OBERHOF, Germany — There’s no shortage of grit among the top men on the Canadian cross-country ski team.
Each year, Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, and Ivan Babikov train for hundreds of hours, climbing dozens of steep hills through sun, rain, and snow.
The training has powered the athletes to some pretty impressive accomplishments this season. But even after all that preparation, Stage 2 of the Tour de Ski on Friday threw a challenge at the Canucks that they couldn’t overcome: the sometimes-sticky, sometimes-slick Oberhof powder.
Confounded by slippery skis, Kershaw and Harvey fell far short of the podium places they were aiming for—even expecting—on Friday, finishing 15th and 27th, respectively, after skiing with the lead pack for most of the race. Babikov was 52nd.
“Our techs tried their best,” Kershaw said. “I wouldn’t say it was an epic fail, but in this game, in the men’s, it’s really tight, so you don’t get a lot of chances.”
Before the race, temperatures were hovering around zero, with intermittent snow—a nightmare scenario for service staffs here. Technicians and coaches on Friday said that the conditions were among the toughest they’d ever faced, with the track surface varying not just as the afternoon progressed, but also between different parts of the three-kilometer loop at the same time.
Kershaw said that he tested four pairs of skis before the race, and ultimately picked a brand-new pair after the three others he tested all iced up at the top of the course. While the start was staggered based on yesterday’s result, both Kershaw and Harvey caught the leaders quickly. But even in the early stages of the race, Harvey was laboring.
“I fought for my kick the whole race…even when we were going slow,” he said. “I had zero kick the whole time.”
Ultimately, Harvey said he had to resort to herringbone technique on the climbs on the last two of five laps. Kershaw said he ended up “running,” which wasn’t particularly effective.
“I’m a good runner in the summer, but not on skis,” he said.
As the men’s pack ramped up the pace on the last lap, the pair lost contact, with Kershaw ultimately conceding 16 seconds to winner Axel Teichmann (GER), and Harvey losing 43. Babikov was struggling from the start, finishing 1:40 down.
Given the Canadians’ history in Oberhof—in three previous pursuit starts here, Kershaw had two podiums and Harvey a top-10—the day was a letdown.
“Just disappointed,” Kershaw said. “This is a race I love.”
But unlike Harvey and Babikov, who ducked quickly out of interviews, Kershaw was still upbeat at the finish. For both Kershaw and Harvey, there’s still a silver lining to come out of Friday, and that’s their good form, demonstrated by good results in Thursday’s prologue and by their ability to hang on for nearly the whole race today.
“Like yesterday, the body’s there,” Kershaw said. “So hopefully it continues.”
The real meat of the Tour doesn’t come until later on, when the race swings into Italy, and Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth expressed little concern about the overall standings. Given how slick the Canadians’ skis were, he said he was just happy that the race hadn’t gone worse.
“Under these conditions, it’s kind of a throw of the dice,” Wadsworth said. “I’m not worried at all….We’ll recover well.”
—Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
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.