Too far, too fast

Canada’s 4 x 10 km men’s relay team comes 7th. Sweden takes gold.

Plenty of heart, but not much left in the gas tank.

Canada’s men’s cross-country team delivered their sixth top-10 finish of the Vancouver 2010 Games today, coming 7th in the 4 x 10 km relay.

But coming in an event that they had circled on the schedule as a possible podium, (Canada was fifth at the world championships last year) there was little to celebrate.

“Seventh is absolutely not what I wanted, and not what I have been dreaming about for the past four years,” said Devon Kershaw of Sudbury. “My race was horrendous.”

Kershaw, who raced to a fourth place finish in the team sprints Monday with Alex Harvey, finished the first 10km leg in 28-minutes, 23.8 seconds, more than 28 seconds off the pace. As it turned out, an insurmountable gap, for his compatriots, Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov and George Grey.

Afterwards, Kershaw, usually among the strongest starters on the circuit, suggested finishing just off the podium in the sprints may have taken more out of him than he realized.

“I pressed down on the accelerator and the cable connecting the gas pedal to the engine snapped. I put my foot to the floor and nothing responded,” he said. “It was the complete opposite of how I felt on Monday. I felt like Superman. That was one of the best races of my life today was one of the worst.”

Sweden took the gold in a combined time of 1 hour, 45 minutes and 5.4 seconds.

But the story of the day, was Norway’s silver, an epic act of will by Petter Northug, who started the anchor leg with his team in sixth place, 37.5 seconds off the pace. On his first charge, Northug made up 25 seconds, pulling within hailing distance of the leading group, Sweden, France and the Czech Republic. The gap widened again when Marcus Hellner of Sweden broke away into the lead, and the French and Czechs picked up their pace. With a kilometre to go, it appeared that Norway would have to settle for fourth. But Northug again found the strength to charge, catching Emmanuel Jonier of France and Czech skier Martin Koukal as they entered the stadium at Whistler Olympic Park. Over the final 400 metres, Northug pulled even, then away, finishing with a time of 1:45.21.3. The Czechs clinched bronze with a time of 1:45:21.3. France was fourth.

Northug had won gold in the sprints on Monday, with teammate Oeystein Pettersen. If he was tired, it certainly didn’t show.

Dave Wood, Canada’s head coach said his team was at a disadvantage with two members—Kershaw and Harvey—having participated in the sprints. The Swedes had four fresh skiers. The Norwegians three.

“I was worried when we put the entry in,” said Wood. “I knew it was a gamble.”

“It wasn’t a bad decision to put them in the team sprint, because they were fighting for the podium right down to the wire, but it would have been nice to have a couple more days rest.”

Kershaw had a different take.

“Northug is the best skier in the world. He’s ridiculous,” he said. “He’s the benchmark, the guy we all want to be. Or at least, get closer to.”

The fact there were even podium expectations were a measure of just how far Canada’s cross-country team has come.