The Canadian men had an inauspicious start to today’s Tour de Ski pursuit from Cortina to Toblach, Italy: they got locked out of their bus.
Ivan Babikov tweeted that he had to borrow a Craft shirt and race tights from his wax tech. Alex Harvey reported that he had his suit, but not his long underwear, and said in a Cross Country Canada press release that “I got really cold.” Devon Kershaw was seen racing in a decidedly non-official bib – someone else’s turned inside out.
But at the end of the day all three, as well as Lenny Valjas, were sitting in the top 25 of the overall standings, so they can’t really say that things went wrong.
“It wasn’t a super day, but not bad either given we were super stressed out,” Harvey said.
Starting in bib number five, the highest hopes rested on Harvey. He immediately got to work, starting with Alexander Legkov of Russia, who took off out of the start. Harvey followed and the pair quickly made up the 27-second gap to the leader, joining together with Dario Cologna of Switzerland, Norway’s Petter Northug, and Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin.
“Legkov went super hard for the first two kilometers,” Harvey said. “I knew I had to go with him, but the pace was just too fast for me. I knew I was going to get dropped so I tried to save some energy as the next group caught up to me.”
He pulled aside when he finally gave up, and double-poled easily on the side of the trail until he was caught by a chase pack of Marcus Hellner of Sweden, Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic, and Ilia Chernousov of Russia. Regaining some energy, Harvey was able to fight it out and narrowly lost to Chernousov in a sprint finish. He dropped one place to sixth in the overall standings, but lost over a minute; he now sits 1:40 behind Northug.
The other three Canadians all eventually joined the giant group that formed behind Hellner’s pack. For Lenny Valjas, who had bib 13 after a podium earlier this week, he simply waited and got swept up by the field. But for Babikov and Kershaw, who started in bibs 21 and 22, they were right in the thick of things, and trying to make up time.
“The plan for me was pretty simple,” Kershaw told FasterSkier. “I just wanted to stay with Ivan. He’s so strong on the uphill, and then I’m strong on the downhill and I knew at the loop on the end I’d feel pretty good, if I’m there, so I just forced myself to stay with Ivan, who was charging really hard. He was making up a ton of time on everybody.”
At the top of the 15 kilometer climb, Babikov and Kershaw were sitting in 14th and 16th. Valjas was just behind, in 22nd with virtually the same time. Both he and Kershaw were happy – Kershaw, that he had held onto Babikov despite moments where he felt “on the ropes”, and Valjas that he had simply stayed with the pack.
“It was cool to be in that giant group that formed early on,” Valjas said in a phone interview from Italy. “The plan was just to stay with them as long as possible. If I had gotten blown off the back I would have just cruised it in and gotten ready for the next two races, but I felt good. I got to the top of the hill and once it started going downhill I recovered a bit and made it in just fine in the big group.”
Kershaw agreed, saying that he felt better and better as the race went on. The large pack never broke up, and Kershaw was able to finish reasonably close to the front of the field sprint, good for 12th place. Babikov stayed put in 21st and Valjas was just behind in 23rd. All had more or less the same time, just over two minutes from the leaders.
The group had mixed feelings about the result. Valjas, for example, hadn’t even planned to stay in the Tour this long, or compete in a 35 k race.
“I thought I’d be done after the sprint,” he said. “I’m happy for this long of a race – I haven’t done this long of a race in probably four or five years. So I can’t complain. I’m happy with the result.”
For Kershaw, he was pleased to be feeling better than he has at any point so far this season, but he can’t shake the memories of the last two Tours, where he finished seventh overall and then, last season, fourth. It’s hard for him to see this edition as anything disappointing, but he is managing to find the positives.
“Today was the best feelings I’ve had in the body all season,” he said. “It still wasn’t amazing, but it was definitely a step in the right direction finally, So if I can continue to improve a little bit every day or continue to feel as good as I felt today, it’s not what I was looking for, for sure, but it’s better than how I was feeling in Oberhof.”
As for the mystery of how a skier can actually feel better as the grueling Tour progresses, Kershaw didn’t have much of an answer – just that what he did before the season started was, arguably, even harder. Every day gives him more time since he finished the fall training cycle, and in terms of performance on race day, that’s a good thing.
“I think I just did so much training and was under a really heavy load coming into the season,” Kershaw said. “It was too much and then with the travel to Canada and the racing I did there, it took a while to digest. Now, I feel much better sitting here right now talking to you than I did in Oberhof after the 15 k classic, which is traditionally a way better race for me… and it’s still not there. I’m still feeling like I’m at 70 percent.”
The whole team wasn’t quite sure what to expect in the next few days; this was the first of four races in a row, with no rest days, and recovery will play a huge role in which skiers find success as the Tour winds down.
““There are no rest days now,” Harvey said in the CCC release. “It is whoever can recover overnight will be in the best shape. I’m going to eat, rest and do the right things to fill the tank so I can empty it again tomorrow.”
Valjas agreed, saying that he was “pretty beat down” but wanted to stay in the Tour as long as his body held up, now that he had completed the longest stage.
Kershaw expected changes and surprises in the coming days as some skiers are sure to succumb to exhaustion.
“I think the 15 k classic in Val di Fiemme could be pretty blown open,” he said. “This race, it was long. Tomorrow is not a big deal, as far as effort goes. It’s only five k, it’s hard, you have to go really fast, but it’s only twelve minutes of work. But then you have to travel and change locations yet again. So I think the 15 k is going to depend on who is feeling better.”
Will team tactics again come into play in the mass start? Kershaw again wasn’t sure, but hoped that they might, noting that Valjas was “super strong” over that distance and technique, so the potential for several of them to work together is definitely there.
“Hopefully we can keep all four of us in the top 30 in the overall Tour, which is looking okay right now,” Kershaw concluded. “It could happen. That would be pretty sweet.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.