Canadians Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey entered the Tour de Ski as legitimate contenders for the top-5 after both placing in the top-10 last season.
Both men are capable of podium results in just about any race, a key to Tour success, but neither has broken through yet, though Harvey had an excellent prologue, placing sixth.
After a rough ski day in the pursuit, they were looking to bounce back in the classic sprint in Oberstdorf.
Both qualified with relative ease in the pouring rain, Harvey in 14th and Kershaw in 16th both a bit over three seconds behind leader Alexia Petukhov (RUS).
Last year Kershaw placed second in this event, barely losing out to Emil Joensson (SWE).
He advanced out of his quarterfinal, placing second to Dmitriy Japarov (RUS) and ahead of lucky loser Teodor Petersen (SWE).
Harvey, on the other hand saw his day come to a premature end when he was bounced from the second quarterfinal.
After skiing most of the 15km pursuit with his arms due to poor kick, Harvey said his skis in the sprint were “really good,” and that his body felt good as well.
But on the big downhill corner, he was forced to the outside by an aggressive Nikolay Morilov (RUS).
“I lost a lot of speed, and by the time I got my speed back there was a bit of a gap with Morilov, Cologna and Roenning,” Harvey told FasterSkier.
Big Petter Kummel (EST) also pulled away from Harvey entering the second big climb out of the corner.
Harvey closed some on the climb and had not given up hope of advancing.
“I know the downhill is really important here, so I went on the fastest pair [of skis]…and I came back on the downhill, but it was too little too late,” Harvey said.
He did catch Roenning and lost out to Kummel in a photo finish. At the time, that meant a lucky loser spot, but as the quarter finals progressed Kummel was knocked out as well.
“My shape is good,” Harvey said. “On sprint days you always need a little bit of luck unless you are way stronger.”
Harvey said that the decision to go with faster skis was his, a choice that is common.
“I went slick, but I always go slick on classic skis. My strength is double poling in the finish,” Harvey said , adding that he felt like he had some of the fastest skis out there.
Harvey ended the day in 17th, picking up 14 bonus seconds for his efforts.
As Harvey made his way back to the Canadian tour bus to get warm and dry, Kershaw was lining up for his semifinal.
He would be challenging three of the eight Russians who made the heats—top qualifier Petukhov, Nikolay Morilov, and Nikita Kriukov, an impressive line-up of sprint specialists.
He also had to deal with Dario Cologna (SUI), hungry for every second in his battle for the overall title, and the always-dangerous Marcus Hellner.
Always slow off the line in sprints, this heat was no different for Kershaw. In the quarterfinal he was last out of the start, but in second by the time the first climb had come and gone.
He was off the back in the semis as well, and wasn’t able to move up as quickly. But heading down through the sweeping corner into the second big hill, he was in position to move.
As he accelerated, however, Cologna saw an opening, and cut in front of the Canadian.
“I had an open lane and I got cut off, and lost all my momentum, and that was it,” Kershaw said after the race.
Clearly agitated, he said he was “super pissed’ with how the day ended.
While head Coach Justin Wadsworth hadn’t seen a replay, he thought that Cologna moved intentionally to block Kershaw, although it wasn’t anything worthy of a protest.
“I think Cologna definitely saw Devon coming, and did it, but he definitely had a clear way,” Wadsworth said.
Kick was not perfect, and that meant skiers had to be right on their wax. This made it more difficult to re-accelerate after slowing on the steep climb.
“It really slowed his momentum there…it isn’t the kind of kick you can just get going again—you have to be on it the whole time” Wadsworth said.
Despite the frustrations, Wadsworth is not overly concerned. Kershaw ended up eleventh, and is fourth in the overall Tour standings despite not having a truly great race.
“I’d worry more if the guys were not in good shape and they were coming back saying ‘this is all I had,’” Wadsworth said.
Both Wadsworth and Harvey pointed to the upcoming Italian stages as the key, namely the 35km pursuit from Cortina to Toblach.
Harvey is 1:18 back in 19th place overall, and said he would need to be fighting for bonus seconds, but that everything can change in the 35k.
“Guys come back from over two minutes,” he said, pointing out that strong skiers like Matti Heikkinen (FIN) and Jean Marc Gaillard (FRA) will be coming from behind, and offer the potential of a strong group to work together.
For Kershaw however, fourth overall doesn’t completely erase the frustration of his premature exit.
“I feel good and 12th is bullshit,” he said, before heading off to warm down, mistaken about his final placing by one spot.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.