TOBLACH, Italy – A year ago Devon Kershaw (CAN) entered the 35-kilometer point-to-point Tour de Ski pursuit sitting in second, and primed for a run at the top-5. Just under an hour later, he was struggling to hold onto the large chase pack that had gobbled him up at the 20k mark.
Ever since that day this event has been on his mind—through summer training camps, early fall racing, and right up until the start of the Tour.
“This is a race that I have been thinking about all year, for 365 days,” Kershaw told FasterSkier.
Kershaw would be starting on his own again, in fourth place, but he had no illusions of staying ahead of the chase group this time.
“I knew they were going to catch me so I let it happen and then we shared the work pretty well,” Kershaw said of fellow racers Marcus Hellner (SWE) and Maurice Manificat (FRA).
At the end of the day, Kershaw came into the final 100 meters battling for second place. While he was edged out by Petter Northug (NOR) and Alexander Legkov (RUS), he still had “the best skate race” of his career.
After being “very disappointed” in last year’s pursuit, Kershaw worked hard with Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth to improve his confidence.
Kershaw excels at short steep climbs, and distance classic races, so the Cortina to Toblach race, gradually climbing for 11.5k before descending in similar manner to the stadium, hardly suits his strengths.
After agreeing to team with Hellner and Manificat in a pre-race discussion, Kershaw executed a nearly perfect race.
It helped that his “legs and body felt amazing,” and that the Swede and Frenchman were ideal companions in the quest to make up time on leader Dario Cologna (SUI).
While Kershaw may have shown confidence on the trail, he said he was “embarrassingly nervous” the night before the race, having trouble sleeping.
“It is not like I am a bad Tour skier, but the two races that are my weakest are the most important, and I am keenly aware of that when I am going to bed,” he said.
Wadsworth said Kershaw was “nervous as hell,” and “a mess” prior to the pursuit, even asking for a special coffee machine to be moved from his room to the bus. The request was accommodated, and the res is history as they say.
The other race he refers to is the final climb up the Alpe Cermis. The field generally compresses in the Cortina to Toblach pursuit, and the final climb is obviously the crux.
“The Tour might as well just be those two stages,” Kersahw said of the relative importance of the various events. “Everything else is just kind of for fun.”
With the clear vision of hindsight, Kershaw had no reason to be worried. He said he almost started laughing at time because his legs felt so good.
An early exit from the skate sprint on Wednesday was disappointing, especially in an event he won last year, but as with his confidence, Kershaw has worked on putting tough races behind him.
“The beauty of the Tour,” Kershaw said, “is that there is no time to be down.”
Though he enters the final two stages of the Tour within seconds of the podium, he is realistic about his chances in the overall.
A podium is a “dream,” given his relative weakness on the final climb, and he doesn’t see beating the likes of Hellner, Legkov and Manificat.
“These guys are good up that hill [the final climb]…but if I keep feeling good, miracles happen,” Kershaw said.
He will first have to sort out the 20k mass start, replete with enough bonus seconds available to make up for several off races.
Bonus seconds are critical to a top Tour placing. Last year, Kershaw had an excellent race in the 20k, placing third, but he actually lost nearly a minute as he opted not to contest the preems.
The challenge of the race is to balance the fight for bonus seconds with the chance for a strong end result. It doesn’t matter if you get 30 bonus seconds if you blow up and lose a minute in the second 10k.
The decision on strategy is completely “body dependent,” Kershaw said, and will be made during the race.
While bonus seconds are critical to overall success, nothing is more important than recovery in the Tour.
Kershaw is not taking his form for granted going forward. Today’s race was a massive effort, he said.
He feels good now, but he pointed to Hellner’s Tour last year as an example.
The Swede had a similarly strong performance in the 35k, but then was fried for the rest of the Tour.
“It is hard to know after a big effort like this,” Kershaw said. “You see Hellner last year —in this race he was the man and then his tour was over. It was just such a big day.”
Last year it was Kershaw’s teammate Alex Harvey who skied a strong race over the pass, though in that event, Harvey was frustrated by the lack of shared effort in the large chase pack.
That was not the case this time around, but a slow start meant Harvey was not in position to participate.
His body stiffened up within one kilometer of the start, and by 4k he had been dropped by Hellner, Manificat and Bauer.
Over the next four kilopmeters, he spent a majority of the time double poling to allow his legs to relax and recover while he waited for the second big chase pack.
He started to feel better on the downhill, and was able to push the pace, but only Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) was willing to share the effort.
By the time they hit the stadium, Harvey was back in top form, and he and the Russian took another 20 seconds out of Bauer and Ilia Chernousov (RUS).
Ultimately it was a not what Harvey was looking for, but it was also characteristic of his Tour thus far—he has alternated good and bad days, so after a 6th place finish yesterday in the sprint, the pattern called for another off-day.
Given Harvey’s strong skating on gradual terrain, the performance was somewhat unexpected.
Even Wadsworth picked the younger of the Canadian team sprint World Champions as his favorite today.
“I thought Alex had his game face on today, and it would be him coming through [the field],” Wadsworth said.
He is still in good position to match his 7th place result of last year. He is currently in 9th, just 1.4 seconds out of 7th, with a much larger gap up to 6th.
Nat Herz contribute reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.