Devon Kershaw had it in his head. He wanted redemption.
The Canadian National Team veteran hadn’t been entirely pleased with his season so far despite finishing fourth in the Tour de Ski two weeks ago. After several top 10 performances this season, Kershaw took a big hit on Saturday, finishing 40th in the World Cup classic sprint after his pole shattered in his hand and he struggled to find a replacement.
With one chance to leave Otepää, Estonia, on a high note, Kershaw channeled his frustration into fuel and charged out of the starting gate on Sunday to clock the fastest splits for the first half of the men’s 15 k classic individual start.
At the 2.5 k mark, he was better than Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, the eventual winner, by 11.5 seconds. Halfway through, Kershaw still had the edge by about 3 seconds. Cologna was closing, but Kershaw was having his best race of the season regardless.
The 29-year-old Ontario native went on to finish third, 25.2 seconds behind Cologna and 1.2 behind runner-up Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic.
“I had such a frustrating day all around yesterday, and in the sprint [qualifier] when my pole exploded in my hand, that really crushed me,” Kershaw said in a phone interview on Sunday. “In the race today, I felt fantastic. Looking at the splits, I think I went out too hard, but didn’t feel like I died. Dario’s on a completely other planet and Bauer closed insanely well.”
Coming off a victory in Saturday’s classic sprint, Cologna started last and by 2.5 k, ranked after Kershaw, Marcus Hellner (SWE) and Evgeniy Belov (RUS). Ten kilometers later, the Tour de Ski champion and overall World Cup leader moved into first. Cologna had not only caught Kershaw in the second half of the race, he surpassed him by 15 seconds by 12.5 k.
Meanwhile, Bauer, who won the 15 k classic in Otepää two years ago, went from 12th to third by the midway point. Starting eight spots ahead of Cologna and six behind Kershaw, the 34-year-old Bauer narrowed the gap to come within 8.4 seconds of Kershaw with 2.5 k to go. He continued to push for second place, his best result of the season.
“I was very surprised at the beginning when I heard Devon was so fast,” Bauer said in an interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS). “I was just hoping he cannot keep the high pace all the way through. … The key to success was a good kick and skis. I think the difference [for] me and Devon was just I was more lucky today.”
For Cologna, who ranks 294 points ahead of Petter Northug (NOR) in the overall World Cup standings, it was the first time he had secured back-to-back victories at one venue. Earlier this season in Rogla, Slovenia, the 25-year-old won the freestyle sprint after placing second in the 15 k classic mass start.
“It means a lot for me to win here twice in Otepää,” Cologna told FIS. “My shape has been perfect. I was especially strong in the last lap. … [My] first races [this season] were not perfect for me, but since the Tour, I have been in really good shape. It will be difficult to keep these good results.”
While Cologna said he received information about Kershaw during the race, he wasn’t too concerned with splits. Instead, he focused on his own pace on the challenging course.
Kershaw said he heard splits indicating he was about 20 seconds ahead of anyone else for most of the race. At the same time, he didn’t exactly know where the top-seeded men behind him were, like Cologna and Bauer.
“I was out to win the race,” Kershaw said. “[I was] really able to shut my mind off completely and just have a cool, clear head, just really loving the movement. … It was for third but that’s OK. It’s not often in my career that I’ve been able to get into that head space.”
While he acknowledged that every athlete, except maybe Cologna or Northug, deals with similar ebbs and flows in their mental state, Kershaw tried to ignore his past distractions and detach himself from pain. That was especially tough to do in Otepää.
“It’s the hardest [distance course] on the World Cup, without question,” Kershaw said. “Three massive, really punishing climbs, so there’s always a big gap in Otepää. … There’s no hiding out there at all. If you’re a bit off, it’ll be exploited.”
He said that was likely the reason Cologna pulled out such a decisive win. After Kershaw, Stanislav Volzhentsev (RUS) was fourth, 41.3 seconds behind Cologna. Another Russian, Petr Sedov placed fifth (+42.2). Both drastically gained ground on the lead group; Volzhentsev initially ranked 18th and Sedov was 21st at 2.5 k.
Hellner ended up sixth after gradually losing time on the three-lap course. His Swedish teammate Johan Olsson was seventh, Ilia Chernousov (RUS) placed eighth, Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) was ninth, and Sami Jauhojärvi (FIN) was 10th.
Kershaw’s teammate, Alex Harvey, finished 19th after finishing fourth in Saturday’s sprint. Kris Freeman and Noah Hoffman scored points for the U.S. Ski Team, placing 22nd and 26th, respectively.
While Northug opted to sit out the second weekend of World Cup races after the Tour de Ski, the Norwegian remains at the top of the Distance World Cup standings. Cologna is 25 points behind in second.
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.