For a World Champion like Devon Kershaw, who has hundreds of World Cup starts to his name, there aren’t many personal bests yet to accomplish 10 years into a career. Yet on Saturday in Rybinsk, Russia, he checked another one off the list: his first official World Cup victory.
The Canuck skied a smart race in the mass start 15 k freestyle, biding his time in the lead pack and making his move in the final few hundred meters. He passed Ilia Chernousov (RUS) around the final corner in the stadium, putting on a decisive gap and finishing 0.9 seconds ahead of the Russian. Tobias Angerer (GER) took third, +1.6 behind Kershaw.
As the pack crested the final hill and the finish line approached in the final 500 meters, Kershaw said he made a decision to go for the gold.
“I got to the top of that last climb in third and I looked around and said ‘I’m going to take this one,” he said in a Cross Country Canada press release.
“I felt so comfortable today in the pack. I just knew at the top of that hill I was going to win. That is a really good feeling.”
That confidence was helped, no doubt, by his recent string of World Cup podiums, including a third in the Moscow sprint on Thursday and third in the 15 k classic in Otepaa.
For Chernousov, his second-place showing was his first podium of the season, and he gave the surprising number of Russian ski fans who turned out for the race a reward for braving the cold.
The temperature was a barely-legal -19C at the start; the men lined up in the chevron employing various bundling methods to stave off frost bite. Most had a combination of neckwarmers, tape and sunglasses covering their faces, so that no inch of bare skin showed through.
Angerer’s bronze almost didn’t happen for the Germans, as the team had initially decided not to contest the Rybinsk races due to the frigid temperatures.
“The coaches changed their mind because the athletes wanted to race here and it proved a right decision,” said Angerer.
Several top athletes were missing from the lineup on Saturday, including current World Cup leader Dario Cologna (SUI) and Norwegian star Petter Northug.
This was Kershaw’s tenth World Cup medal, but as it was his first international distance gold, Kershaw was thankful to have finally achieved another standard of skiing success.
“Since I’ve been in the game a while, I know these days don’t happen every time, so it’s good to be able to savor the victory,” said Kershaw in a phone interview after his historic win.
The 15 k freestyle, at such a relatively short distance, made for an incredibly close mass start race. Not even the two sprint preems at the 6 k and 11 k marks blew the race open. The difference between the lead pack and the entirety of the field was a small number of skiers that fell off the back, even going into the final lap.
“The race itself was pretty tactical; the pace wasn’t too bad,” said Kershaw. “I didn’t know before, but I was kind of banking on it being a sprint finish, so I tried to save as much energy as I could in case that happened, and it did.”
Though he conserved energy, he sat in the top six or so for most of the race. The lead position changed hands frequently, and the Russians made their presence known at the front, their blue suits prevalent in shots of the pack from Eurosport’s broadcast.
Roland Clara (ITA), Alexander Legkov (RUS), Maurice Manificat (FRA) and Tobias Angerer (GER) were among those who took turns in the top spot, but Kershaw and Harvey consistently skied a few paces behind, biding their time.
The Canadians’ plan before the race began had been to only go for the sprint preems if they were in a decent position to do so, and when they found themselves in a good spot on the third and fifth laps, they went for it. Alex Harvey (CAN) was third at the 6 k, with Kershaw just a second behind in sixth.
By the fifth lap, Kershaw had moved up a few places, and put on a surge for second at the 11 k mark, good for twelve extra points.
“We all talked before and decided if we were near the front, we’d play into them a bit,” said Kershaw. “It just kind of happened on lap three and five.”
A group of five skiers finally separated from the group on the final downhill, Kershaw in third and Harvey in fifth. By the time they entered the stadium, Kershaw was in second, setting himself up to slingshot around Chernousov on the final corner before the straightaway.
As he crossed the line with a clear victory, Kershaw went on one ski and pumped the air in triumph, the long-awaited gold finally his.
Kershaw was quick to emphasize that the team energy amongst the Canadian men played a big role in his historic finish.
“It’s so corny to talk about it, but team dynamics matter,” said Kershaw.
Harvey, who’s had his own share of World Cup success this season, was fifth (+5.5), and skied even with Kershaw throughout the shuffling around in the men’s lead pack. Until the last uphill before the finish, Ivan Babikov was skiing right with the other two Canadians, but got tangled up with another skier and ended up in 17th (+13.6).
“On the last hill I thought we’d have all three in the top five,” said Canadian National Ski Team head coach Justin Wadsworth.
Canada’s combined effort this winter has brought them a top-five in every single stop on the World Cup this season, including Tour de Ski stages.
“To reach the podium in every World Cup discipline and distance is a pretty powerful message,” said Kershaw. “It is a testament to the work our program has done as a whole, the support team we have in place and the great athletes on our entire men’s and women’s team. The work we have all done together is something that I’m most proud of.”
Wadsworth agreed. “For the whole team it’s a huge boost,” he said. “It’s a cliché—‘we all win together and lose together’—but everyone on this team is pretty tight. It’s big for the staff, and everyone in Canada, and obviously big for Devon.”
As the World Cup enters the later part of the winter, Wadsworth noted that his team’s strong results at this point in the year were an improvement from the late-season trend they’d demonstrated in the past.
“It really gives us some momentum in the last part of the season, which for us has been a stumbling block in the past,” he said. “Hopefully we’ve prepared ourselves for that better.”
Kershaw now sits in fourth in the overall World Cup standings, only 29 points behind Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, who is not in Rybinsk this weekend.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.