VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – With the conclusion of the 2012 Tour de Ski, it may not make sense to mention bridesmaids to Devon Kershaw (CAN).
Kershaw may hold a World Championship gold in the team sprint, but after a fourth in the Olympic 50k in 2010, and now a fourth in the Tour de Ski, he is getting a little tired of being runner up in the individual events.
“I had dreams of being on the podium, and a I’m glad I improved from last year, but fourth place is just…” Kershaw told FasterSkier, trailing off at the end, before continuing, “I am sure I will be happy tomorrow.”
Kershaw placed seventh in last year’s Tour, winning one stage, and finishing on the podium three other times.
“I believe I can be on the podium in the Tour de Ski, and to be honest, I believe I could win if everything came together,” Kershaw said.
This year, however, he had to settle for fourth, if that is truly settling after 110 kilometers of racing over nine events in eleven days.
Kershaw entered the famed final climb up the Alpe Cermis in fourth overall, in a virtual tie with Swede Marcus Hellner, and just 40 seconds out of second behind Petter Northug (NOR).
Hellner and Kershaw skied together for most of the Cortina to Toblach pursuit earlier in the Tour, and they used a similar strategy at the start of today’s nine kilometer event.
On the flats leading to the base of the climb, the two pushed the pace, switching leads and chasing after Northug.
But just 500 meters up the hill, Hellner went “like he was shot out of a cannon” according to Kershaw.
The Canadian could not match the pace, and was quickly left by himself in no-man’s-land, a strong chase pack behind, and a fading Northug up the hill ahead.
“I am just so terrified of the guys coming up behind me, but I want to push,” Kershaw said. “I am trying to just bury myself to try to catch Northug. To be honest it is a horrible sensation. It is a battle through and through.”
Kershaw and teammate Alex Harvey worked hard over the summer on their climbing skills in preparation for this race, and while that effort may have paid off on the result sheet, it didn’t make the race any easier.
“Every ounce of my energy is drained,” Kershaw said. “Today was just insanely hard. You have to try and find a rhythm, but it is hard to find a rhythm when there are pitches that are close to 30%. You are essentially just walking up a hill…and your legs are screaming for a rest, and there is no rest to be found.”
In a normal race, a skier can push on the climbs, and then recover on the descents, ready to go again when the next hill hits.
But the final climb is no normal race.
“Physically, it is such a difficult stage because it is not really cross-country skiing. You are essentially just walking up a mountain,” Kershaw said.
Kershaw’s experience on the Alpe Cermis was a break from the rest of his Tour.
Despite some bad luck in the sprints, and no podium finishes in individual stages, Kershaw finished less than 30 seconds off the podium.
Kershaw’s teammate Alex Harvey struggled the hill, actually double poling sections due to a chronic leg problem.
In 2008, Harvey had surgery on a problematic artery in his hip. The procedure increased blood flow, and overall, was a success.
But according to Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth, the repetitive stepping up a steep hill can aggravate the issue.
Harvey started in 6th, and skied well early, but by the time he was 500 meters from the finish, he was double poling sections of the course, and he didn’t even blink when four skiers came blowing by.
He ended the day in 12th, 16 seconds from reaching his Tour goal of a top-10.
Overall Wadsworth was pleased with the performance of a Canadian Tour squad that also included Ivan Babikov, but the results did not come easily.
“Things haven’t been flowing for us,” Wadsworth told FasterSkier. “Yesterday it started to flow a bit more, but it has been a struggle.”
He added that the team will continue to work on their skate climbing with an eye on the overall Tour.
Coupled with the resurgence of Chandra Crawford on the women’s side, and the Canadians have the strongest team since the Beckie Scott era, and one that features more depth and podium potential.
“I am happy with the work we did, we have a great team and we keep improving, and that is a testament to our program,” Kershaw said.
Over the last few years, the Canadian team has focused on dialing in the details necessary for World Cup success.
“I think we are really giving our athletes the best support of anyone really,” Davin MacIntosh, executive director of Cross-Country Canada told FasterSkier at the top of the Alpe Cermis. “If there was anything we really needed, we could stretch a little further.”
MacIntosh pointed to the tour bus that has accompanied the team on the Tour the past two years, and the ability to fly the team physiotherapist to Italy at the last second to work on Harvey, as two examples.
With a budget that has increased five-fold over the last 15 years, according to MacIntosh, Canada has developed some of the best skiers in the world.
The team will take some well earned R&R in the Canary Islands before rejoining the World Cup.
Babikov completed the Tour with an injury to his wrist, suffered in a bad fall in Oberstdorf.
While initially thought to be broken, the damage was limited to soft tissue, allowing Babikov to keep racing.
The crash took him off his game, and he did not have the Tour he was hoping for.
Babikov is one of the top climbers on the circuit, having won the final climb previously, but today was not his day.
“I pushed hard, but just didn’t have legs,” Babikov told FasterSkier. “My wrist did not give me 100% of my strength.”
He is hoping that five days of rest will allow the swelling to go down. He will return to Canada after the stint in the Canaries to train, and will return to Europe for the Rybinsk World Cups.
Babikov still had the 11th fastest time of the day, skiing into the top-30 overall to finish 27th.
“Every year I do this, and every year it gets harder and harder,” Babikov said of the climb up the Alpe Cermis. “I don’t know if it is me getting older, or the uphill getting bigger.”
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.