Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw topped the podium Saturday in the 4.5-kilometer freestyle prologue in Oberhof, Germany, the first of seven stages in the nine-day Tour de Ski.
Dogged by a slower start to their season than they would have liked, the Canadians announced that they are back on form after weathering drizzly conditions to achieve their nation’s first 1-2 finish in an elite international event.
With the air temperature around 2 degrees Celsius (36 Fahrenheit), and three laps of a 1.5 k loop on dirty manmade snow, the race was not so much topographically difficult as it was technically challenging to find the best snow and maintain technique.
During his warmup, Harvey focused on finding the fastest path through the slush.
“When I skied the course before the race that’s all I did, we just skied a couple laps looking for the hard, firm snow, the clean snow, too,” he said on the phone after winning Saturday’s race for his first individual top 10 of the season. The last time the 25-year-old Harvey won a World Cup event was in the 3.3 k freestyle prologue at 2012 World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden.
On Saturday, he won it by 4.1 seconds over Kershaw, his teammate and friend, in 9:03.4. A late starter, Norway’s Chris Jespersen couldn’t come close enough and placed third, 10.6 seconds behind Harvey.
There were initially concerns that the course might slow as the race progressed, but instead, pacing proved crucial, and the early pace setters faded on their final lap.
Jens Ericksson of Sweden was an early leader, setting the splits and fastest-finishing time until Austria’s Bernhard Tritscher came through 2.3 k three-tenths of a second faster. However, Tritscher could not maintain that pace and ended up 27th. Kershaw’s 2.3 k time ranked ninth. Hammering hard late in the race, Kershaw swept into the finish in first place, ousting Ericksson from the top spot by 11.4 seconds. Kershaw’s finishing kick was strong enough that he gained five seconds on the Swede in the last 700 meters.
“I really wanted to ski into the race, even though it’s a prologue, that’s not usually my style,” Kershaw said. “When I’m on the podium on the World Cup I’m usually very aggressive and attacking, but it’s just been so hard to believe in myself lately that I just had to ski into it.”
A couple minutes in, Kershaw quickly realized that he could go faster.
“Like ‘Nope, the body is actually there and I have to actually take this chance and go for it’ because you don’t get those kinds of feelings racing every day,” he said. “From there I just attacked, and when I went across the line in first I was surprised, but I think the most surprising thing was I didn’t think it would hold for anything, I thought it would be a great race for me, maybe top 10 or something, but to finish the day second and have only Alex beat me was a real shocker for me.”
After Kershaw, France’s Robin Duvillard crossed the line, visibly frustrated as he looked at the clock and saw his time was 9.7 seconds slower than Kershaw’s to put him in second for the moment. The likes of Germany’s Axel Teichmann (who ended up 33rd) and Sweden’s Anders Södergren (24th) also could not come close to matching Kershaw’s time.
Throughout the race, a fog continued to steadily descend on the Oberhof track, as soaked spectators tried to make out the action and view the stadium TV screen through the mist. The slushy snow was difficult on ski poles as well, with Norway’s Tord Asle Gjerdalen breaking a pole and then missing the hand off of a spare, which cost him seconds and ultimately put him in 58th of 106 finishers.
Harvey started the race under control and steadily sped up. He nearly tangled with Germany’s Tobias Angerer, who started just as he came through the stadium on his second lap, but the incident didn’t throw him off.
At 2.3 k, Harvey was 3.8 seconds down on Tritscher’s time, and in the running in a tightly grouped race.
“I was getting splits off of the guy that started ahead of me, so I knew I was just one or two seconds off the pace early on,” Harvey said. “I knew at one point starting my last lap, I was like one second or maybe equal to Devon according to [coach Justin Wadsworth’s] splits and then I just went hard on the last lap.”
That was his strategy: conserve to have enough to go all-out for the last 1.5 k.
“It’s a really flat prologue, but I think it makes it really hard because there’s no recovery at all,” he explained. “I wanted good juice for the last lap, and I think it paid off. ”
The difficult snow also brought out a number of different technical styles for dealing with the conditions, many of them rough and at a high tempo. Harvey looked to be skiing smooth with a lot of glide, much like Kershaw had skied, and his final lap powered him into first, four seconds ahead of Kershaw.
Some skiers complained about the conditions in Oberhof with Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby telling NRK before the race that it was a “parody” of cross-country skiing. Harvey, on the other hand, found the conditions this year better than last year’s prologue at the same venue.
“Last year it was so sugary in the stadium, and this year it was still sugary but not as deep,” Harvey said. “I actually think the rain kept it more stable. For me, I was gliding the same or just a bit more because I was pushing more at the end.”
After Harvey finished, no late starters could threaten his lead. Russia’s Illia Chernousov started 66th and finished third before Jespersen, continuing his impressive form, bested him by 3.2 seconds.
A Norwegian favorite, Petter Northug started late in the race with a explosive exit out of the start and a fast early pace. At 2.3 k he was 0.8 seconds ahead of Harvey’s split and appeared to be a threat. It was not his day though, and the Norwegian looked visibly tired as he finished 23.6 seconds behind Harvey in 24th.
Besides Harvey and Kershaw’s historic finish, Canadian Ivan Babikov posted his best prologue finish of 26th (+24.8).
Andy Newell led the American in 20th, Simi Hamilton was 42nd, and Noah Hoffman 82nd for the U.S. Ski Team.
