Last year the Canadian men proved that performance a week before a major championship event is meaningless as a predictor. The hope is that that is the case this time around, as well.
Both the Canadians and Americans did not impress in their final distance tune-up prior to this year’s World Championships – but the general consensus was that there was little to be concerned about.
Devon Kershaw led all North American finishers in 26th place. Coming off a gastro-intestinal illness that hit him while traveling to Norway ten days ago, Kershaw was not pleased with his race.
“Disappointing,” Kershaw told FasterSkier. “I struggled to find a rhythm…I felt flat today.”
With four podiums in the Tour de Ski, Kershaw will not be satisfied to merely crack the top-30 at Worlds, but he can take solace in the fact that in his last distance start before the Vancouver Olympics, he placed 37th, before going on to a string of impressive performances at the Games.
Kershaw’s teammate Alex Harvey, fresh off a U-23 Championship gold medal, placed 30th, 1:45 behind winner Daniel Rickardsson (SWE), also well off his top form.
“One good sign for today,” said Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth, “was that they skied the last part of the race pretty well…I would have been worried if they had really died.”
Wadsworth was unconcerned. “They just need a good race under their belt…they will be okay,” he said.
Both Harvey and Kershaw have established themselves at the elite level of the sport, and Wadsworth sees both of them right back up there for Worlds.
“Top-20, top-15 might have been a better place to be then top-30,” he said, “but I don’t think we were actually too far away today. We will still be at the top level here.”
With the recent travel to Norway, the Canadians have not been pushing too hard in training. Kershaw, especially, needs several races to get firing on all cylinders after a period of rest, and Harvey’s result was “not bad” following a recovery period, according to Wadsworth.
Ivan Babikov (CAN) was 44th, his latest in a string of sub-par classic results. “Definitely classical races not going my way this season,” he tweeted Saturday afternoon.
George Grey, the final Canadian starter, finished 68th. The veteran had an excellent season last year, culminating in an eighth place finish in the 30km pursuit at the Vancouver Olympics. But knee surgery and his first child have changed his life significantly since then.
“It’s been a different year,” he told FasterSkier after the race. “I’m happy and proud to be here.”
Arriving in Norway less than two days ago, Grey said he “did not feel snappy.”
“I didn’t have any expectations for today. I just hope it picks up before the Championships,” he said.
On the U.S. side, the big question was Kris Freeman. The lone American medal hopeful in distance racing, he did not have his best day, to say the least.
“I went out slow and conservative, and just got slower. It was weird,” he said afterwards. “I went to turn it on, and there was nothing. I didn’t expect to be at my best, but I expected to be a hell of a lot better than this.”
A type 1 diabetic, Freeman said that blood sugar was not an issue, and that at this point, he “had no answers.” At the finish line, he seemed more flummoxed than anything else – not angry or disappointed.
Following the Tour de Ski, Freeman put in several weeks of good training before getting sick just as he was preparing for some intensity. The illness pushed his schedule off a bit. “I did some intensity last week, so I am a little tired, a little flat,” Freeman said.
“I’m concerned, that is for sure. Not what you want a few weeks before the World Championships – at least it is not the World Championships,” he said.
Three other Americans started – Lars Flora, Tad Elliott and Noah Hoffman.
Hoffman caught Elliott from thirty seconds down early on, and the pair skied the rest of the race together. Hoffman was not pleased with his final place of 71st, though he did note that there were plenty more races just around the corner.
“It was a bit of a disappointing result,” Hoffman said. “At some point, I hope to classic ski fast. It just hasn’t happened this year.”
The veteran Flora was just behind, in 72nd, 3.5 seconds down to Hoffman, while Elliott ended up in 77th after being caught by Hoffman early, and skiing most of the race with him.
Elliott is in the midst of his first long-term European swing, and made his European World Cup debut on Saturday. Expectations are certainly lower for him and the 22-year-old Hoffman – experience being a major goal right now.
And to paraphrase Petter Northug, after the World Championships, no one will remember who finished where in Drammen.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.