It would be generous to term Devon Kerhsaw’s 2013 season “up and down,” as the Canadian star has spent the duration well off his usual level. But when April rolls around and Kershaw looks back, February 1st could mark the turning point from a long stretch of down to what could still be a whole lot of up.
Kershaw skied to an eighth-place finish in the 1.8-kilometer World Cup freestyle sprint in Sochi, Russia, as skiers tested the Olympic course for the first time.
In leading a total of four Canadians into the heats, Kershaw posted his best result of the season, and is finally regaining the belief that he can still be in top form for World Championships.
“It’s coming around at a decent time,” Kershaw told FasterSkier in a post-race interview. “I still don’t have my usual gear changing ability, but I have three weeks to find that and at least now I am more confident that it will actually happen.”
After qualifying in 24th and advancing as a lucky loser in the quarterfinals, Kershaw was eliminated when he finished fourth in his semifinal heat, a round led by eventual winner Petter Northug (NOR).
“I played it tactically super well. In both my heats I was in absolutely the best position you could ever ask for,” Kershaw explained.
Each time, however, he was unable to respond to attacks over the top of the steep climb.
“I am doing everything I can but I just don’t have that gear, to change in to the really fast hop skate,” he said.
This has been the problem all season — the ability to kick it up a notch with the race on the line.
Even without the extra burst, Kershaw still reached the top 10, always impressive, but all the more so considering he was sick with food poisoning two weeks ago, missing the La Clusaz World Cup races and had not competed since the Tour de Ski.
“To come out in a sprint and be top-10 after no racing for almost a month, I was very happy to feel better sensations,” Kershaw said.
He felt good in Thursday’s training and finds the long, hard course to his liking.
With times approaching four minutes, the event favors athletes with superior endurance, and as a strong distance skier, Kershaw can handle the extra effort.
Kershaw’s teammate Lenny Valjas, who skied to 20th, described the loop as “longest and toughest” course he as ever skied.
Valjas felt the long lay-off, not having raced since the Liberec sprint weekend and coming off a big training block Valjas said he “felt a little tired.”
In his quarterfinal, he came out of the downhill with good speed, but couldn’t get past American Andy Newell.
“When I went to pass on the flats Newell heard me coming and cut me off,” Valjas explained. “It forced me to stand up and slow down to sit behind him. I wasn’t able to re-accelerate to pass him in the final stretch.”
Valjas said the course is such that it is difficult to pass in the stadium and the key is getting good position on the last climb and holding on to the finish.
Alex Harvey did not race after dislocating his shoulder on Wednesday. On Friday, he went for a no-poles ski, but explained in an email that he wouldn’t return to racing until the Davos World Cup in two weekends.
“The mobility is pretty much 100% back now. Did some strenght test with our therapist here and this is back too,” Harvey wrote. “I think my shoulder is good now for intensity but the risk of crashing in both the mass start and the team-sprint are too great for me to take a chance…so next race will be Davos.”
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth agreed, and wrote in an email that Kershaw and Valjas are slated to start Sunday’s classic team sprint.
“Right now it’s Devon and Len, as I and our medical staff thinks racing would be risky, like season ending risky, if [Harvey] fell,” Wadsworth wrote.
Gaizova Season-Best Skate Sprint, Jones 18th
Dasha Gaiazova led the Canadian women with a season-best World Cup skate sprint result, advancing to the semi-finals and placing 12th.
Bouncing back from illness, she said she feels “90-percent healthy,” and took advantage of a big opportunity to advance in the quarterfinals.
When Finland’s Mona Lisa Malvalheto crashed on the stadiums final tight corner, Gaiazova, who was outside and avoided the carnage, moved up to second and a spot in the semis.
“I got lucky,” Gaiazova said simply. “I was just in a good place when everybody went down and I had a good shot…I’m happy that I was able to do a couple rounds on the course and get some impressions for next year.”
After getting sick just before traveling to Russia, Gaiazova spent four days in bed recovering, and was able to do some harder training yesterday in preparation for the race.
“Coming into the race today my goal was to learn as much as I can, and not try to think too much about having a great result,” she said.
Like Gaiazova, Jones was excited to race the Olympic course, but was left wanting more after being eliminated in the quarterfinals.
She got off to a slow start and was unable to close on leaders Celine Brun-Lie (NOR) and Hanna Kolb (GER) who had skied off the front.
“It was a little bit of learning there,” Jones said. “I still really need to work on my starts and think about positioning because even though the course seems like it’s really wide there’s really not a lot of chances to pass people.”
While the men’s course clocked in at close to four minutes, the women’s loop is significantly faster, with times in the area of 2:45.
Jones was happy to see the shorter distance, noting the increasing lengths of World Cup sprint courses, calling the Sochi race “an actual sprint.”
“I think it’s a challenging course because it’s short, but most of the work is done in the first minute, minute and a half,” she said. “I really like it because it is short and there’s a nice finishing stretch, and there’s a fun corner in there.”
She also pointed out that fresh snow slowed the tracks and that on a faster day it could ski as much as 20 seconds faster.
Gaiazova and Jones will pair up for the classic team sprint on Sunday, with both women looking forward to another opportunity to prepare for next year’s Olympic Games.
The final Canadian in the race, Chandra Crawford, placed 51st. Like Gaiazova, Crawford has been sick and was not in top form.
“I had two full days in bed and then rallied to race because it’s the Olympic course,” Crawford wrote in an email. “That’s it for me for the weekend now to get the health game back up to ‘A’ standards.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.