Sometimes a rough day at the races is as simple as missing the wax. The Canadian National Team has been there before, probably more often than it would like to recall this season, but the reality is, you still have to finish.
That’s what stood out to head coach Justin Wadsworth on Saturday. As he watched his team, particularly his men, struggle in the five-lap, 15-kilometer classic mass start on the second-to-last stage of World Cup Finals, the three-time U.S. Olympian remembered what it was like to be in their position.
It’s bad enough when you’re not feeling 100 percent, but if you’ve got no kick to work with, it’s going to be a long day.
Wadsworth noticed the problem on the main hill of the men’s first lap.
“You could see the sun really beating on it and the guys, for so early in the race, were having a little bit of a hard time climbing up it,” he recalled on the phone. “We had really bad grip on the skis so there was no chance for the guys. The women, the skis were OK.”
The women’s 10 k classic mass starter took place earlier on the warming afternoon in Falun, Sweden. NorAm leader Emily Nishikawa of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) placed 46th, 3:36.3 behind Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, who won in 28.06.7. Canadian World Cup Team member Dasha Gaiazova finished last in 50th (+4:07.3).
Gaiazova told Cross Country Canada she was simply “really tired,” according to a press release. “My energy tank needs a refill.”
That’s how most of the Canadians – and many World Cup skiers on the five-month circuit were feeling these days, but Wadsworth was disappointed his five men didn’t have much of an opportunity to push their limits.
Temperatures warmed from around 3 degrees Celsius (37 Fahrenheit) at the start of the women’s race to 6 degrees (43 Fahrenheit) for the men’s 15 k.
“It was one of the days I would say we missed the wax quite badly,” Wadsworth said. “That doesn’t help because the bodies aren’t perfect anyways, and that combination of not-perfect bodies and bad skis is not so much fun.”
Alex Harvey turned out the team’s top result in 30th, tying Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson in a photo finish 1:38.2 behind Norway’s Eldar Rønning, who won in 43:26. Harvey skied with teammate Devon Kershaw for much of the race, hovering in the mid-30s. The two stuck with the pack for the first half of the 15 k, skiing 35 seconds off the pace by 10 k. By 12.2 k, they were more than a minute back from the leaders.
Kershaw ended up 36th (+2:09.3), and Ivan Babikov finished 41st (+2:47.7). Around 5 k, Babikov and Lenny Valjas were about 30 seconds back in the mid-40s. Michael Somppi (AWCA) was 50 seconds behind in 51st.
Babikov passed a few places to finish slightly higher, but Valjas ended up 50th (+5:04.5) and Somppi was last in 51st (+6:14.5). A year ago, Valjas captured bronze in the same race on a different course in Falun, which has been altered for 2015 World Championships. Kershaw was fifth in the 15 k classic mass start.
But that was then, and seeing how his athletes were feeling the wear-and-tear of the season, Wadsworth told them before the start he didn’t care where they finished, he just wanted them to work hard.
“All the guys hung in there,” he said. “They went through a day that I can tell you, haven been there myself as a racer, was no fun at all. They knew early on in the race their skis weren’t going to be good and they kept fighting, and I’m really proud of those guys for that.”
Asked what specifically went wrong, Wadsworth said something with the team’s lines of communication.
“I think it was just not going and looking ahead enough, maybe the connection between the wax team and looking at how the weather was changing,” he said. “Everybody’s got to be aware of that and communicating and somewhere that broke down today.
“I don’t think anyone was probably going to win the race today, but at the same time, you need to have good skis to be in the competition,” he added. “The kick wasn’t there for them.”
With one race left, Harvey will be the first Canadian starter in the pursuit in 32nd, 3:15.7 back from Norwegian leader Petter Northug. Last year in the pursuit, Harvey started ninth and finished second.
After Sunday, Harvey will take another look at his shoulder injury from earlier this year while most of the team heads to Canadian Nationals in Whistler, B.C.
“They just really need to refocus again and fight,” Wadsworth said of his athletes in the last World Cup race of the season. “A bunch of them are in positions that aren’t a lot of fun to be in, but they still have to go out there and do their job and work hard.
“It’s gonna be tough [Sunday], but we gotta go into every race and do our best,” he added “If they get there and they grit their teeth and they can see that they’re giving it everything they have, than that’s all I can ask, that’s all we can all ask.”