OBERHOF, Germany – Thursday’s freestyle prologue will probably not end up being significant in the grand scheme of the 2012 Tour de Ski, which includes eight more competitions and 100 kilometers of racing spread across two countries.
But that doesn’t mean good results here didn’t give athletes a boost.
Led by Alex Harvey’s sixth-place finish, the Canadian men are flying high after Stage 1 of the Tour. With Harvey just seven seconds away from the win and teammate Devon Kershaw another four ticks back in 12th, the two are eying Friday’s Stage 2 as hungrily as a Quebecer staring at a carton of hot poutine.
“It just shows that they’re all fit and ready to go,” said Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian head coach. “They’re both confident for tomorrow, and I think a podium is possible for both of them. It’d be fun to get both guys on there, for once.”
Ivan Babikov, whose strengths lie in longer races, also had a decent day in 38th, rounding out the trio of Canadian men.
It was Harvey, though, who set the standard for the Canucks, looking as crisp and sharp as anyone else on the course—at least up until he hit its far corner.
For the last stretch into a headwind, Harvey said he was fried, or, actually, he described his sensations with another f-word. But despite losing a spot to Russia’s Ilia Chernousov, he was able to keep things under wraps and hold on to sixth place.
Afterwards, he said that he had held nothing back coming into this year’s Tour. With just nine stages, there’s not too much time to ski your way into shape, he said, and there are also other advantages to being at peak fitness aside from simply racing fast.
“When you’re in good shape, you also recover faster,” he said. “I did the best I could to be in the best shape I could today.”
As for Kershaw, his shape wasn’t lacking much either, he said, even if he might have lost a few seconds in the ice on some of Oberhof’s tricky corners.
Across the board, though, he, Harvey, and Wadsworth all agreed that the results in Thursday’s race will ultimately amount to a whole lot of nichts—German for nothing.
“It means zero, but you just get to see,” Harvey said. ““It’s a good moral boost.”
In the end, the Tour is decided in the tougher stages in Italy in the middle and end of the race, Kershaw said: the 35-kilometer point-to-point race starting in Cortina, and a 20 k and hill climb in Val di Fiemme. The early competitions, he added, are “just fun stuff for guys like me that are good at these kinds of races.”
For Wadsworth, though, it’s a little more than fun stuff. The prologue, at least, is also validation that his program is working, with the Canadians displaying a combination of improved fitness and technique.
Thursday’s loop included two stiff, steep climbs—an area that the Canadians had spent a lot of time working on during the off-season, and one that “in the past wouldn’t have been that well-suited to either of the guys,” Wadsworth said.
But on Thursday, all three of the Canadian men improved on their results from last year’s Tour prologue: Harvey by 12
places, Kershaw by 25 places, and Babikov by seven places.
In Friday’s Stage 2, a staggered-start classic race based on Thursday’s results, Harvey and Kershaw will start towards the front of a long stream of athletes hunting leaders Petter Northug (NOR), Dario Cologna (SUI), and Maurice Manificat (FRA).
Those three will have head starts of roughly 20, 15, and five seconds, respectively, on the first chasers. But with fresh snow likely to be clogging the tracks, most people expect the leaders to be gobbled up into a big pack, which sets the Canucks up well for a shot at the top three.
In stage two last year—the exact same format—Kershaw came from 37th place at the start to nearly pull off a spectacular win, with only Cologna getting the better of him in on the homestretch.
“I think it’s a race Devon wished he would have won last year,” Wadsworth said. “I don’t think outside of a podium tomorrow for him will be really satisfying, and I think Alex probably feels the same way.”
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.