With every seemingly spontaneous sprint to the front of Saturday’s World Cup classic race in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic, Devon Kershaw appeared as eager and energetic as a kid in a candy shop.
Naysayers or nervous Nellies might have questioned the Canadian’s strategy in the 30 k mass start. The head coach of the Canadian national ski team, Justin Wadsworth wasn’t worried.
Kershaw simply followed the plan the two carefully crafted before the race. If he felt good, Kershaw would sprint to intermediate checkpoints throughout the 30 k to win bonus points. If he collected enough points, they could contribute more toward his overall World Cup ranking than a top-10 result.
Four checkpoints and more than 20 kilometers later, Kershaw was still very much in the hunt for a podium finish – and he had won two of four preems. He was third in the other two, and those alone equaled a fifth-place finish in terms of points, Wadsworth said.
Kershaw went on to finish 12th, giving him a total of 72 points and putting him 50 points closer to Norway’s Petter Northug in the overall World Cup standings.
Northug ranked second behind World Cup leader Dario Cologna of Switzerland. Kershaw was third, 246 points behind Northug and 57 points ahead of Sweden’s Marcus Hellner in fourth. The result gave Kershaw additional cushion in the distance standings as well, where he was also third behind Cologna and Northug.
“Justin and I were talking a lot about what the best strategy is and of course I always want good results, but I just ended up being in a good position on the first preem,” Kershaw said in a phone interview after the race. “I kind of made a game-time decision, like, ‘Ah, you know what? I’m just going to try to go for every single preem here and try and collect as many points as I can and hopefully I have something left for the end.’ ”
He saw his plan through to the finish and collected 50 points in the process, but ran out of energy while leading the pack with a few kilometers to go. Sweden’s Johan Olsson first charged ahead and Cologna followed, and a slew of others including four Russians jolted ahead of Kershaw to bump him to fourth. Olsson won the race by 1.5 seconds over Cologna, and Kershaw was 21.6 seconds off Olsson’s winning time of 1:13.42.
“Twelfth’s just a bit of a sting, but I took a decision and I don’t regret the decision I made,” Kershaw said. “Had I not been in the preem hunt for every single preem, I’m sure I would have had the energy to have another banner result day.”
For him, it made more sense to race for the bonus points. Wadsworth explained that it gave Kershaw eight fewer points than he would have received for placing second overall. It was basically better than placing third in the race.
“Right now [Kershaw] staying in the top three in the overall World Cup is a really big goal,” Wadsworth said. “It’s possible to even get second.”
He pointed out that Northug doesn’t have much leeway after missing several World Cups recently, and the reigning World Champion was 14th on Saturday, 3.5 seconds behind Kershaw.
Meanwhile, Kershaw was about 3 seconds out of sixth place. He held to the leaders and took the lead several times despite back troubles, which Kershaw said was an unusual stiffness that kicked in on the second of six laps. Fortunately, lower-back pain turned out to be more of an annoyance than hindrance, he said.
“Hey, I don’t know, I’m 29 now, maybe I’m just getting old,” he said. “I haven’t really had any sore anything so it was a bit weird.”
His teammate Alex Harvey had significant back problems throughout the race, leading him to drop out near the halfway point.
“It was after a long descent and when I stood back up, I could barely ski,” Harvey wrote in an email after his first DNF since suffering something similar last year in Lahti, Finland. “There was nothing I could have done. It was hard for sure but it was the only reasonable option.”
Still in sixth overall in the World Cup, Harvey said he was putting Saturday’s race behind him and in good shape with the team’s physio and massage therapist. He didn’t have to worry about Sunday since the Canadians weren’t fielding a relay team. Instead, they would focus on Friday’s World Cup sprints in Szklarska Poreba, Poland.
“It’s unfortunate,” Wadsworth said of Harvey. “It’s really tough in a race like this where you know he’s going to be there, right with Devon and he has no points on the day and has to pull out and has a bad back because of it.”
Coming off two top-20 finishes in Rybinsk, Russia, Ivan Babikov pulled off 16th on Saturday in a discipline that wasn’t typically his specialty. Babikov said he was confident going into the race coming off a strong classic leg in the skiathlon last Sunday.
“Today, I just I tried to stay with the lead pack,” he said. “If there’s a chance for the bonus points, then I’ll try to get them, and that’s actually what happened, so I’m pretty happy.”
Babikov was fourth at the 15.9-k bonus, which Kershaw won. After getting eight points there, Babikov earned another point at the last bonus at 20.9 k.
He skied with Kershaw for much of the race, staying within about 4 seconds of the leaders. On the laps where Kershaw dropped back to recover before springing for another preem, the two floated around and just outside the top 10.
While Babikov said his wrist was not completely healed after a hard crash in the Tour de Ski, it didn’t bother him when he skied. It helped that the race involved very little double poling, he said.
“I actually really liked the course; we all liked the course,” Babikov said. “It’s really hard … We’re tired, but pretty satisfied.”
With 24 points at the end of the day, Babikov improved to 39th in the overall World Cup standings. That added to the team’s collective goal of having everyone qualify for the World Cup finals, Wadsworth said. To do so, each needed to make the top 50.
Lenny Valjas inched closer to that objective, scoring 12 points at the first bonus on Saturday. He sprinted ahead with Kershaw to place second at 5.9 k, then hung back to conserve his energy for next week’s sprints. Valjas finished 52nd, and the bonus points moved him from 54th to 51st in the World Cup standings.
He was one point away from 50th.
“That was the plan,” Valjas said. “I knew I probably wasn’t in good enough shape to finish in the top 15 … so I just decided to go for the first intermediate sprint there and I pretty much gave it everything I had.”
Doing so wasn’t easy. Valjas said he spent most of his energy on a tough climb about a kilometer before the preem.
“But I got 12 points there so I was pretty happy with that,” he said. “Pretty successful day.”
Earlier in the women’s 15 k classic mass start, Perianne Jones gave the Canadians their first result to celebrate when she placed 30th to tie her previous career best in a distance race. She notched the same result in a 10 k classic race three weeks ago in Otepää, Estonia, to score within the points.
“I would have liked to get more than just one point,” Jones said with a laugh. “But being in the top 30, that’s always the goal when I’m heading into a distance race.”
It wasn’t until the end of the first of three laps that Jones realized she was in the top 30. She decided to try to keep her position and see if she had some extra energy on the last lap. With about two hills to go, a few women passed her, forcing her to sprint for 30th.
She ended up 3:42.4 behind Norwegian winner Marit Bjørgen and 0.2 seconds ahead of 31st. For a sprinter who hadn’t originally planned on racing in Nové Město, Jones was glad she did.
“It was kind of a last-minute decision for Lenny and I to come over here,” she said. “I think we both made it a worthwhile trip.”
For Jones, who has seen some of her best results in the New Year, she credited her success to fast skis and a new approach. After the summer, she said she put too much pressure on herself.
“It was always like ‘Oh Peri’s in really good shape,’ so I was maybe even a little bit nervous,” she said. “But then after Christmas it was like, ‘It doesn’t matter how good of shape I was in over the summer, I’m just going to race and ski as fast as I can and that’s all that matters.’ ”
Wadsworth said the entire team was excited for her on Saturday.
“It’s definitely a big step,” he said “It shows her fitness and her commitment to the training that she’s done. … It takes time and energy to change your physiology when you’re a sprinter to get into that distance realm, and she’s going in that direction.”
Without any relay teams racing Sunday, the Canadians will travel back to Seefeld, Austria, to train for a few days before gearing up for the World Cup in Poland.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.