November 25, 2011 (Kuusamo, Finland) – Team North America was out in force on Day 1 at the first mini-tour on round two of of Viessman FIS World Cup in Kuusamo, Finland. American Kikkan Randall delivered her best ever classic sprint result making the final and ending up 4th. For Canada it was young Len Valjas turning heads yet again with his 5th place in the men’s classic race, a career-best result for him as well.
Finland’s Anssi Pentsinen, something of a surprise winner in the morning’s qualifier, delighted the partisan crowd by making it into the final, in which he placed 6th. Probably the biggest upset of the day was Norway’s sprint stud, Petter Northug, qualifying in 16th only to shock his fans by failing to make it out of the quarter finals.
Racing in icy conditions with fresh snow falling in the tracks as the finals got underway, Peterson ascended to victory with a convincing win over Russia’s Nikita Kriukov and Norway’s Oeystein Pettersen.
Pettersen (NOR) sits in third overall at seven seconds behind Kriukov. The 44-second time bonus that comes with his 5th place finish will give Valjas a much-needed boost going into tomorrow’s first distance race. He will start in 6th position overall with a 12-second deficit to make up on Kriukov.
Valjas credited much of his success to a decision to go with grippier skis, and the skill of his wax techs. “I opted for grippier skis for this race because of the steep climb at the end of the course,’ he told SkiTrax earlier today. “I payed the price every heat by losing some ground on the first downhill, but I knew that my bomber grip could catch them up the last hill.”
“Overall I felt amazing today,” Valjas continued, “and I was just having a blast out there racing. The techs made it easy for me. A huge thanks to the wax techs for the amazing skis.”
Valjas’ decision go heavy on the grip almost led to disaster in the final, however, as fresh snow started to fall on the icy tracks and there was no time to relax between the semi and the final.
“The track started off really icy and fast, but by my final it was a full on blizzard! Thats why in the final you saw me almost take a spill at the top of the big downhill. My klister got caught up on some fresh snow.” Every Valjas fan watching this morning shared a collective sigh of relief as the stalwart Canuck recovered from the stumble and went on to finish in 5th.
Bjoergen goes into Saturday’s first distance race in first place overall with a 4.6-second lead on Skofterud, who holds second place – despite finishing third today – due to her winning qualification time. Kalla sits in third, 8.5 seconds back.
Asked about her races, Randall began with her qualifier: “I think I skied a pretty solid qualifier,” she told SkiTrax after the race, “I know there are a couple sections that I could have skied better and the snow was so fast today that the course went by super fast. But I was happy to get a solid effort out of myself and have a chance to go into the rounds.”
Randall drew the toughest quarter final of the day, one that included three of the best skiers in the world: Bjoergen, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN). “After starting behind Saarinen, I switched tracks and followed Kowalczyk over the top. I pushed super hard off the final turn and had a serious drag race with Justyna. I was just able to hold her off and advance to the semis.”
Randall’s final didn’t quite go according to plan, however, with a transition/technique selection error possibly costing her a medal. “In the final I had a poor start and lost some ground on the pack on the downhill. I made a little back through the woods but lost touch with the four ahead. I was able to bridge back up to Skofterud and Kylloenen over the top of the hill,” she continued.
“I accelerated hard out of the turn again but had a confused couple of moments when I saw Skofterud striding. I tried a couple of strides but lost my momentum and couldn’t quite get back up to her.”
While Randall was a little disappointed to miss the podium, she will use today’s excellent result, along with last weekend’s 8th place finish in the 10km in Sjusjoen, as momentum to carry her into the next two days, in hopes of achieving a top 10 overall.
Randall enters tomorrow’s 5k Freesyle distance race in 4th overall with a time of 2:06:07 at 15.5 seconds behind Bjoergen, thanks to the mini-tour time bonus system.
A number of other North Americans qualified for the heats today in Kuusamo. Chandra Crawford earned her way into the heats for the first time in five tries in Kuusamo, qualifying 10th, an excellent result showing that her classic sprinting has come a long way despite being eliminated in the quarters.
Her teammate, Dasha Gaiazova, showed no signs of jet lag from her recent arrival in Scandinavia to qualify in 12th overall before being knocked out in the quarter-finals as well. “In my qualifier I had a strategy to ski smart and stay out of trouble and I think I managed that quite well,” she told SkiTrax via email.