Harvey called his victory a surprise.
“I wanted top five … I was sixth last year,” he said. “I’ve been good in prologues in the past so I was hoping for top five, maybe podium but the win was a bit of a surprise for sure.”
For Kershaw, placing second in the first race of his eighth Tour de Ski was important to his self belief. In 2011, he won four medals at the Tour, but had yet to crack the top 30 this season.
“My confidence has been really shaken this year,” Kershaw said. “I know I’ve done great training and great preparations, but the feeling while racing just hasn’t been there. So today, even though I’ve been feeling really great all week, I was having a hard time trusting those feelings. It was like really, ‘Do I really feel good? I haven’t felt good in awhile so I hope so.’ ”
He’s written some of his results off to “really, really hard” training, but he didn’t expect to be so far off the pace in and back from the leaders in each of his Period 1 races.
“That’s been really hard on me mentally, to be honest,” he said. “Last year was a tough season for me and I know I did great preparations all year in the off season, so it’s just really hard to be patient and stay believing in myself. But this week something clicked after [the World Cup in] Asiago.”
There, Kershaw came as close to making the points as he has all season, placing 33rd in the classic sprint.
For Kershaw, Saturday’s race was something of a moment of truth.
“I felt good in the warm up and [thought] if I don’t have these good feelings in the race, then I’m totally lost and I don’t understand cross-country ski racing anymore,” he said. “Then the race happened and those good feelings remained.”
Canada’s head coach, Wadsworth has been confident that these results were on their way throughout the first period of World Cup racing.
“You’re always surprised to go one, two, even when things are going really well,” Wadsworth said. “It was a bit of a surprise for sure, but I knew after the first workout the guys did in Davos and they all said they felt good, that everything was leading in the right direction. We know where the fitness was and it’s starting to show now in the results.”
For the Canadian team, their standout results in the prologue are nothing new. At World Cup Finals in 2012, Harvey and Kershaw placed first and third.
Harvey said the prologue’s format suits them.
“We’re good at distance and sprinting and the prologue is right in between there,” Harvey said. “But I also think that with the prologue, you get super filled with lactate and you need to hold onto your technique, and I think we worked really hard in the summer on technique and things like that and pacing, too. We really work on building in interval sessions, we do the last two or three really fast. I think in the prologue that’s what you want, to have the last kilometer or two really fast, so I think that can explain that.”
Wadsworth also praised the work of the team’s wax technicians.
“Our skis were really good,” he said. “Our wax technicians did an amazing job with the skis so that helped for sure.”
He also tried to lessen the emphasis on results in a pre-race team meeting Friday night.
“I told the athletes to do two things: one is to do a really good process, and that means thinking about the warmup, technique, everything, the same stuff you do when you’re doing a hard workout,” Wadsworth said. “The second thing is to just really fight no matter what, I don’t care if you guys get 80th tomorrow, if you show me you warmed up well and did everything and you can fight, then we’ll be satisfied. I really wanted to pull the thinking away from the results.”
For Kershaw, the Tour remains a “day-by-day thing,” he said. “It is all for Sochi, even though I had a great start today that’s wonderful and it’s actually really nice for my head, but it is prep for Sochi. Justin and I decided after having a bit of a tough start that we’ll re-evaluate midway through the Tour whether we keep going or not. I love the Tour though, it’s my favorite race, and all the events are good for me, if I’m in shape and I’m in shape today, but we’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
In other news, Kershaw arrived in Oberhof with much less hair than he had in Asiago.
“I had a couple days in Davos were the temperatures were warm, and it just got in my eyes on an intensity session on Christmas and was just all round unruly,” he said. “So I went to the massage therapist we have here, Scott Edmunds, and I was like, ‘Man can you help me cut this a little shorter?’ One thing led to another, and the next thing you know it’s all gone. I’ll tell you right now, it felt so good today racing without having hair jamming in my eyes. Sometimes you do have to change it up.”
The Tour continues Sunday with a 1.5 k freestyle sprint on the same course as the prologue. Harvey’s Tour is now aided by his possession of the leader’s bib and a 15-second time bonus, but he has no intention of contesting the title in the final climb up Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy, next weekend. His back can’t take it, and even if it can, he’s usually cautious about it.
“I’m not planning on finishing,” Harvey said. “Just like last year I’m planning to do everything but the last climb, but for tomorrow I’m hoping to have another solid day. Top five, top ten, the shape is good and it’s going to be the exact same course, so I’m hoping to fight up there. But it’s sprinting so anything can happen.”
Also of note: Canada’s fourth man, Lenny Valjas is on his way back to Canada on Sunday to rehab his knee after surgery this summer.
“The knee hasn’t been great lately, and with the first three stages being skating, that puts a lot of stress on his knee and we just felt that it’s really better for him to go back to Canada and start the rehab process again,” Wadsworth said. “He was getting to the point in Kuusamo [Finland] were it was pretty good, but since then his leg has started to atrophy a bit, and we need to get him back on track.
“Once we saw the schedule with the Tour, all things pointed for him to go back to Canada and work with our trainers there and really try and get him ready for Sochi. The guy’s an amazing talent, and it’s not like he hasn’t been doing anything, he’s been racing and training, he just really needs to get his leg back where it should be. We got him out on the first reasonably priced flight, so he’s going to head back tomorrow.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.