed the final spot on the men’s podium.
Sitting in fourth spot in the overall Ski Tour Canada standings after the first four races in Quebec, Alex Harvey also qualified for the head-to-head heats, but was not satisfied with a 21st –place result after getting knocked out in the round of 30.
“I’m very disappointed with today’s result, even more so because I lost ground on the ones I am chasing, and it allows for the those behind me to gain some ground after I kept them at bay in Quebec City,” said Harvey, who hails from Saint Ferreol les Neiges, Que.
Harvey dropped one spot to fifth in the overall Tour.
Head coach of the Canadian squad, Justin Wadsworth, has no concerns Harvey will be back and hungry for the sixth stage on Wednesday – an absolutely grueling 30-kilometre skiathlon race that is sure to separate the men from the boys.
“It is a bittersweet day. You always want someone in the final going for the podium, but it is still a Tour and you can’t get to ramped up. You have to take the positives of each day, and when you get bumped out of the quarterfinals, we can use this as a positive to be more rested tomorrow,” said Wadsworth.
“For sure you don’t want to give up time (on the leaders), but we have a lot of racing left on a hard, hard course here so this is not a big stress. Tomorrow will be a really hard race with changing snow conditions on a very hard track so you can lose one-to-two minutes if you are not feeling on your top shape. Alex is a rock. He will be mad. He is in great shape, and there is no doubt in my mind he’ll bounce back and be there again tomorrow.”
While Valjas led the Canadians, the highlight of the day may have been the top-15 finish of World Cup rookie, Dahria Beatty.
One day after celebrating her 22nd birthday, Beatty not only qualified for the heats for the first time at a World Cup, but came agonizingly close to securing one of two lucky loser spots in the semifinals.
Matched up on the start line against many of the biggest names in the sport, the Whitehorse resident was grinning from ear-to-ear following a career-best 15th place finish against the cream-of-the-crop in cross-country skiing.
“I had a lot of energy. The coaches said to just race and don’t be afraid to go to the front. I found myself up at the front at the beginning. Those top three girls caught back up at the top of the climb, but I just kept pushing hard,” said Beatty.
Dropping to fourth in her pack of six, Beatty capitalized on a fall by World Cup leader, Therese Johaug while cornering at the bottom of the first hill – an area that caught many off guard.
“When Johaug took a tumble, she was able to pull me back in it a bit. I pushed really hard and just missed out on a lucky loser position by .3 of a second. My best result at World Juniors is 15th so to be able to have that same result here on a World Cup is amazing.”
The Norwegians swept the women’s podium. Maiken Caspersen Falla was the stage winner. Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen was second, while Invild Flugstad Oestberg skied to the third spot on the podium.
Beatty becomes the fourth young Canadian to take advantage of having a start position at a string of World Cup races on home snow to deliver a breakthrough performance.
Last week in Quebec, Knute Johnsgaard of Whitehorse, and Maya-MacIsaac-Jones of Athabasca, Alta., also both qualified for the heats at a World Cup for the first time in their young careers. Jesse Cockney, of Canmore, Alta., also smashed a career-best 10th-place finish in the Quebec City sprints.
The inaugural Ski Tour Canada, which is also serving as the World Cup Finals, consists of eight races at four renowned Nordic venues in the country starting in Gatineau, Que., Montreal, Quebec City, and ending with four stages in Canmore, Alta., March 1-12.