TOBLACH, Ita.—Competing for the first time together in a World Cup team sprint event, Alex Harvey and Lenny Valjas, shocked the world to win the gold medal on Sunday in Toblach, Italy.
Harvey, of Saint Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que. and Toronto’s Valjas rocked the traditional Canadian air guitar show with their skinny skis in the finish area after clocking a winning time of 16:02.11.
“This feels absolutely great. Team wins are always special. To share this with Lenny and all of the wax staff is awesome,” said Harvey, who has regularly been in the top-10 this year, and captured the bronze-medal position on the podium two weeks ago in the fourth stage of the seven-race Tour de Ski.
It was the first time Canada has won a team sprint event since Harvey and Devon Kershaw won the gold medal in the classic team sprint at the 2011 World Championships in Norway.
“I’m just feeling really good right now. I wasn’t going to race yesterday and decided I might as well do it and see what happens. It gave me a lot of confidence for today to deliver a great result and we did that. The skis have been amazing all year. The body is great and everything is going really well right now,” said Harvey.
Sporting 70s old school style moustaches, the 28-year-old Canadian duo advanced to the finals after finishing fourth in the semifinals of the 6×1.3 kilometre relay. The top four teams in each of the two heats advance to the final along with the next seven fastest times. Athletes each ski three laps each, handing off to their teammate after each loop.
Led by Valjas, the Canadians stayed out of trouble near the middle of the pack where they put their focus on the exchanges on a tight and winding course in Toblach. Grinding out each leg, the 6’ 7” Valjas began to make the initial move for the Canucks on the third leg, which forced the pack to stretch out.
“There is always lots of crashes in the team sprint, and on this course, it is so hard to pass so it was important to stay near front half of the group. We had a strategy to make our moves in the exchange area,” added Harvey. “We positioned ourselves well on the outside away from the group. We had to ski longer distances, but could gain speed. We made up positions in every exchange which was the difference today.”
With all of the top nations elbowing for position on the tight corners, Harvey handed off to Valjas in fifth spot for his final trek around the Toblach Nordic Arena where he held his own to set up Harvey up for the charge to the finish line.
Starting the anchor leg two seconds off the leaders in eighth, Harvey quickly darted into third place before taking over the lead at the top of the final downhill into the stadium and never looked back to secure the title for the Canadians.
Sweden’s Karl-Johan Westberg and Oskar Svensson were second at 16:02.64, while Italy’s Federico Pellegrino and Dietmar Noeckler won the bronze with a time of 16:02.76.
It was the 19th World Cup medal, and fifth victory for Harvey to go along with his four World Championship podiums including his 2011 team sprint title.
Valjas celebrated his first World Cup victory, and sixth career podium.
“I needed this. It has been a while and to do it in a team event is even better. I was not expecting this at all today, but it was the ultimate goal,” said Valjas. “There were lots of little attacks to try and blow the field up so I just wanted to cover those attacks, but not blow my energy. We both have great speed and endurance to go with it, which is an advantage in this event. By the last lap I just kept grinding and the pure sprinters kept dying one-by-one.
“I know Alex is feeling well, and I just wanted to go out there and work hard to set him up to do his thing on the final lap and he delivered.”
While Harvey has been knocking on the door of the podium all year, Valjas has been showing steady progress since his last string of podiums in 2013. The 2014 Olympian, who has been battling a sore knee until last season following surgery three years ago, is finally healthy and sprinting back to the top of the international standings on a regular basis.
“I’ve been kind of waiting for this breakthrough,” added Valjas. “It has been a long road, but I am feeling really strong. This is just perfect and gives me huge confidence heading into World Championships.”