Fog blanketed the hillsides of Szklarska Poreba, Poland, as the men of the World Cup lined up for the start of the 15 k. In a field that lacked the esteemed Scandinavian racers, the predictions of who might win were about as unclear as the visibility on course. The gun was fired, and the racers were off on the 2.7 k course that they would complete five times. After a slow first three laps, the field started to splinter. Soon as the racers made their way into the finishing stretch, spectators witnessed seven skiers suddenly emerge from the fog: two Russians, a Kazak, a Canadian, and two Germans.
In the end, it was Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin who claimed the victory with a time of 35:39.0. He was followed by teammate Evgeniy Belov (+2.2) and Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan (+2.3) in second and third. Canadian Alex Harvey finished fourth with 5.2 seconds back, followed by Germans Hannes Dotzler and Tobias Angerer.
The Russians, Canadians, and Germans dominated top ten, with three members from each country all finishing within roughly twenty seconds of each other.
The race started out at an extremely slow pace and the pack stayed tightly packed together. It wasn’t until bonus points were at stake at the top of the largest climb of the course that the Russians started to push the pace. From there they continued to open up the lead with the Kazak, Canadians, and Germans in pursuit.
“I planned to go away from the pack in the second last lap. I felt good and confident I could make it,” said Vylegzhanin in a press release.
Vylegzhanin, who won the team sprint in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic and was part of the victorious Russian relay team in Lillehammer, Norway, has had few World Cup start this year and sat out the Tour de Ski .
Teammate Belov was pleased with his effort, not only because it was his first podium of the season, but also because of the implications his result carried.
“It’s been a great day for me. Everything worked just perfect. I had fast skis, my shape was very good,” he said. “It’s my first podium of the season and I am excited it happened today. I just earned my ticket for Sochi.”
Poltoranin, who gained his fourth podium of the season thought that he could have done better, but was happy with the effort.
“I hoped for victory. I fought to the finish with Evgeniy (Belov) but he was more powerful,” he said. “Today’s result gives me good energy for the final preparation phase before the Games.”
Winner of yesterday’s sprint race, Harvey crossed the line roughly three seconds behind the Kazak. Despite giving it his all in the previous day’s sprint, the 25-year-old felt like he had sufficiently recovered for the 15 k.
“I felt good in the morning. I like the format. 15 k mass start classic is been something I’ve had a good amount of success in,” Harvey said. “I was pretty psyched for the race today, especially after the race I had yesterday. I knew that [my] recovery was good.”
The Canadian, who started in second position, skied near the lead for the first three laps on the narrow course. “I was trying to stay in front of the groups and out of trouble, and I did that the whole race,” Harvey said.
Then in the fourth lap he got pushed back to roughly twentieth position, but stayed determined to hold on to the Russians who had broken away. By the last lap he was speeding by his competition. “I had a really good last lap. I went from the twenties to fourth at the line.”
Unfortunately for Harvey, he was unable to make contact with the leaders. “I could not follow,” he said of the Russians.
Coming into this weekend of World Cup racing, Harvey was happy that the success he found at the Tour de Ski continued into this weekend.
“It was a really good weekend after the [racing at the] Tour de Ski. The tour, in the last four years, has always been a really good trigger for the rest of the season. It’s a really good intensity stimulus and it’s really putting me in a good position for the rest of the season.”
A key to Harvey’s success this weekend was the break that he took to recuperate after the Tour, that had him skip the World Cup races in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. This year he spent time in Zermatt, Switzerland for his “mini-vacation” after spending last year’s in Nice, France. “It doesn’t take many days, but it’s good to be in a place where you’re not training but also not thinking too much about training,” he said. “You can really recover and put yourself in a good position after that for the games.”
Harvey wasn’t the only Canadian to find success in Szklarska Poreba. Devon Kershaw and Ivan Babikov finished eighth and ninth, both roughly 20 seconds behind Vylegzhanin.
Justin Wadsworth, Canadian Head Coach, was ecstatic that his teams training plan was coming into fruition. After initially worrying that the conditions in Poland may not be up to par, Wadsworth was glad the team had made the trip. “Going into the games this is the trend you are looking for,” he said.
Kershaw, who has been frustrated with the majority of his results thus far this season was happy to see himself in the top ten once again after finishing second in the prologue of the Tour de Ski in Oberhof.
The frustration continued into this weekend after the 31-year-old failed to move past the quarterfinals in Saturday’s 1.5 k sprint, despite feeling close to the best he has felt all season.
“I was really frustrated with yesterday. I was really boxed out and just couldn’t get around anyone and just ended up finishing my quarterfinal feeling like it was level two. I’m really frustrated because it was a really dirty messy heat that I was in and I was in the wrong end of that.”
Kershaw said that while he felt much better in the sprint than he did in Sunday’s 15 k, the distance race served as great training and a confidence booster before going to the Olympics.
Going into the mass start, Kershaw was feeling apprehensive about his classic skiing for “the first time in my career,” he said. Soon the apprehension lifted as skied through the first three laps of the course.
In the fourth lap, he found himself at the front of the pack with an open track, and decided to go for the bonus points. “Since I had been feeling bad in classic and the pace had been easy I decided that I would try and test my shape and see how as I was doing,” he said.
While Kershaw was unable to obtain the bonus points, he felt he was going in the right direction. “I’m still not in tiptop form because I was missing a bit on the big steep hill and that’s when the guys got in front of me,” he said. “It’s a good step in the right direction, and the energy was good, and most important to me was that the technique was back to where it should be.”
Kershaw is feeling optimistic for the Olympics, which will be held in two and a half weeks. “There are may opportunities there (at the Olympics) and I feel better now than I did at the tour so let’s hope it continues in a positive direction.”
Babikov, who finished just behind Kershaw in ninth, was happy with both his and the Canadian team’s efforts. “As you can see from the results it went really well for the whole team. We all ended up in the top ten. The skis worked well and our team worked well,” he said.
From Szklaska Poreba the Canadians are headed to Italy for a week and a half to get a last minute training camp in before the Olympics. They leave Poland satisfied with a good weekend of racing.
“I think the main thing is that the guys are in good shape. The shape of the team is coming together now and that’s been the goal the whole time,” said Wadsworth of his team.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.