Devon Kershaw (CAN) thought he had his first World Cup victory. His powerful move over the top of the last climb paid off, and he came screaming down into the stadium with a gap on none other than defending Sprint Cup champion Emil Joensson (SWE) and former overall World Cup champion Dario Cologna (SUI).
But Joensson, perhaps the best pure sprinter in the world, can never be counted out. The Swede came charging back, and with just meters to go the two men were neck and neck flashing across the line so closely matched that only the finish camera could reveal the victor.
Joensson, still on the ground after falling across the line, saw the news on the video board, and began his celebration on his back. Kershaw graciously gave the Swede a hug, settling for a still-spectacular second – making it twice in two days he has stood on the middle step of the podium.
“I was so sure I had won my first World Cup,” Kershaw told FasterSkier in an interview. “I can’t believe I lost…oh man it was close!”
The day started well for the Canadian veteran as he qualified in 7th.
“In qualification I felt super smooth and really good,” Kershaw said, noting that he usually does not feel good in the prelim, even when he places well.
Despite having what he described as “one of the best races of my life,” on Saturday in the 15km classic, Kershaw didn’t have great expectations in the first sprint of the 2011 Tour de Ski, a classic event in Oberstdorf.
“I wasn’t that confident. I had a great day yesterday, and I have been feeling confident with how I have been skiing technically, but with the sprint I just wasn’t totally sure…you never know. Things change so quickly in this game.”
He matched up with American Andy Newell, the 4th qualifier, in the first quarterfinal. While there are no free passes in World Cup racing, the two North Americans did avoid the other big guns in the first round.
Newell led out of the start and set the pace up the first hill, looking relaxed with his long, smooth stride.
Kershaw sat at the back, a place he would occupy at the beginning of each of his heats with such consistency it appeared to be a strategy. Not so.
“I’m just such a vicious starter. I’m so bad,” Kershaw said. “I’m just horrendous, especially in sprint starts.”
But on the second climb, he moved up on the outside, gaining position, and setting up a run for the finish.
With Newell still holding a lead of several meters into the descent, the chasers ran four abreast through the final descent. Kershaw, clearly riding fast skis, shot out into the homestretch at the head of the group, leapfrogging up from fifth place, and rode up next to Newell for the final push.
Kershaw skied off the front to take the top spot, while Newell almost gave away a ten-meter lead on Russian Dmitriy Japarov, advancing in the second spot after winning the lunge to the line.
“He is really skiing heads-up, Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said of Kershaw. “In the past…he has tried to ski off the front, but he is really getting the picture now that you have to pick your times carefully and when you go, you go hard.”
With a relatively fast sprint course clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, every heat was hotly contested, making for exciting racing and great spectating.
Harvey Takes Down Northug
Alex Harvey (CAN), joined Kershaw and Newell in the semis with an impressive performance of his own.
The 22-year-old phenom bested the great Petter Northug in a double-pole to the finish. Harvey entered the last 100 meters behind Northug, and actually overtook the Norwegian in a furious double pole battle culminating with a photo finish lunge to the line.
Northug closes like none other, and it is hard to remember the last time he lost a head-to-head battle of this sort. But lose he did, and with no lucky loser lover, he was done for the day, and Harvey set up for a meeting with Kersahw and Newell in the first semifinal.
Swedes Pack the Semis
The North Americans lined up with three Swedes – Joensson, Marcus Hellner, and Jesper Modin. Helnner never qualifies quickly but is surprisingly dangerous in the heats, and Modin is strong in classic.
The trio from this side of the Atlantic got off to an inauspicious start highlighted by Newell crashing out of the gate. Impressively he was able to regain contact, closing the 20-meter gap by the bottom of the first climb.
“I have no idea what happened,” said Newell of the crash. “I just got up and tried to chase the group down.”
But the white suits of the Swedes formed a wall at the front, with the two Canadians and the American bringing up the rear.
Hellner set a blistering pace over the top and Harvey slipped by Modin to move into third, before pulling even with Joensson on the descent.
Kershaw in fifth halfway up the second climb turned on the jets, and slipped into third on the inside entering the descent.
“Luckily I had the body to day to make some moves,” said Kershaw of his slow starts. “There is a lot of room out there to maneuver, so I knew if I felt good, I cold make up some ground on the climbs. The strategy was n definitely not to hang out in sixth.”
With the exception of the sprung Modin, it was still anyone’s race entering the final sprint. Hellner, who led from the start didn’t have the speed, and Joensson took over, closely followed by Kershaw, with Harvey just feet behind.
Newell never had a chance to fight for a spot in the finals as he crashed hard entering the homestretch. His day was over and he would have to be content with 12th.
“Somebody snagged my ski with their pole, and I did a quick face plant,” Newell said. “I was feeling good coming into the last 100 meters,” adding that he didn’t think the effort to catch up after the first fall had any impact.
Harvey missed out on the lucky loser as the second semifinal, led by Dario Cologna was several seconds faster, and the scene was set with Joensson, Kershaw, Cologna, Simen Oestensen (NOR), Alexei Petukhov (RUS) and Alexander Legkov (RUS) lining up in the final.
Legkov got the call after teammate Nikolay Morilov was relegated to last in the second semi.
The Grand Finale
Oestensen led off the line, moving to the front as he did in the earlier heats, Cologna hot on his heels. Kershaw, once again slow off the line, brought up the rear.
The Canadian moved earlier this time, following a hard-charging Joensson up the first climb on the inside. Joensson took over the lead, and Kersahw easily skied past the Russians.
Over the top Kershaw slipped by Cologna and Oestensen and entered the descent in second. He hit the second climb in perfect position on the inside. He skied past Joensson, and as the course bent to the left, he opened a gap. All of a sudden he had 10 meters into the descent and the final sprint was set.
“I couldn’t even hear him,” Kershaw said of Joensson. “I thought it was mine, but he snuck up beside me. I stayed with him and we both hurled our legs at the line. I have big feet too – size 12. Usually that has helped me out with some lunges, but not today.”
Wadsworth said the move over the top was not an accident, but not something that would always work.
“Normally on that course you have to be careful doing that because it is such a long downhill afterward [to the finish] and people can slingshot by.”
Wadsworth and the rest of the Canadian staff kept a close eye on the other skiers to see how they were gliding, and noted that not many could crest the last rise before the stadium without poling.
“I really felt confident that if a move was made over the top it could potentially stick,” Wadsworth said.
Kershaw maintained his second place in the overall, just 3.7 seconds down on Cologna who took third in the sprint.
Wadsworth was not surprised by Kershaw’s performance in the Tour thus far. “During some of his classic intervals this summer I guaranteed he was skiing as fast as anyone in the world.”
Kershaw was a bit flat for the prologue, in part due to a hard training block before Christmas. Wadsworth termed the recovery as a bit “dicey,” but the hard effort in the opener cleared things out and set up the consecutive podium finishes.
Racing continues on Monday with a 20km pursuit, and event that Kershaw says marks the “real” start of the Tour.
With bonus seconds available at six different points in the race, a single skier in attack mode – say a rested Lukas Bauer (CZE) – could take over a minute out of the leaders.
Kershaw won’t be battling for those extra seconds unless he happens to be in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t know how those guys do it,” he said of the distance racers who can accelerate to full sprint, and then recover to maintain the already fast pace of the pack.
Harvey, after placing seventh in the sprint, is an impressive fourth overall, 36.9 seconds down.
“Alex and Devon can do it all,” said Wadsworth. “They can classic sprint, they can skate sprint, they can ski distance…There aren’t that many guys on the circuit who can achieve those results in all disciplines so a race like a Tour makes that stand out.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.