Devon Kershaw set the bar as high as it could go for the Canadians on Saturday with his win in the Rybinsk 15 k freestyle, but his teammates skied to impressive finishes as well. Alex Harvey skied with Kershaw for much of the race to finish in fifth (+5.5). Ivan Babikov, in his first race back on the World Cup since the Tour de Ski, finished 17th (+13.6), and would have finished higher had he not fallen and lost significant momentum on the final hill before the stadium.
With two intermediate sprint preems over the six-lap 15 k course, the mass start was a game of tactics. The men went out conservatively, trading the lead on and off. As the dense group moved around the course, they bunched up at the bottom of each climb and spread out down the other side. It was a tight race, and came down to making a move at the right moment in the final lap.
“It’s men’s racing, I knew it would be tactical!” said Harvey. “Nobody wants to go hard in front and work for the others…I expected an easy pace!”
Kershaw expected the same, and after he got off to a good start, let others do the work.
“I just positioned at the front and focused on conserving energy,” said Kershaw.
That he did, and even though the Canuck later recalled knowing at the top of the last hill that the race was his for the taking, he was still rather astonished with how well he’s been skiing recently.
“It’s been such an odd week—the body’s been there every time I call upon it,” said Kershaw. “It’s really weird, but I’ll take it.”
Kershaw also believes that any of his teammates could have been right there with him the whole way.
“Today it was me, tomorrow maybe it’s Ivan or Alex,” he said. “Everyone’s so supportive and psyched.”
Harvey, who only fell off the pace in the final few hundred meters, also sees Kershaw’s victory as encouragement that the next win for Canada could be anyone’s.
“We train with Kersh at training camps all winter long,” Harvey wrote in an email. “Sometimes he’s in front of me in training and sometimes I am in front of him so I know I’m at the level to win.”
Kershaw and Harvey both managed to stay out of trouble, but Babikov was not so lucky. As he skied only a few paces behind his teammates, easily in the top 10, he got caught in a tangle on the last uphill to the finish, losing valuable speed.
“I’m kind of getting used to it, which sounds bad, but on the Tour I had a massive crash, and again today on the last uphill,” said Babikov after his race.
“There were a lot of crashes at the end there. Some people were just going insane—stepping on each other, doing no good for anybody.”
Had he not fallen, Canadian National Ski Team head coach Justin Wadsworth thought he might have had three athletes in the top five.
“That’s a really tough place to get your momentum killed, before that big downhill into the finish, but he skied a really good race besides that one problem,” said Wadsworth.
On Saturday afternoon, Babikov was already looking ahead to the skiathlon the following day, which he says is his favorite race.
There’s a bit of pressure for the Canadians heading into the final race in Rybinsk—they haven’t yet failed to place an athlete in the top five on the World Cup.
What does Wadsworth think his athletes can do on Sunday?
“The same think, I hope!” he said.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.