VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – Before Stage 8 of the Tour de Ski, a secret weapon arrived at the Canadian hotel here.
It didn’t come in a box; it wasn’t a hi-tech ski wax, or special food or drink. And it wasn’t special herbs from the valley of Münsterstal.
Instead, the weapon came in the form of a mild-mannered, 41-year-old massage therapist from Calgary named Shayne Hutchins—or “Magic Hands,” as dubbed by Canadian skier Devon Kershaw.
Hutchins arrived in Val di Fiemme on Friday evening—some 24 hours after hopping on a flight from Canada at the behest of Justin Wadsworth, the team’s head coach.
In Stage 7 of the Tour de Ski on Thursday, Alex Harvey, one of the two Canadian star athletes, had had his back seize up, quashing his hopes for success in the nine-stage race. One phone call later, and Hutchins was on his way to Italy.
“I knew what was going on here,” Hutchins said. “I mean, of course—it’s my job, right? If they call, I go.”
By 12:45 on Saturday afternoon, after some fine-tuning from Hutchins, Harvey’s body was back in fighting form—just in time for Stage 8. In that race, he did for the first time on the Tour something that that he’d been expecting to do all along: crack the podium.
Harvey was just behind Norwegian winner Eldar Roenning in a pack sprint to the finish line, with Dario Cologna (SUI) in third place. Harvey’s teammate Devon Kershaw was sixth, three seconds from Roenning, and remains in contention for the top three in the Tour’s overall standings, with just one stage to go.
All in all, it was a huge day for the Canadians—their first men’s podium of the season—and more than sufficient justification for the emergency call to their massage therapist.
“It makes it worth it,” Wadsworth said. “It’s gigantic to finally break that barrier and get on the podium again.”
For Harvey, the race wasn’t exactly a breakthrough—it was more along the lines of meeting his original expectations for the Tour.
Coming off his best-ever season of dryland training—and some killer sessions over Christmas in Davos, Switzerland—the Canadian said he’d come into the Tour skiing like a million bucks.
“I felt, like, the best I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said. “When I was doing intervals in Davos, I was like, ‘Those guys are f—ed. Like, I’m going to kill these guys.’ Honestly. I was doing skate intervals on the steepest stuff, and over the top I was feeling so good.”
But Harvey said he never fully recovered from an unexpectedly difficult second stage of the Tour in Germany, in which he blew out his arms fighting a too-slick pair of classic skis.
Since then, his results have been uneven: 17th in a sprint, seventh in a pursuit, 29th in a 5 k classic race, sixth in another sprint, and then the disappointing ninth place in Stage 7, a 35 k point-to-point freestyle race through the Dolomites.
“It’s been really frustrating,” Harvey said. “The shape’s been there all along, but it was always one piece of the puzzle missing every day.”
Hutchins was the piece that was missing on Thursday, when Harvey said his back and legs had seized up in the early part of Stage 7.
After that race, in the Canadian team bus on the way to Val di Fiemme, Wadsworth placed a call to Hutchins in Alberta, where it was still early in the morning.
“’Just bring your passport—we’ll supply clothes,’” Wadsworth said he told Hutchins. “We just pulled the trigger. It all happened in about 15 or 20 minutes.”
Hutchins arrived in Val di Fiemme on Friday evening, after Wadsworth drove him five hours from the Munich airport through a snowstorm. By that point, Harvey had already been worked over by another Canadian massage therapist, Stephen Wattereus, with a little help from Mireille Belzile, Harvey’s mother.
While Wattereus is a straight-up massage therapist, Hutchins mixes in physiotherapy, and osteopathic techniques, Harvey said.
Hutchins was vague when describing his work, calling what he did for Harvey on Friday evening and Saturday morning “fine-tuning.”
“I’m not going to tell everybody what we do, but we have the things that we check,” Hutchins said. “Just segments of the body, and things that we want to keep moving well….More than anything, it was just in case he woke up this morning and felt a little goofy.”
Whatever Hutchins did, it worked. Harvey was in the mix all day, skiing at the front of the pack and collecting 17
bonus seconds over the course of five mid-race sprints.
He and Kershaw said they cooperated on the sprints, with Harvey slowing down and blocking people from chasing his teammate several times.
Harvey said he had requested skis without too much kick, though, and couldn’t contest the final sprint, which was at the top of a gargantuan uphill. Instead, he said, he saved himself for the homestretch, where he knew his skis would be running well following a descent.
When Russians Sergey Turychev and Dmitriy Japarov punched it up the penultimate ascent, Harvey let them go, knowing that there was no way the pair could hold their pace to the finish line.
Up the last climb—a steep pitch that ended with a hard right, then a descent into the stadium—Harvey was skiing on the heels of Tour leader Cologna when Roenning made an attack. Instead of matching the pace, Harvey said, Cologna broke into a herringbone, letting Roenning get away.
™“That’s where I made a mistake. But it’s so hard at the end of a race. Your vision starts getting blurry and stuff—you can’t think too much,” Harvey said. “I should have switched lanes, because I think I was a bit stronger than Dario at the end there. I just followed him, and that’s when Roenning went. My skis were so good [that] had I stayed within five meters of Roenning, I could have still gained a bit of a draft and slingshotted by in the finish.”
Still, Harvey was able to get by Cologna and hold him off by a couple feet for the 23-year-old Canadian’s first podium in a distance race since 2009.
The result is a big confidence booster for Harvey for next year’s World Championships in Val di Fiemme, but it also comes with a number of more immediate perks.
“It’s a lot of points for the overall World Cup. It’s 10 [bonus] seconds for the Tour. It’s 3,000 bucks,” he said. “It’s just good all around.”
The result slotted Harvey into sixth in the overall Tour standings, and leaves him with a decent chance to beat his 10th-place finish from last year.
And it’s also a nice payoff for Hutchins, the physiotherapist, who usually works with the Canadians to prepare them for competitions, and doesn’t typically get to see them race.
“I’m sure it’s the same with the [wax] techs,” he said. “They’re pretty sure they did the best job ever, [but] you don’t know until they cross the finish line.”
On Sunday morning, after one last session with the Canadians on Saturday evening, Hutchins will be on a plane back to Calgary. Who’s going to foot the bill? Wadsworth said he wasn’t sure yet. But if necessary, he added, “I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket.”
–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.