(Note: This recap has been corrected to include that Devon Kershaw previously made the podium in a World Cup freestyle sprint in 2006.)
Maybe it was the frigid temperatures that scarcely rose above 2 degrees Fahrenheit, -17 degrees Celsius, on Thursday. Maybe it was Moscow. Maybe it was Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth’s promise of a Hawaii trip if all went well.
Devon Kershaw said he wasn’t sure what possessed him on Thursday, but it likely wasn’t anything superficial. Throughout the World Cup 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprints in downtown Moscow, the 29-year-old approached each heat with a similar mindset and unwavering focus.
To start, Kershaw jumped out of the gate to post the fastest qualifying time of 3:05. It was the second time in his career that he won a World Cup prologue. When it happened nearly three years ago, he went on to place 26th overall. This time, things played out differently.
A commanding leader at the end of both his quarterfinal and semifinal heats, placing second in the latter by 0.1 seconds to Sweden’s Teodor Peterson, Kershaw chose to stick with his tactics in the final. Once again, he sprang several meters ahead toward the end of the loop, but Peterson recovered and hung on.
About 100 meters before the stadium finish, Peterson pushed ahead and four others behind Kershaw closed in. With Peterson just ahead of Kershaw on the right side, Norway’s Anders Gloeersen passed Kershaw on the left and edged the Canadian for second.
Peterson lunged for the win in 3:08.4 and Gloeersen was second by 0.1 seconds. Kershaw pulled off third (+0.6) for his second-straight bronze since the 15 k classic in Otepää, Estonia, nearly two weeks ago. It was his first time back on the podium in a World Cup sprint since 2006.
“I have no idea why I’ve been feeling really good the last few weeks,” Kershaw said in a phone interview on Thursday. “It’s actually blowing my mind a bit right now.”
His national team coach, Wadsworth was particularly impressed with Kershaw in his qualifier and quarterfinal, considering the slow snow on the flat course with little rest.
“He crushed his quarterfinal,” Wadsworth said. “I’ve never seen him ski so fast in one of the rounds.”
In a recent interview, Kershaw said he had been dealing with distractions, which he overcame while racing. Before placing third in Otepää, he finished fourth overall in the Tour de Ski in early January.
“It’s been a really messed-up month and I don’t know why its been going so well, but I’ll take it,” Kershaw said.
Pleased with how his body felt all around, especially in the qualifier, Kershaw said he might have been too aggressive in the final when he attacked the last of two small hills.
“I thought I was strong enough to take the win that way,” he said. “My legs were feeling light and not filling up with lactic acid. It was working until it didn’t work. … Gloeersen and Teodor were just too fast in the last 50 meters for me.”
Looking back, Kershaw said he might have timed his move around the single-file group wrong, but he needed to drop the others.
“I didn’t want to leave it to the best sprinters in the world to take,” he said. “I wanted to at least take some people out of contention.”
Coming off a classic sprint victory at Swedish nationals, Peterson had never won an individual World Cup freestyle sprint. At the start of the season in Düsseldorf, Germany, he won gold in the freestyle team sprint with Jesper Modin. Peterson later placed second in a skate sprint in Davos, Switzerland, and third in Milan, Italy.
On Thursday, the 23-year-old played his positioning right, hanging toward the back and conserving energy as needed.
“It felt really good today; I had very good skis and also knew that I was stronger for each heat,” Peterson said in a translated interview with Langd.se.
Fifth in the qualifiers, 3.12 seconds behind Kershaw, Peterson went on to place second to Oeystein Pettersen of Norway in a neck-and-neck quarterfinal finish. He edged Kershaw in the semifinals, and the two set such a fast pace that Nikolay Morilov (RUS) and Gloeersen, who placed a respective third and fourth, advanced as lucky losers.
Gloeersen similarly waited for the opportunity to strike late in the final, skiing in sixth for most of the race.
“For a few seconds, I even thought I could win, but Teodor was too strong today,” he told FIS News. “However, I am really satisfied.”
Russians Gleb Retivykh and Morilov led early, but it didn’t take long for John Kristian Dahl (NOR) to take over second behind Retivykh, the second fastest qualifier. Dahl later fell behind and was ultimately disqualified for obstruction.
Morilov finished fourth, Retivykh placed fifth, and Dahl was relegated to sixth.
With Kershaw’s podium, the Canadians continue a streak of nabbing a top-4 spot in every World Cup race since the Tour de Ski. Alex Harvey, who was ninth on Thursday, finished fourth in the classic sprint in Estonia to start the trend.
Also qualifying for the semifinals in Moscow, Lenny Valjas went on to place 12th, making the Canadians the second-most dominant crew in the men’s sprint. Norway had four in the top 12; Canada had three.
Despite falling shy of the top country, Kershaw said Wadsworth would likely take them to Hawaii at the end of the season regardless of future results.
“Justin’s a softie,” Kershaw said. “He talks a whole lot of trash about not taking us to Hawaii in case we don’t get these World Cup podiums.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.