As Alex Harvey pushed himself through the paces in Saturday’s 4 k, he felt a pang of familiarity. The 24-year-old Canadian national team member had raced a prologue before in Oberhof, Germany, just a slightly shorter version (3.75 k) in last year’s Tour de Ski.
Conditions were tougher this time around – rain leading up to the first stage of this year’s Tour de Ski made the course sticky and slower – but besides that, it was the same freestyle technique, same sprint format.
Knowing it was going to hurt, Harvey prepared for the worst. The first month or so of the season hadn’t started out so hot for the Canadians; Harvey and teammate Devon Kershaw sat out the most recent World Cup race in Canmore, Alberta: the 30 k skiathlon. Harvey’s best result of the season came at a skate sprint in Quebec City, essentially his hometown, where he was 11th on Dec. 13. But for a guy who was sixth overall on the World Cup last year, that wasn’t going to cut it.
On Saturday, Harvey felt different. His race effort felt easier, and while he was pushing hard in the prologue, he didn’t feel exhausted at the finish. Grimacing slightly crossing the line, he soon smiled, realizing he captured the lead about halfway through the individual start. He pointed to his skis and smiled even wider.
Ultimately, Harvey placed sixth in the 4 k skate race, 11.3 seconds behind Norwegian winner Petter Northug (who won in 8:28.7). It tied his result from last year’s prologue, where Harvey finished 6.9 seconds behind Northug, who won that Tour opener. On Saturday, Northug won by 6.1 seconds.
All things considered, Harvey thought that was pretty good.
“Last year I came through that [finish] line and … my legs were really stiff and lungs burning, which is usually the way it is in a prologue,” Harvey said on the phone after the race. “But today it felt like, I still went as hard as I could obviously, but like right now I don’t feel too bad and at the end, I could still stand on my legs.”
After finishing in first, Harvey said he was realistic about where he’d end up, but his results exceeded his expectations.
“I didn’t think I was gonna be on the podium,” he said. “The guys around me were like ‘Oh you’re leading,’ but I’m like, ‘Yeah, but the big guns are still coming.’ I was missing a little bit of speed, but at the same time in a prologue like that, there’s not much to win so I was almost happy to not empty the tank fully today.”
He had hoped for top 10 or top 15, and was pleasantly surprised with sixth. While the six remaining stages of the Tour hold more weight, Harvey said posting his season best in the opener was definitely a good thing.
“In Canmore we kind of hit the panic button,” he said after he and Kershaw took two full days off in Canmore before flying to Davos, Switzerland, to resume normal training.
Harvey said he hadn’t expected too much too early in the season, but at least wanted to be near the top 10.
“It’s good to know that I’m back where I feel like belong,” he said. “Racing is always fun, but it gets pretty hard when you’re getting crushed all the time. Now it’s back to having fun and that’s good.”
Meanwhile, teammate Ivan Babikov posted a personal-best prologue result of 32nd, 25.7 seconds behind Northug and just over five seconds out of the top 15. Babikov, 32, wrote in an email that he aimed to pace well and conserve energy early. He executed accordingly and climbed from near 60th at the halfway point to just outside the top 30.
“Conditions were very sloppy, wet, soft snow, and some places was very hard to keep the balance,” Babikov wrote. “At first I struggled to get in the rhythm but it got much better by the end so I could finish pretty strong, I think. After all it was my PB for prologues so I’m pretty happy with the result.”
Not as enthused was Devon Kershaw, who was 48th (+31.1) and explained in an email that he “died with about 1.5km to go.” Ironically, he had been feeling better the last couple days than he had all season.
“Even warming up today I felt pretty good – better legs than any other time this season thus far,” Kershaw wrote. “Still though, I started conservatively (too conservatively actually). … When I went to ‘punch it’ over the top of the first climb (about 1.7km in) there was nothing there. No snap/power, nothing. I thought I could just rely on technique to get me home ok, but with about 1.5km to go or so, I died.
“I’m frustrated and disappointed – but at the Tour you can’t dwell too much of tough days,” he added. “Tomorrow’s a new race, new discipline, distance – so another chance. Just makes for some more work.”
On Sunday, Kershaw will start 46.1 seconds behind Northug in the 15 k classic pursuit. Harvey will start 26.3 seconds back and Babikov will go at 40.7 seconds.
“The Tour really begins tomorrow, so that’s not lost on me,” Kershaw wrote. “Another chance – we’ll just have to wait and see what body shows up.”
The fourth Canadian man in the Tour, Lenny Valjas took 52nd Saturday (+32.6) after starting in bib 3 and leading early. Despite posting the 20th fastest time at 1.7 k, Valjas wrote in an email that he faded over the second half as a result of poor pacing.
“I really underestimated the toughness of the course,” he wrote. “I started quick and did not leave enough energy for the last two hills and the long finish straight. I lost a lot of time in the last third of he race. I am still happy with the effort and just need to work on better pacing next time.”
While he didn’t get the top 30 he was looking for, Valjas added that Saturday’s prologue was a good sign for some of his teammates.
“It was great to see Alex back with the leaders,” Valjas wrote. “I was watching his race on the tour bus and thought he was going to take the win! Also super pumped for Babs.”
“And Devon, we all know he can do better than that, but you don’t lose the Tour today,” Harvey said. “Tomorrow’s gonna be sketchy classic conditions so that’s his bread and butter. … He’s not happy, but he’s gonna come back.”