School was in session on Saturday in Szklarska Poreba, Poland with Nikolay Morilov (RUS) conducting class. Unfortunately for him, the lesson was of the classic “learn from my mistakes” variety.
Morilov, currently ranked third in the Sprint Cup, made a bold move over the top of the lone climb on the 1.6km sprint course, opening a large gap in the skate event.
Appeared headed for career-victory number two, Morilov pulled up early to celebrate, only to have the whirling dervish that is Devon Kershaw (CAN) come whizzing by in the final meter to take the win.
Kershaw has taken his game up a level over the last several weeks, with four podiums in his last six races, including two victories.
The course in Poland favored the Canadian’s style (whether intentional or not) of starting slowly in sprint heats before working his way up and attacking at the end.
Mostly flat early, with just the one climb in the middle prior to a long, and technical descent to the stadium, the tactic of the day was a conservative pace.
Kershaw’s teammate Alex Harvey, who crashed out in the quarterfinals told FasterSkier that “after skiing the qualifier, I knew the first half of the course would mean nothing in the heats,” adding that the early portion of the race was mainly about conserving energy.
As most of the racers appeared to agree with this analysis, Kershaw was not at a disadvantage despite leaving the gate at the back of the pack.
Morilov led into the climb, and in a move reminiscent of the 2010 Olympics when teammates Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy surprised the field early on the climbs to open an un-closable gap, he pulled away over the top and into the descent.
The lead stretched to 20 meters, and the chasers, led by Ola Vigen Hattestad (NOR), the man who placed fourth in that Olympic race were left scrambling.
Morilov lost a few meters entering the finish stretch, but looked safe with just 100 meters to go.
The racers accelerated to full sprint, and while Morilov, depleted from his early push gave back some ground, the nobody was closing fast enough.
At least not on the inside of the stretch—in a repeat of his semifinal, Kershaw sprang out of the group when the course expanded into the finish lanes, finding space on the far inside, and accelerated to an improbable high gear.
Speed in skiing is almost always relative, and the only accurate metric is generally the visual of which skier is faster. Based on such standards, Kershaw might have been approaching warp speed as he made the other top sprinters in the world appear to be moving in slow motion.
“I’ve haven’t seen a race like that with such drastic speed differences,” Canadain Head Coach Justin Wadsworth wrote in an email to FasterSkier, calling the finish “maybe the best final stretch speed I’ve ever seen.”
Morilov, in a scene so unreal, it would never make the big screen, approached the line, turning to his right to check for challengers.
He likely saw Hattestad, still a good five meters back on the outside, and maybe caught a glimpse of a hard-charging Matias Strandvall (FIN). But certainly no one who would threaten the win.
But the simple fact that one more lane remained, to Morilov’s left, was the difference. Replays show the Russian stand up, allowing his skis to glide out as he begins to raise his arm in a victory celebration. For those watching, either in person, or on television, there was no surprise.
Kershaw was in plain view, rocketing down the trail. As soon as Morilov relaxed, the impossible became reality.
Kershaw lunged hard easily stretching past Morilov, whose fist pump turned to a gesture of disbelief, an emotion that immediately shifted to frustration as he slammed his glasses to the snow as the Canadian strummed his air guitar in a now-predictable victory salute.
Wadsworth believes that Kershaw would have taken the win regardless of Morilov’s mistake, saying “I think he would have won no matter what because Morilov was seizing up. He was paying hard for his early push.”
Some might disagree as it is hard to imagine that a few more strides would not have been enough to gain back the inches Morilov needed, but that is neither here nor there.
Kershaw continues to close the gap on second in the overall World Cup, now trailing an idle Petter Northug by just 146 points. With Northug planning on skipping several more World Cup events, Kershaw is in good position to continue moving up.
He also picked up valuable points on his closest competitor behind, Marcus Hellner (SWE).
“He’s in shape now, and he’s done a great job keeping the power up throughout the winter with strength training, so I’m not too surprised by his speed,” Wadsworth said of Kershaw. “When the guy is on he can produce a lot of power.”
Kershaw did not respond to requests for comment on his race.
Hattestad crossed the line in third, holding off Strandvall at the line.
– Teodor Peterson (SWE) the Sprint Cup leader, remained in that position despite placing seventh.
– Morilov is third in the Sprint Cup, missing out on taking over second from teammate Alexei Petukhov.
– Morilov not only lost a chance for his second career World Cup victory, he also ends the day out 5000 Swiss Francs (~ $5000) and 20 World Cup points.
– Overall World Cup leader Dario Cologna was eight and has all but locked up the 2012 title.
– 20-year-old Baptiste Gros (FRA) set a career-best by placing 13th. It was the second time this season he cracked the top-20. The Frenchman has just seven individual World Cup starts to his name. He skied aggressively in his quarterfinal, holding good position before fading in the finish.
– Another relative unknown, Hans Petter Lykkja (NOR), led that quarterfinal for much of the race before slipping back to last in the heat. Lykkja, one day shy of his 28th birthday was making his first World Cup start of the season, and the 21st of a World Cup career that began back in 2007.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.