The art and appeal of racing usually boils down to the unexpected. One can guess who will win, pick the favorites and anticipate the moves, but nothing is ever over ’til, well, it’s over.
In two entirely different pursuit races Sunday in Cantley, Quebec, the odds and work ethic played out for the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA). In the men’s 30 k classic pursuit, Graeme Killick and Jesse Cockney set out to aidi teammate Kevin Sandau in his quest for the NorAm lead and World Cup racing opportunity that came with it.
As it turned out, Killick won and Sandau successfully held off Brent McMurtry of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH), placing second in the last race of the three-day Eastern Canadian Championships. McMurtry, who was third, previously led the NorAm circuit and was also looking to secure a few World Cup starts this season.
Five of the Academy’s men placed in the top 6, with Jesse Cockney in fourth, Pate Neumann in fifth and Gerard Garnier in sixth.
In the women’s 15 k classic pursuit, four Academy athletes swept the top 4, and most guessed the win would go to either Alysson Marshall and Emily Nishikawa. Both AWCA athletes, they started more than a minute ahead of their next closest contender. Eventual third-place finisher Kate Brennan, also of the AWCA, said the start was almost comical as the rest of the women watched them take off then stood around and waited to go.
With a NorAm mini-tour title and World Cup trip at stake, Marshall and Nishikawa strategically skied together for most of the race, waiting for the best opportunity to make a move. Neither could have predicted a minor slipup near the finish would make the difference.
With slightly less than a kilometer to go, Nishikawa found herself on Marshall’s heels. A moment later, Nishikawa was on the ground, trying to catch her breath and make sense of what just happened.
Nishikawa had crashed at a high speed on the final downhill, and while she wasn’t sure what happened, she knew the win was out of reach. Marshall skied away and locked up the victory and NorAm leader’s spot by 29.2 seconds. She needed to beat Nishikawa by at least 4 seconds to do so.
Marshall said she looked back shortly after Nishikawa fell and could not see her. At that moment, she knew she had won with the chase group nearly 2 minutes behind.
“I still had gas left,” Marshall said in a phone interview from the airport, where she was getting ready to fly to Latvia via Frankfurt and join a few other Canadians on the OPA/Scandinavian Cup circuit. She would stay in Europe and compete in the World Cup for a few weeks, starting at Feb. 17-18 in Poland.
“I was ready for the last sprint and I think I probably could have gotten it [without Nishikawa falling],” Marshall said. “But at the same time, I didn’t really know.”
Nishikawa said she was fine after the crash, but had to sit down at the finish after salvaging second place.
“I was aiming to go into a wider track, and I think Alysson was aiming for the same track,” she said. “I think I got a pole in the rib. I winded myself pretty bad. That happens all the time in racing; it’s kind of unfortunate.”
Other than that, Nishikawa said she felt good, attacking on the climbs and responding to Marshall’s pushes on the downhills and flats. Starting 4 seconds behind Marshall, she caught up to the pursuit leader on the first climb and let Marshall lead the first of three laps. Nishikawa said she was ahead for most of the second and third laps, and remembered AWCA program director Mike Cavaliere calling out to them on the last hill: “Here’s where the race begins!”
A few moments later, it ended for Nishikawa. Even if she had finished within a second or two of Marshall and beat her time, Nishikawa would have secured the NorAm regional spot. Regardless, she was looking forward to the U23 World Championships in Turkey, which she would leave for next Saturday.
With a few World Cup experiences of her own, Kate Brennan held off AWCA teammate Brittany Webster by 1.4 seconds for third. She also edged Sara Hewitt (CXC) by 3.8 seconds for her best NorAm result in three years and career-best in a NorAm distance race.
“I think I finally figured out pacing. I’ve been having trouble with that all year,” Brennan said. “I grew up in the Ottawa area so I was kind of coming back to my home trails and had lots of people cheering for me so that was fun.”
Webster skied the fastest 15 k of the day to climb her way out from ninth place to start to finish fourth. In two NorAm starts this season, she has placed fourth in both.
In preparation for the men’s race, the AWCA athletes and coaches met Saturday night to discuss tactics, according to Cavaliere.
