Devon Kershaw had a good start in Bruksvallarna, Sweden today. So did Daniel Richardsson. But in the end, for both the Swedes and the Canadians, it was steady pacing that garnered skiers a top finish: Johan Olsson bested Richardsson for the win, and Ivan Babikov placed third for Canada while Kershaw faded to tenth.
At 4.6 k into the 15 k, interval-start skate race, the second competition in the opening series of FIS races, Richardsson had an 11-second lead over Kershaw, with Olsson another two seconds back. Babikov was tenth, 21 seconds out of the lead.
And yet Olsson, if anything, picked up the pace and was unstoppable over the last half of the race.
“I did my own race, and it felt good,” Olsson told Sweden’s TV4. “It was nice to go first in the seeded field. I’ve been away a lot and haven’t had so many training races, so I haven’t had any direct comparison to the others yet. It was nice that it went well today.”
Richardsson, who won Friday’s 10 k classic race, also seemed happy with the result; traditionally he has been stronger in the classic technique.
For Babikov, the slow start and strong finish were all part of his plan.
“I tried new tactics today,” he told FasterSkier in a phone interview. “The goal was to start really conservative for the first lap, and not thrash it, just to ski and glide. I tried to save as much power and energy as I could for the last few laps. And it worked really well I think… I didn’t know it was going to be that hard. The snow is pretty fast, so I thought it would be a fast 15 k, but it ended up that lots of people got tired on the last laps and maybe started too fast.”
Kershaw was one of those – “I licked chode”, he tweeted after the race – and told FasterSkier that the large workload he’s had in training for the last few weeks was clearly still affecting his ability to go hard. He was impressed with Babikov’s control.
“I want to say how psyched I am for Babs though- he was great today,” Kershaw wrote at the end of an e-mail to FasterSkier describing his race. “Paced it perfectly and was really, really moving that last lap. I’m impressed. He’s been notorious for slow starts to seasons, too, and to have a race like that so early in the year, on a course that was pretty rolling (read: not epically difficult which is Babs terrain!) is a very, very good sign. It was awesome to see.”
Babikov said that as far as the tactics test went, he was likely to use the same approach to next weekend’s 15 k skate in Gällivare, the first World Cup of the season. He was optimistic about his chances there, and not concerned about the time back from Olsson.
“Of course I’m happy with the race in total, because I’m on the podium and those two guys – Johan Olsson is potentially the winner for next weekend, too,” Babikov said. “He won last year’s opener in Sjusjøn in Norway, and he’s always been strong. And Richardsson is a really good skier, too. And I beat quite a few good guys too, Hellner was back there somewhere, so I’m really happy with my race, for sure.”
Babikov had a few other advantages, as well. He was the very last starter in the field, which he said played in his favor on a crowded course; for the first two laps, he was constantly passing large groups of skiers, and some parts of the course were quite narrow. There was even a tunnel narrow enough that racers could only double-pole, “so if you’re stuck behind somebody you have to wait until it opens at the end,” Babikov said. By the last lap, the course had cleared out and he had more room to run.
He also lapped with Olsson and had the chance to ski a loop with the eventual winner.
“I was pretty relaxed behind him, which gave me some good confidence, and I could use that on the last lap,” Babikov reported.
All in all, he said, he is in “good form at this moment.”
The same could not be said for Kershaw – or Sweden’s star skier Marcus Hellner, who finished ninth, one place ahead of the Canadian and well over a minute behind Olsson. Although Hellner didn’t have Kershaw’s strong start, he experienced a similar fade at the end.
“I’m not sure how Hellner raced, but for him to be ninth in a 15 k skate race… It must be one of his worst 15 k skate races ever,” Kershaw wrote. “You know he’ll be a different person next weekend on his home courses of Gallivare.”
Kershaw hoped that he would, too, with another week to recover from his training load.
“I am and have been training very hard these last weeks, which is pretty normal for me this time of year,” Kershaw wrote. “Of course, last year I’m not even sure I was top 30 in this race, but it doesn’t feel good to get the floor wiped with you. Apparently it takes some time to digest that workload, but I am hoping that next weekend in Gallivare goes WAY better than it did today. I’ll try and take the small positives out of this effort, and move forward.”
His fast pace early – Kershaw actually led at 1.8 k – was deliberate, he said, and he hadn’t taken into account how tired his body was. After feeling good and expecting to be able to hold the pace, he found that quite the opposite was true. Coming down the last hill into the finish, Kershaw bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying to steady his shaky legs.
“I was feeling pretty good for that first part, skiing big/smooth which is how I wanted to attack the course,” he wrote. “I felt relaxed and was hitting the technique well, but… I was on fumes with one lap to go, and I was able to hold on a bit until the 11.8 k mark when things got really, really ugly. In those last 3 k I was running on empty – legs like concrete and I couldn’t recover, let alone attack… I lost oodles of time and it was a big effort for sure.”
Kershaw and Babikov were the only non-Swedes to break into the top ten; Lars Nelson placed fourth, the third Swede for a second day in a row, and likely won himself a start in next weekend’s World Cup. Anton Lindblad was fifth and Martin Johansson sixth.
The lone remaining Canadian, last year’s NorAm winner Kevin Sandau, placed 36th.