It was a golden Sunday for Alex Harvey and Lenny Valjas as the duo won the team sprint at the cross-country skiing World Cup stop in Toblach, Italy.
Competing together for the first time in a World Cup team sprint, the Canadians finished first with a total time of 16:02.11, half a second ahead of Sweden (16:02.64) who narrowly edged out the home favourite Italians (16:02.76). This is Canada’s first team sprint gold since Harvey and Devon Kershaw were crowned world champions in 2011.
“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 won individual bronze two weeks ago. This is the fifth win and 19th podium of his World Cup career.
It was a career breakthrough for Valjas, who earned his first victory on his sixth trip to a World Cup 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, who is four years removed from his last World Cup medal.
In Toblach, Valjas skied the first, third and fifth laps while Harvey took the second, fourth and anchor laps of the 1.3km long course. They advanced to the final after finishing fourth in their semi, but less than two seconds behind the leaders.
In the final, it was the Finns, Norwegians and Swedes who took the pace out quickly while Valjas stayed towards the back of the main pack. On the first handoff to Harvey, the Canadians were in 11th place, about three seconds back. They stayed in that rear position until near the midway point when Valjas made a move to the front on the third lap, causing the field to stretch out. With Harvey on course for the fourth lap, he got Canada into a top-five placement, 2.4 seconds back of the lead.
“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 the front half of the group. We had a strategy to make our moves in the exchange area,” Harvey explained to Cross Country Canada. “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.”
On Valjas’ final turn on course, he was able to keep Canada in the mix and Harvey went out for the last lap with 2.1 seconds to make up. He quickly moved up from eighth to third but battling in a lead group of four. Pushing a blistering pace, Harvey got himself into the lead at the top of the final downhill heading into the stadium. Holding off the Swedish and Italian anchor skiers, he cruised across the finish line for the victory.
“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,” said Valjas. “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.”
The circuit now heads to Sweden before the Olympic test event in PyeongChang at the start of February. It’s all a warm-up for the biggest event on this year’s calendar, the world championships in Finland, which begin February 21.