Sandau was trying to make it back to Europe after starting his season on the World Cup circuit this year, and it was critical that the men starting around him helped him out.
For Killick, the first out of the gate after winning Saturday’s 15 k freestyle interval start, he would have to see how his problematic hip flexors felt during the classic race. Sandau started 7 seconds behind, and Cockney was next out 8 seconds later.
If the three worked as a team, they figured they could hold off McMurtry, who started just over a minute after Sandau. With World Cup starts on the line after he placed an uncharacteristic 11th on Saturday, McMurtry would likely be hungry.
“We wanted to make sure they kept pushing each other and didn’t let Brent get any encouragement,” Cavaliere said. “We needed those guys not to let their guard down.”
Within the first 5 kilometers of the race, McMurtry had already put the pressure on, narrowing the gap to about 46 seconds. They still had five laps to go.
“Brent skied so strong today; he was clawing back time just skiing alone,” Sandau said. “The whole race I had the Jaws theme song in my head. It was one of the scarier races in my career.”
With the three AWCA teammates skiing together in the lead, Sandau said they took turns leading, each setting a fast pace in an effort to permanently drop McMurtry.
“We knew that we should take advantage of our starting positions and work together to maintain that gap,” Sandau said. “It would be stupid not to unless one of us was feeling phenomenal.”
Killick said he fed off the teamwork as each skier used their strengths to pull them ahead.
“Jess was amazing on the double pole, even on the climbs, and Kevin and I [pushed] on the climbs,” Killick said. “Through the race, I was trying to do my part. I was sort of strung out in a few places when Jess and Kevin would go up the front and start hammering the hills and flat sections, but I was able to recover well in the draft.”
According to Cavaliere, the coaches told Cockney that he could help set a fast pace for half the race and drop out around 15 k. That way, the sprinter could help Sandau without having to worry about recovering for the team’s training camp in Italy in a few days and stiffening up during the long flight on Monday.
As Sandau, Killick and Cockney opened the gap to almost a minute on McMurtry at the midway point, Cockney had done his job, but decided to finish the race. Before then, Sandau said he was a little worried Cockney might ski away from him. He told Cockney how well he was skiing as they entered the stadium near the end of the third lap.
“He spent all he had at 12 k,” Sandau said of Cockney, who hung in to place fourth. “He just kind of sacrificed himself. I owe a lot of today’s race to Jess.”
Cavaliere joked that they gave Cockney the George Hincapie Award, referring to the American cyclist known for helping Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France seven times.
While Sandau didn’t win, he did what he needed to.
“Priority number one was to beat Brent,” he said. “It would have been good to win overall, but Killick got the little push at the end. … I was ecstatic to be up there with him. He’s obviously in some good shape.”
Killick said he was similarly happy to feel strong enough to stay with Sandau. The two traded leads until the shortly before the stadium finish, when Killick stayed in front on the last hill.
“I just turned it on the last little climb [and] put in my best sprint after 30 k,” Killick said.
There, he edged Sandau for his second victory in two days. Saturday’s marked his first career NorAm win. Killick said it was a good indication of what kind of shape he was in before U23 Worlds in two weeks.
The third man to finish, McMurtry had a different experience in Sunday’s pursuit. For all but the first 2 k, when he skied with teammate David Greer, McMurtry skied alone. When he passed other Academy skiers, many of them refused to help him gain ground on Sandau. McMurtry didn’t blame them.
“Honestly, I knew that it would take a minor miracle [to catch Sandau and win],” McMurtry said. “It’s a race that I really enjoy. I like 30 k and I like classic so I just sort of focused on skiing my own race. After 20 k, I heard they were working together pretty seamlessly. I knew that I couldn’t catch them at that point.”
According to lap splits on Zone4.ca, McMurtry came as close as 44.2 seconds from Sandau around 10 k. He later lost time, but regained about 9 seconds around 20 k. Regardless, he was 54 seconds back. Disappointed he didn’t set himself up better for the pursuit, he was glad to win the time trial.
“It’s like a little bit of a consolation prize,” McMurtry said. “If nothing else, I think I was quite a bit stronger relative to those guys. Skiing 30 kilometers by yourself is pretty tough.”