After proving themselves a force to be reckoned with in the first three stages of the Tour de Ski, Canadians Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw confidently charged to the front early in Wednesday’s 15-kilometer classic mass start in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
The Tour leader through the end of 2013, Harvey started in the first position on the first line of attack ahead of more than 100 men in Stage 4 of 7. He was in the company of guys like Norway’s Finn Haagen Krogh and Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson and Germany’s Jens Eriksson. Confidence wasn’t a problem, as Harvey explained on the phone while traveling from Germany to Switzerland for the second stop of the Tour de Ski.
“I always have fairly high confidence, even when things aren’t going too well,” Harvey said.
For Kershaw, that confidence was coming back. After slipping from third overall in the Tour the day before, Kershaw in bib No. 8 started near Harvey. By the first climb out of the stadium, the two teammates had united at the front of the pack, plodding along on the first of four laps.
Almost immediately, both sensed something was wrong. Their skis weren’t gliding, and while the extra kick on the 3-degree Celsius afternoon helped them climb, it wasn’t working for them on the downhills and flats.
“It was pretty evident our skis were bad,” Harvey said. “Even double poling.”
After testing in the morning, Harvey said their wax techs added some more kick, fearing the sun’s rays would hit the course and change the integrity of the conditions.
Second behind Sundby through 2.4 k, Kershaw hung within two seconds of the leaders (Halfvarsson, Sundby and Russian’s Ilia Chernousov and Alexander Legkov) for the first five kilometers. Meanwhile, Harvey hovered around fourth place, and Kershaw ended up following one or two places behind him for the first lap and a half.
At the first sprint preem at 5.1 k, Harvey picked up bonus seconds in third, 1.3 seconds behind Sundby and 0.9 behind Legkov. A kilometer later, Harvey had dropped eight seconds off the pace in eighth, and Kershaw was another eight seconds back in 15th.
Halfway through the race, Harvey slipped to 17th and Kershaw was just outside the top 20, yet both remained within 6.3 second of Russia’s Stanislav Volzhentsev and Legkov up front.
By the end of the third lap, Harvey and Kershaw were back in 31st and 32nd, respectively, 24 seconds out of the lead. Their teammate, Ivan Babikov stepped up in their place, passing nearly 50 people to put himself 26th (+17.5) with one lap to go.
Over the next 3.6 kilometers, Babikov in bib 75 continued to pick off the places, finishing 18 seconds back from Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin (who won in 34:28.1) in 19th.
“I’m pretty satisfied with the race,” Babikov said on the phone. “Too bad with the skis, but whatever, it happened. I’m glad I got some points and got closer to the top 30 overall, just trying to chip some time off the leader.”
Babikov improved to 32nd in the Tour, 2:08.9 out of the overall lead, picking off 43 places in less than 35 minutes.
“After two sprints in a row it was almost like a sprint tour: tour de sprint,” Babikov said. “I had a pretty good prologue, though, and that kind of gave me a good boost, but after two sprints went really bad, I lost a lot of time. I know I do my best every day, and it is what it is. I was just trying not to get too upset.”
Starting 12 or 13 rows back, Babikov said it helped to ski around competitors like Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic (bib 77) and American Noah Hoffman (bib 89). Knowing “there was no way” he could pass everyone early on, Babikov relaxed and tried to stay smooth for the first lap.
His plan worked as racers tired on the second and third laps, and Babikov picked them off in bunches.
“I tried to go hard over the top and catch people in the draft,” he said. “I tried to keep the pace similar .. going hard by the third and fourth lap, people are gonna start popping. Luckily I had a good amount of shape to do that.
“Unfortunately I got too tired going around 60 guys, 70 guys [and] on the last lap I got a bit too dropped on the lead pack,” he added.
Babikov nearly caught the lead group around the second sprint preem at 9.6 k, but that’s where some of the frontrunners started to break away. He came within 8.7 seconds of Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, who led with 2.7 k remaining, skiing in 19th, then fell a few seconds and places behind before closing hard for a top 20.
Harvey and Kershaw finished 40th (+45.5) and 47th (+58.3), respectively, skiing with each other until the last kilometer or so. Harvey said he lost contact after going hard at the first preem (the second was on the third lap, and the leaders picked up additional seconds at the finish).
“These are the days you wish you were a runner or a swimmer.” — Devon Kershaw, 47th
“I was still with the group at the end of lap two, but drifting more and more,” Harvey said. “Lap three I got popped off the main group.
“The result was pretty bad,” he added. “It was a tough day for the skis for Devon and I. We had the same wax as Babs … He’s like, ‘Yeah, my skis were bad, but yours were really, really bad.”
For the first time in the Tour, Harvey had to give up the leader’s bib as he settled in third in the overall standings, 35.3 seconds behind Sundby in first and 5.6 seconds back from Halfvarsson in second.
While he was hoping for a podium, or at least a top five to repeat his success in the 15 k classic in Oberhof last year, Harvey was glad to have the opportunity to chase a bit in Friday’s 35 k pursuit from Cortina to Toblach, Italy. He’ll start third behind Sundby and Halfvarsson, and expects to work with a group to try to rein Sundby in.
No matter what happens, Harvey said he won’t finish the Tour. Saturday will be the end of his road; he won’t participate in the final climb.
Currently 22nd in the Tour, 1:43 behind Sundby, Kershaw said he was frustrated with the last two races after placing 56th in Tuesday’s 1.5 k freestyle sprint.
“Fifteen k classic and skate sprint, those are my two best events with no question, and I came out of it way worse than I’d hoped,” Kershaw said.
“I know I’m in good shape based on Oberhof,” he added. “We had really, really, really tough skis in the sprint; obviously Alex is in the best shape of his life…”
Harvey placed second in Tuesday’s sprint to Simi Hamilton of the U.S. Ski Team.
“I had the same sprint yesterday as I did in Oberhof, it’s just that Alex wasn’t where he was in Oberhof and consequently so was I,” Kershaw said.
Feeling good in Wednesday’s warmup and relaxed on the climbs during the race, he simply couldn’t hold the pace with the skis he had been dealt.
“These are the days you wish you were a runner or a swimmer and you could use your actual physiological strength,” Kershaw said with a laugh. “[The Tour is] a pretty unique competition and we’ll just have to see how the body is and hopefully the equipment is better than it was in Switzerland, but I finally feel like my energy and body is back.”
Kershaw went to a dentist on Monday for a toothache and came away with some anti-inflammatories that he hopes will help his molar pains and headaches.
“Don’t go to the dentist in Lenzerheide thats rule number one,” Kershaw said. “Hopefully the nerve pains subside, but it’s not affecting me when I race.”
The lone Canadian woman in Tuesday’s 10 k classic mass start, Dasha Gaiazova placed 58th, 3:10.8 behind winner Kerttu Niskanen of Finland.
Perianne Jones ended her Tour run on Tuesday after placing 39th in the women’s 1.5 k skate sprint.
“Now I will train until Nove Mesto, which I think is just what I need,” Jones wrote in an email on Tuesday. “Doing the whole Tour would put me into a big hole at this point. We are focusing on doing things one step at a time, and although I didn’t qualify today I feel like things are coming along.”