One stage, the renowned final climb up the Alpe Cermis, remains in the 2011 Tour de Ski. Devon Kershaw sits in fourth, just 5.5 seconds off the podium, while teammate Alex Harvey is another 5.3 seconds back in seventh.
In previous years, Kershaw’s Tour has been defined by one main factor – illness. He has always excelled in the multi-stage event, and his ability to race with the best in any discipline over any distance makes him a perfect fit.
But until this year, he has always come down sick during the Tour.
After finishing second in the classic sprint during in Oberhof, the third stage of the Tour, Kershaw told FasterSkier, “At some point this Tour de Ski format is going to pay off. I’m not sure it will be this year, but time will tell.”
And with less than 12 hours to the start of the final race, it appears that payoff has come.
Eight men are within 28 seconds of third, so the road to the podium will not be easy.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, it has been a satisfying Tour,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier. “There are going to be some happy guys when they are done, and if we can stick a couple of guys in the top-5 that would be pretty fun.”
Another Podium for Kershaw
In today’s 20km classic, Kershaw finished third, his fourth podium in seven races, including a victory in the skate sprint.
“We were pretty pleased with how today went,” Wadsworth said. “It was probably the biggest day of the year for us. It was good to get through it with all the guys skiing well.”
On a tough waxing day, Kershaw and Harvey both had good skis – as they have the entire Tour. According to Wadsworth, Kershaw opted to air on the side of more kick, allowing him to put on a strong move on the final hill, and take the lead.
But he was caught on the downhill run into the stadium by Petter Northug (NOR) and Dario Cologna (SUI).
Wadsworth spoke to Northug while waiting in doping control with Kershaw. The Norwegian star told the Canadians he opted for slicker, faster skis, and despite the large climbs, the extra speed worked well with the descent to the stadium. Northug won all five bonus sprints as well as the race.
“On this course, that paid off for him quite well,” said Wadsworth also noting that the Canadian skis were excellent.
Kershaw managed to pick up five bonus seconds at one of the intermediate sprints, placing behind the duo of Northug and Cologna, and Harvey just missed out, twice crossing the bonus line in fourth.
But the bonus seconds were not a priority for the two men. Prior to the 15km pursuit, when asked if he would try to pick up the extra seconds, Kershaw said, “if they present themselves, maybe…but only if it just happens. I don’t know how these guys can recover so fast. I can’t believe they can sprint off race pace and can recover.”
At this point, Kershaw might be selling himself short. Only Cologna has more podium finishes this Tour, and Northug ties Kershaw with four. But both he and Harvey did not appear to go out of their way to position themselves for a run at the bonus.
Wadsworth did say that the Canadians had discussed the possibility of breaking away during the lull after one of the early bonus sprints. The course climbs quickly out of the stadium, creating a perfect opportunity for an attack.
Harvey made just such a move after the third sprint, but didn’t hold the lead. “He was in the lead for a little bit, but decided it was going to be too much, so he backed off.” explained Wadsworth.
“There were other people in the race with quite fast skis, like Northug, and the guys didn’t feel like they could really make a move stick.”
And as the race progressed, Kershaw began to focus on the win, and didn’t worry about the bonus seconds.
The strategy of patience worked just fine, with Kershaw picking up another five seconds with his third place finish, and Harvey placing fifth, just a meter behind his teammate.
“There is not much else I can do now,” Kershaw told Cross-Country Canada. “Four podiums is unbelievable. I’m still fired up. I raced my best again and I finished on the podium. I have always dreamed of being on the World Cup podium and winning a World Cup race so to be a part of it is amazing.”
The Final Climb
In the long 35km handicap start, Harvey expressed frustration at the unwillingness of many skiers to take a turn pulling the chase group. Wadsworth does not see that as being an issue tomorrow.
With nothing to wait for, and a course that features relatively mellow terrain, and a long gradual downhill to the base of the big climb, he expects the chase pack to be aggressive.
“I think they will try to work together, at least until the bottom of the climb…Everyone may go out hard an do their own thing, but they [Harvey and Kershaw] are going to talk to the guys they are around, so if they do group up, they can ensure they work together,” Wadsworth said.
Those guys include Curdin Perl (SUI), Martin Jaks (CZE), and Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA), and the main goal, according to Wadsworth, would not be to try to track down Northug who is nearly a minute and a half ahead, but to hold off the very dangerous Lukas Bauer (CZE) and Marcus Hellner (SWE).
And as Wadsworth pointed out earlier, whatever happens in the final climb, the Tour has already been a great success.
Kershaw’s results may be a step up, but are hardly a surprise, and in his opinion, the 22-year-old Harvey’s performance is no less expected.
“It’s filthy how good he is,” Kershaw says of his teammate.
Harvey however, has exceeded his own expectations for the Tour. “For me it is a surprise to be so well placed in the overall,” he told FasterSkier following his strong performance in the 35km freestyle. “Coming in I was hoping to just have some solid racing…I was just looking for two or three good stages. But every day we have nailed the skis, and the bus allows us to recover.”
And the results have continued to come.
The third Canadian in the Tour, Ivan Babikov, has been overshadowed by his teammates, but his best event is yet to come. Babikov is not as well suited to the Tour format as he is a poor sprinter, and performs best in longer hard skate races, of which there are few in the 10-day event.
But he has battled on, fighting some ski issues in today’s 20k, and sits in 25th with the top-20 well within striking distance.
“He has been struggling on the classic side to find skis that really work for his kick,” said Wadsworth. “But I think he is still in good shape.”
Babikov has won the final climb before, and the brutal elevation gain is perfect for the man known as the Bulldog.
“We will see a pretty motivated guy tomorrow,” said Wadsworth. World Cup points and prize money are awarded for the time of the day podium, and Babikov could lay claim to both.
Overall the Canadian men have proven they are a force to be reckoned with, and all three should be considered strong contenders for medals at the World Championships in Oslo.
At the conclusion of the Tour, the trio will head back to Canada to train, before returning to Europe for a camp prior to Worlds.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.