The last few days, Alex Harvey struggled in the morning. It wasn’t his racing that necessarily got him down, the 23-year-old Canadian just hadn’t adapted to northern Finland in November.
“It’s so dark here in Kuusamo,” Harvey said in a phone interview from the airport before leaving the northern town for Helsinki. “You race at 1 (p.m.) so I woke up at like 10 this morning and it’s still dark … you just pound coffee but you’re still sleepy.”
On Friday and Saturday, the first two days of the three-day Ruka Triple mini-tour, Harvey found it especially hard to wake up.
“I was yawning so much,” he said. “But today … finally I got used to the darkness, and now we’re leaving so it’s good.”
The bright-eyed (or at least better-adjusted) Harvey had his best race of the weekend on Sunday, placing 11th in the men’s 15 k classic pursuit. His time of 39:41.4 was the seventh fastest of 99 racers, and he finished 59.9 seconds behind the weekend’s cumulative winner, Petter Northug of Norway.
In Saturday’s 10 k freestyle individual start, Harvey had been 24th, which set him up in a relatively crowded spot to start Sunday’s pursuit. He said it played to his strengths.
“I started pretty much as fast as I could,” he said. “After two laps, I felt that I was dead but I was able to keep going and keep catching guys.”
The pursuit featured six 2.5-k laps, which were nothing short of grueling. Long, steep climbs were rewarded with heart-pounding stretches. There was little time for gliding or recovery.
Harvey said that didn’t suit him; he liked to ski technically well and glide.
“Here … you just run up the hills and hammer over the top,” he said.
Early in the race, Harvey found himself gunning for the frontrunners with Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin, whom Harvey started with, 1:20 after Northug.
When Vylegzhanin pushed harder at 5 k, Harvey couldn’t hang on. The Russian moved up to ninth, while Harvey hovered around 14th. Down to fifth place at 7.5 k, Vylegzhanin fell on the downhill. He dropped back and finished 18th. Harvey didn’t regret his decision not to go with him.
“I just couldn’t go any faster and he kept charging and charging,” Harvey said. “When you cross that line and don’t come back, sometimes that’s what happens. He didn’t come back.”
While Kuusamo’s sprint and freestyle races didn’t go as Harvey had planned, his top-10 split on Sunday affirmed he was in good shape.
“Maybe after two hard races the body found the World Cup,” he said.
Teammate Devon Kershaw also found his form, finishing 20th with the eighth-fastest time (39:54.3) on Sunday. He started 37 racers back –1:32 after Northug — and cut the deficit to 1:12.8.
Considering he placed 10th overall at Kuusamo last year, Kershaw said ending up 20th wasn’t ideal, but he was pleased with his split time.
“After the last two weeks I’ve had or the last three weeks, to be honest, it’s such a good confirmation,” he said in a phone interview. “I actually needed that pretty bad.”
It was the first time Kershaw made the top 10 internationally since racing at the New Zealand Cup in August. As the weekend progressed, he wrote in an email that he sounded like a broken record. His body wasn’t cooperating, but his head was still in it.
On Sunday, Kershaw felt a little better. He wasn’t even concerned with results, he said. He was just happy the pursuit was classic.
“I was smiling pretty good in the morning (before the race) because I love classic skiing regardless,” Kershaw said. “I love those races that are super-tight and people all over the place, like NASCAR-type racing. It worked out well.”
As he continued to push himself on the course, he said his body showed signs of responding.
“Over the top of the hills for the first time this winter, I was able to still push,” Kershaw said. “Not just get to the top and be like, ‘Oh God, where is the finish line?’ ”
While he wasn’t able to stay with Sweden’s Daniel Rickardsson, who finished 13th and started 1 second ahead of him, Kershaw knew his fitness would come around. If a similar situation arose, he should be able to knock off 10 seconds to crack the top 15, he said.
“Being in the top 10 today (time-wise) and getting some World Cup points, that’s important,” Kershaw said. “I can’t get greedy.”
Another Canadian, Lenny Valjas couldn’t help but be excited about his performances throughout the weekend. Seeded 17th to start the pursuit, the team’s youngest member — primarily known for sprinting — found a way to finish 29th (+1:46.1).
“I had all the wax techs yelling at me and smiling and laughing … telling me I was still in the top 30,” the 23-year-old Valjas said. “So it was pretty funny.”
“Today was awesome for Lenny,” Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth said on the phone from Canmore, Alberta. “To be in the top 30 in this kind of field, it’s big time. … The whole weekend was a major success for Lenny. It shows that, again, he’s coming with both distance and obviously he’s going to be scary on the sprint circuit.”
Rounding out the Canadian roster, Ivan Babikov was 46th after placing 20th in Saturday’s 10 k, Kevin Sandau was 73rd and Graham Nishikawa was 80th. Drew Goldsack did not start because he and his personal coach decided it would be better if he rested for upcoming races in Düsseldorf, Germany, Wadsworth said.
As the Canadian team waited for their flight about three hours after Sunday’s race, coach Eric de Nys said they were happy to leave Kuusamo on a pretty positive note.
“We had awesome skis today and we had awesome engines on top of the skis,” he said. “Overall it’s a great start and we’re looking for more.”
On the U.S. side, Kris Freeman had the best result of his men’s team in 43rd place (+2:23.8). He started 32nd and had hoped to finish below 20th, but wrote in an email on Saturday he knew that would be difficult.
His teammate, Andy Newell, who started uncharacteristically back in 100th, was able to climb up to 72nd (+3:38.4). He was right behind Freeman with the 58th fastest time of the day (Freeman was 56th).
“Today’s pursuit went a lot better than yesterday’s skate,” Newell wrote in an email. “Although I was still a little tired, I was able to push it into the red zone, which is something I couldn’t do yesterday. So that’s a good sign to be able to recover after a tough day both physically and mentally.”
While U.S. head coach Chris Grover acknowledged the highs and lows of the weekend for the men’s squad, he said many athletes knew their fitness was improving.
Noah Hoffman, who started 83rd and finished 58th (+3:02.2) was well on his way. He said Saturday’s performance, better than his earlier results, helped him finish stronger on Sunday. He clocked the 40th-fastest split.
At the top of a long grind on lap No. 4, Hoffman knew he turned a corner.
“My legs locked up, and I thought to myself ‘this could end up being a long day,’ ” he wrote in an email. “But I was able to fake it and do some double poling over the top. By the time I got to the bottom of the course, I felt much better.”
Looking ahead, Hoffman was eager for the 30-k World Cup race in Davos, Switzerland, in two weeks. The U.S. team was flying to Davos on Monday and the sprinters would later leave for next weekend’s World Cup races in Düsseldorf.
Hoffman, Freeman, Tad Elliott and Liz Stephen would either stay in Davos or travel to Italy to train, he said.
Elliott was 95th in Sunday’s pursuit, and another American, Lars Flora was 87th.