VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – For Canadian Devon Kershaw, the toughest thing about the nine-stage Tour de Ski may not actually be physical pain of racing. It might, instead, be keeping his head screwed on straight.
“I overanalyze a lot,” he said Saturday. “I’ve been pretty nervous the last few days, and just trying to tick [the stages] off one by one.”
For the last two stages of the Tour, though, Kershaw has kept it together, with impressive results. After coming through with a sensational Stage 7 on Thursday despite being a basket-case heading into the race, Kershaw followed it up with another big-time result in Stage 8.
In the 20 k mass start classic race, Kershaw finished sixth, picking up 23 bonus seconds along the way over the course of five mid-race sprints. And just by sticking with the lead pack, he dispatched two of his key rivals in Alexander Legkov (RUS) and Maurice Manificat (FRA), leaving him in fourth place and in a tight race for the final spot on the podium with Marcus Hellner (SWE), who’s two-tenths of a second ahead in the overall standings.
“The body’s just insane right now. It’s working so well,” Kershaw said. “I never felt, like, ever, that I was in difficulty.”
Like Harvey, Kershaw skied all of Saturday’s race with the lead pack, which slowly whittled its way down to some 20 athletes. He said he was focused on skiing the tough course, with steep climb after steep climb, as smoothly as possible.
“When I’m feeling good, and I have good skis, the one thing I can say when I’m clear of mind is that I do believe that my strength is my classic technique, and skiing efficiently,” he said. “On a course like this that’s so heavy—like, a heavy, heavy course—if I’m having a good day, I can just conserve energy a lot.”
He wasn’t getting much information about his competition outside of what he could pick up from the myriad foreign words being yelled at athletes around him.
“I was hearing in other languages about Manificat,” Kershaw said. “Czech guy losing his s—t on [Lukas] Bauer, saying, ‘you’re a minute up on Manificat!’ I just heard, like, ‘minuti!’”
When it came to the bonus sprints, Kershaw’s approach, essentially, was not to mess them up by working too much, and getting dropped afterwards.
“Try to be in the mix without ever going really hard, like blowing up,” said Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian head coach. “You can’t afford to…if you get 15 to 20 seconds, you can’t afford to lose that in the finish.”
He also had help from his teammate Alex Harvey, who would ski alongside Kershaw in a parallel track, then slow down when they neared the sprint line, blocking those behind him.
“I was just really moved that he was helping me out there on the bonuses,” Kershaw said. “To move out of the way, that’s pretty selfless.”
Kershaw was so grateful for Harvey’s work that he actually told him in the middle of the race that he would take it easy in the final sprint, letting Harvey vie for the podium himself.
“I said to him, ‘you go for the win, and I won’t contest it,’” Kershaw said.
The gesture didn’t end up being necessary: Kershaw ended up getting boxed in heading into the homestretch and didn’t factor in the top three.
But he’s still in contention for the overall Tour podium, thanks to all the bonus seconds he collected.
He’ll start Sunday’s 9 k final climb up the Alpe Cermis, a local alpine area, at the same time as Hellner—who Kershaw beat in the same stage last year by 48 seconds.
Second-placed Petter Northug (NOR) is a rabbit some 45 seconds ahead, while Bauer—who annihilated last year’s final climb and won by half a minute—starts roughly a minute-and-a-half behind, and has likely affixed an imaginary bulls eye directly on Kershaw’s posterior.
While the climb up the Alpe is probably the Tour’s most painful race, the hardest part might actually over for Kershaw, since he’s survived his most stressful stages—including Saturday’s—intact.
When it comes to the final climb, he said, “I don’t have much expectation, so it’s easier.”
–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.