For Canada’s Devon Kershaw, the biggest moment in Saturday’s classic pursuit in Oberhof, Germany, came not on the homestretch, but with four kilometers left in the 15-kilometer race—the second stage of the 2011 Tour de Ski.
After working his way up through the field, Kershaw found himself at the front of the race, with Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and a few other skiers on the attack. But rather than charging ahead, the 28-year-old Kershaw did something he wouldn’t have done early in his career: he waited.
The move ended up coming back, and with two kilometers to go, Kershaw finally unleashed a charge that only three others could match—and that Petter Northug (NOR) couldn’t. After a drag race to the line, Kershaw had collected his second-ever World Cup distance podium, just behind Cologna. Alexander Legkov (RUS) was third.
“Me, as a 22-year-old, I would have just attacked, probably exploded, and finished 17th,” Kershaw said. “The race isn’t won at 12 k of a 15 k. It’s won at the line, and it’s taken some time to get used to…You have to be patient in a race like that.”
As the Tour heads four hours south to Oberstdorf for a classic sprint on Sunday, Kershaw sits in second place overall. The standings are identical to Saturday’s order of finish, with Cologna in the lead and Legkov in third.
The race brought the second straight day of dreary weather in Oberhof, which is known for its erratic conditions.
Fresh-falling snow in the men’s race made for some “tricky” skiing, according to Canadian Alex Harvey, with the tracks demanding both smooth technique, and strength.
“You had to be using your arms on the hills—nobody had bomber kick,” he said.
The start was seeded according to the results of Friday’s prologue, which meant that Sweden’s Marcus Hellner began with a seven-second advantage, but that was over Alexei Petukhov, a Russian sprinter. The nearest distance skier of Hellner’s caliber was Petter Northug (NOR), 13 seconds behind, but he had no interest in closing the gap.
Seventy-one men starting within 60 seconds of Hellner, though, and a big chase pack formed almost immediately. It swallowed up the Swede around the five-kilometer mark, then slowed.
The pace was still too much for Andy Newell, the American sprinter who started 14th. He sat in the pack for half the race, then bonked hard, ultimately losing two minutes by the finish to end up 57th.
“Didn’t feel like a super-fast pace or anything, but I just got really heavy,” he said in an interview. “Once I was off the back, it was pretty hard, because it was pretty windy. I just kept on losing quite a bit of time.”
Lukas Bauer (CZE) and a clutch of Russians—five of them, at one point in the race—animated things at the front throughout the middle portion, but nobody could get a gap that would stick.
In accordance with his finish in the prologue—which he said had left him very disappointed—Kershaw had started 37th, and he spent the first part of the race working his way up through the field. By the 10-kilometer mark, he’d made it to the front.
Kershaw has always skied well on the courses in Oberhof—his only other World Cup distance podium came there in 2008, when he finished third in another 15 k classic. And on Saturday, the snow conditions were to his liking, as well.
“Skiing technically through this kind of stuff is probably one of my strong suits—steeper hills, where you have to finesse the kick a little bit,” he said.
Once he made it to the front, Kershaw was there to stay—though he made sure to keep out of the wind, and the fresh powder, by letting others lead. He covered Cologna’s move at 11 kilometers, but he didn’t do any more work than he had to.
“I’ve raced enough, and I’ve had so many top-shelf coaches drill that into me: ‘be patient, be patient, be patient,’” he said. “I’m fiery when I’m racing. I get really consumed…In the past, I would have just hauled ass, and it probably would have been ugly. It was windy—it would have been a suicide move, for sure.”
With a couple kilometers left, though, Kershaw finally kicked into gear when he found himself with clear snow ahead. He knew what was in store for him if he waited too long: in the closing stages of last season’s 15 k in Oberhof, he’d lost 10 seconds to Northug’s legendary kick.
“I knew he wasn’t here, and I’m like, ‘hey, I’m going now, because if we screw around, he’s coming back,’” Kershaw said. “We were able to keep Northug out of the race, and I’m proud of that…I didn’t want him in there.”
Harvey was also among the leaders when Kershaw turned on the jets—he was following Bauer, a powerful classic skier.
When Bauer “completely exploded,” Harvey said he lost contact with the four leaders—Kershaw, Cologna, Legkov, and Ilia Chernousov (RUS)—and had to claw his way back. After leading the chasers into the stadium in fifth place, Harvey was “blown,” but he still managed ninth place nonetheless, which he said left him “really happy.”
Kershaw was the first into the stadium, and he thought he had the race wrapped up.
“I was like, ‘holy shit, I’m going to win!’” he said.
Cologna, however, had saved a little bit more energy. He came around with some strong double-poling on the homestretch to win comfortably, while Kershaw managed to just hold off Legkov.
After recovering from his initial disappointment—a self-described perfectionist, he said that his first thought was, ‘how did I lose that race?’—Kershaw said that he was relishing the result. It was his first top-three on the World Cup since December, 2008—the fourth of his career, and only his second ever in a distance event.
“It’s just nice to be back on the podium,” he said. “At least you can say, ‘well, it wasn’t just a one-off.’”
In second place headed into Sunday’s classic sprint, Kershaw said that he’s still taking the Tour day-by-day, and that his primary goal is to stay healthy. After falling ill and squandering a strong start to the 2009 edition of the race, Kershaw knows as well as anyone that there’s a long way to go until the final climb in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“You can’t rest on your laurels too much, in this race,” he said.
Kris Freeman and Ivan Babikov were the two other North American finishers, in 26th and 36th, respectively.
Freeman said that he had intended on starting the Tour “a little bit flat,” so that he could avoid crashing in the race’s latter stages. So far, he said, that had been the case, though his finish on Saturday was a big improvement on his 55th place in the prologue.
“When I come in really hot, I tend to fade, so hopefully, I’ll get into better shape as we go,” he said.
Freeman, who is diabetic, added that he hadn’t had encountered any complications from the disease in the first two stages.
“Sugar control was good on both days,” he said. “So far, so good.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.