She also alluded to a World Cup racing wake-up call, after months of training on her own with little competition: “Today I was reminded how aggressive the World Cup sprint races are, as I saw many girls cutting right in front of each other in my heat.”
“It was really fun to race and I am quite happy with my debut race of the season,” she continued. Gaiazova also dismissed any suggestions that she might still be affected by jet lag: “I can honestly say that I had no jet lag at all so far on this trip. I arrived to Finland on Sunday night and I have been sleeping really well since the first day here in Europe. I suspect the Finnish sauna might have some influence on re-setting the biological clock.”
Gaiazova is looking forward to tomorrow’s short distance race and is excited for the great performances being put on by her fellow teammates: “I am looking forward to race the 5km race tomorrow because it used to be my favourite distance before it was removed from the regular FIS race schedule. I am also excited for everyone else on our team, as it seems that so many of my teammates are just on the cusp of great performances.”
On the men’s side, the USA’s Andy Newell qualified 19th and Canada’s Alex Harvey was 29th. Both were eliminated in the quarter finals, with Harvey managing to move up to 24th on the day. Newell was “…not too satisfied” with today’s result. “Physically I felt fine today and wasn’t burning at all after qualification,” he told SkiTrax, “so I was really looking forward to the heats and being able to move up.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “I broke the number one rule of Kuusamo which is make sure you have an open track on the big climb. I took some chances but still got caught in traffic on the climb and then got blocked again going into the lanes. Then to top it off I lost the lunge for 3rd place. No excuses really I just made some bad choices out there.”
Newell still hopes to race well enough the rest of the weekend to place high in the overall mini-tour standings: “For the rest of the weekend I’m going to try an do my best in the distance races. I think if I can make it through tomorrow’s skate race without losing too much time I can still put myself in a position for a decent finish in the mini tour.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Harvey felt that conditions in Kuusamo were almost too fast, thus favouring those with the ability to generate pure speed in the icy conditions versus those who were the fittest physically. “I felt good warming up and good skiing but it’s just so fast that I think it was really a good day for pure pure sprinters, I just didn’t have the speed,” Harvey told us after the race.
“After the qualifier,” Harvey went on to explain, “I wasn’t tired at all, no lactate. I just went as fast as I could for 2:45, that’s it! Same in the 1/4 final. I was going as fast as I could, not feeling tired at the line, just didn’t have the speed that the pure sprinters had.”
“I prefer harder conditions,” he added “when it’s a bit slower and you have to work harder to go fast, today felt too easy for my taste!”
Harvey also lauded Valjas, his teammate and training partner: “Lenny’s result is awesome, but not at all surprising. He has incredible potential, he will just keep getting better and better, both in sprint and distance. I’ve been training with him for a couple of years at the Quebec training center now and I know that he will hit the World Cup podium pretty soon.”
It was a tough day for Canada’s Perianne Jones and Devon Kershaw, both of whom failed to qualify. Jones finished 44th and Kershaw 56th in qualification. Of his qualifier today Kershaw said “nothing today, just a bum,” via his Twitter. A handful of other Canadians and Americans raced in the qualifier, but finished well down in the results.
Sprint Podiums in Kuusamo
1. Teodor Peterson (SWE)
2. Nikita Kriukov (RUS)
3. Oyestein Pettersen (NOR)
1. Marit Bjoergen (NOR)
2. Charlotte Kalla (SWE)
3. Vibeke Skofterud (NOR)
North American Results
4. Kikkan Randall (USA)
14. Dasha Gaiazova (CAN)
22. Chandra Crawford (CAN)
43. Ida Sargent (USA)
44. Perianne Jones (CAN)
47. Sadie Bjorsen (USA)
50. Alysson Marshall (CAN)
70. Holly Brooks (USA)
85. Liz Stephen (USA)
5. Lenny Valjas (CAN)
19. Andy Newell (USA)
24. Alex Harvey (CAN)
56. Devon Kershaw (CAN)
82. Kris Freeman (USA)
87. Drew Goldsack (CAN)
91. Graham Nishikawa (CAN)
100. Ivan Babikov (CAN)
102. Lars Flora (USA)
111. Kevin Sandau (CAN)
120. Noah Hoffman (USA)
122. Tad Elliot (USA)