Entering these 2010 Olympic Games, the top result by a Canadian man was a 14th by the legendary Pierre Harvey in 1988. Ivan Babikov bettered that with an 8th place in the 15km, but the best was yet to come.
Pierre Harvey’s son, Alex topped his father’s result, finishing 9th today. And he was the just the third Canadian across the line.
Babikov set yet another new record, finishing 5th, and in medal contention until the last 2 kilometers. And George Grey did Harvey one better, taking 8th, in what he described as “the highlight of my career.”
Devon Kershaw rounded out the impressive Canadian quartet, taking 16th in what he termed a “disappointing” race.
Said Kershaw “To have three Canadians in the top-10 is pretty inspiring. Hopefully we can hold this form and will see bigger and better things. I’m so proud of my teammates.”
Silver medalist on the day Tobias Angerer was impressed with the host team. “Ivan and Alex and George, they were really really strong and had fantastic skis. They are a strong team and I think for the relay they have great chances.,” the German veteran told media.
The Canadians were right in the race from the start, much to the delight of the large crowd. With temperatures climbing toward 50 and the sun bright once again, it was a great day for both racing and spectating.
Lukas Bauer (CZE) and Dario Cologna (SUI) pushed the race early, trying to break up the large pack. They were unable to get away, and Canada’s finest had no trouble maintaining the pace.
“I felt so comfortable in the classic,” said Kershaw. “I felt like I was in zone 3 – skiing fast, skiing smooth.”
That seemed to be the case for all four men. Grey slipped off the leaders for a short time, but was able to climb back aboard and recover in the draft.
“It seemed like people were skiing a bit slowly, or maybe I was feeling good,” described Grey. “So I thought ‘hey I’m going to the front, I’m not going to try any kind of superman move here, but I’ll lead it for a bit and ski my own pace, not skiing on people’s tails.’”
Four years ago in Torino, Grey was at the front of the 50k early in the race. At that point he didn’t belong there, and his result proved it as he finished 44th. Today was obviously different as both he and his teammates once again confirmed that they are as good as anyone.
“That went well [moving to the front],” continued Grey. “I got some energy back and had a solid skate race.”
Grey was right about the pace – when his early attacks failed, Bauer slowed up, and no one else took over. This continued until the transition to skate, when Johan Olsson of Sweden attacked hard out the stadium. He immediately got a gap and his Swedish teammates controlled the chasers to give him a chance to pull away.
The Canadians stayed in good position in this group, working off each other, and not trying anything foolish – like attempting to bridge up to Olsson.
According to Grey, the Canadians did not play the tactic game like the Swedes, but having four teammates around cannot be discounted.
“It helps to have your team around you. We train together, we race together…so we know if one our teammates pulls up beside us and we have a moment of weakness, you jump on their tails and ski with them – you can relax mentally and get back in your race.”
The pack continued to shrink as the race went on. Kershaw and Harvey both appeared to be struggling to hold on at times, and when he took a fall midway through the race, Kershaw’s chance to join his teammates in the top-10 evaporated.
“Personally I’m disappointed in myself today. I fell apart a bit in the skate leg, pretty disappointing for me. I must be a little tired personally. I didn’t have the snap in the skate, but we trained hard and prepared well.”
The last was in reference to the tough training the team did leading up to the Canmore World Cups. They didn’t perform well there – “terrible results” in the words of Kershaw. But those races were never the focus.
“Maybe I overdid it a little [with the pre-Olympic training]. But time will tell. We still have eight days left in these Olympics.”
The fall put Kershaw in a tough spot, just out of direct contact with the leaders. He was off on his own for some time, though several times he almost regained the pack.
“I hoped for four top-10’s,” Canadian coach Inge Braten said laughing. “But Devon had a fall midway through the race, or else I think he could have been there too.”
Harvey skied to a remarkably quiet 9th. With Babikov toward the front at the end, and Grey, skiing at a new level, Harvey, while not forgotten, seemed to fly a little under the radar.
He did not look as solid as the other two, and he confirmed that after the race.
“I was at the limit 5k into the race. I was feeling ok, but I was lacking a bit of snap at the top of the hills and I was always trailing at the back of the pack. The pack was narrowing down a little bit, but I was always at the back.
Harvey was glad to see the early attacks by Bauer and Cologna that broke up the pack over time. “It is good when the pace picks up – it was just an eight-man group to the finish…It is not normal to have 20 guys at the line after 30km. Cross-country is supposed to be a hard sport.”
But he was not in position to be involved with any attacks or attempting to catch Olsson.
“I could never be a main actor in that group, because the legs were a bit heavy in the skating and even in the classic, but I am super happy with the result.”
Braten was quite pleased with the team – “we are clever” he told FasterSkier, but they are looking for the hardware. “We should like to have a medal!” the Norwegian concluded, in good humor.
He also noted that the Canadians have always been focused on the second half of the games. “We started mostly yesterday and today, and are looking forward to the relay and the 50k. And we should be strong in the team sprint with a couple of the guys.”
And while it was a record breaking performance for the Canadian men – they joined Sweden as the only teams with three in the top-10, and no other nation bested their 4 in the top-16 – Ivan Babikov’s individual performance was the highlight of the day.
Despite his 5th place finish, he was upset at the finish, and was consoled by teammates. One can speculate that he saw a medal within grasp, and was not able to grab it.
Babikov tweeted after the race “Happy with my 5th place,” and then “but it makes me sad when I think how close it was to the Olympic medal, and what if it was my only chance in my career?”
The chasers closed on Olsson over the last 3 kilometers, and with just 2.4 to go, Alexander Legkov (RUS) finally made a move, bringing eventual winner Marcus Hellner (SWE), Anders Soedergren (SWE), Petter Northug (NOR) and Tobias Angerer (GER) with him. Babikov was not able to match the pace initially, but he stayed with it and moved back up on the last climb. He overtook a fading Northug, who broke a pole when moving in front of Hellner, and entered the stadium just 50 meters back in 5th.
His finish was strong, and he made up some ground, but there was not enough race left. The numbers backed up what the eyes witnessed. He posted the fastest skate time of the day, and only Hellner was faster over the last kilometer. He may not have won a medal, but he made history for the second race in a row.
Babikov has had a remarkable Olympics and has two more races to go. With this performance, the Canadian men are set up to battle Sweden, Norway, Germany and Italy in the 4x10km relay. And the 50k plays to Babikov’s strengths – the harder the better.
At the halfway point in the 2010 Games, the Canadian men are stronger than ever before. And with Kershaw disappointed in a 16th, and Harvey skiing to 9th despite “tired legs” the future bodes well for the home team.
“We trained really hard to have days like today, so hopefully we can keep it rolling,” summed up Kershaw.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.