LAHTI, Finland — Here’s the basics: fast and firm tracks, cloudless skies, and once again a stacked field for the final event of the 2017 Nordic World Championships: the men’s 50-kilometer freestyle mass start.
Over the course of the 50 k, Canada’s Harvey had to think about one thing: be up front near the top three in order to shadow Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby’s inevitable gut punch in the last kilometer. What he didn’t have to think about was playing catch up as a skier yo-yoing off the back, or his skis — they were rockets.
In Sunday’s closing race of Lahti World Championships, Harvey was slotted in second, sliding around “Lahti Corner” just centimeters behind Sundby. Drafting off Harvey was 2017 championships legend, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov, who had already racked up four medals previously in the week (skiathlon gold, team sprint gold, freestyle sprint silver and team relay silver). Pulling not far behind the three was Finland’s Matti Heikkinen and Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain.
After studying the women’s 30 k mass start on Saturday, Harvey had some cogent takeaways.
“I saw the women’s race yesterday, and I figured if Marit Bjørgen could not distance herself from the other girls, then there is no way that the men will be able to do that,” Harvey said during Sunday’s post-race press conference. “I knew with the fast conditions, it was going to be a big group, and that leaves the potential for a lot of carnage, a lot of mayhem.”
For the first 10 k, skiers from various nations took pulls up front, including Sundby and Ustiugov, and Norwegians Petter Northug, Hans Christer Holund, and Anders Gløersen. After testing the field and breaking away around 8 k into the race, Gløersen was still skiing alone up front, 20 seconds ahead of anyone else at 15 k.
“Gløersen took off a bit and he was like, ‘What’s the gap? What’s the gap?’ ” Canadian World Cup coach Ivan Babikov said of Harvey. “He was always controlling the race and saving energy for the finish.”
Eventually, the main pack surged to recover the lost time. Gløersen’s off-the-front-flier only earned him camera time. The catch came just before Lahti Corner returning to the stadium around 20 k in, where Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin took over. In another 2 k, Sundby, who had been stalking in the top 10, moved to the front as if the race were all of a sudden for real.
From then on, the size of the pack atrophied with each consecutive lap. At 30 k, the pack streaming through the stadium was 24 skiers long. At 45 k, the group winnowed to a train of 19. And within another 4 k, only 13 remained: Sundby, Ustiugov, Musgrave, Harvey, Heikkinen, Northug, Holund, Gløersen, Chervotkin, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, Norway’s Sjur Røthe, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, and France’s Maurice Manificat.
“I wanted to be in the front, top three at least,” Harvey said, reflecting on his skiathlon tactics from last weekend, where he skied around fifth up until the final headwall and finished fifth, outside of the medals.
“I knew that Sundby’s first chance to win gold was to break everybody,” Harvey continued. “I was expecting him to leave from kilometer 1 or 49.”
Harvey guessed Sundby would be the only one who would try to break away. With that in mind he marked the Norwegian.
“He knew it would be hard to break away [and that] it will be all about the finish,” Babikov said. “He was positioning himself perfectly up the last hill and just stayed on Sundby. That was his plan, ‘I’m just gonna stay on Sundby and if he changes skis, I’ll go change skis,’ but today conditions were perfect so he didn’t.”
With ripping conditions and skis to match, Sundby never slowed nor switched skis. Neither did Harvey.
“When he waited until the last lap, I knew exactly where he was going to do it: with a k and a half to go,” Harvey explained. “I was just lucky enough to have the legs to stick on him today and from then on it started playing more into my hands.”
In the closing moments of nearly every race of these world champs, the fate of winners seem come down to luck, and often someone else’s bad luck. As the leaders came into the stadium, it was as if every observer were about to witness an upset due to a tumble or a tangle.
Harvey was clean around the final turn and unscathed down the stretch.
“I wanted to hit the [Lahti] corner in second, right behind Sundby or whoever was in the lead,” Harvey said. “I knew I needed to do that in the skiathlon, too, and I tried to go around Finn Hågen Krogh there, but he’s a clever sprinter too. He knew he wanted to be second there.
“In the skiathlon it didn’t work, but today it did,” Harvey continued. “I was second the whole time and then out of that corner I did one push more than Sundby. I had really fast skis, but used the draft to slingshot and then hit the final corner in first and from there, I knew it was mine to lose more than anything else.”
And so Harvey earned the crown: 50 k world champion in 1:46:28.9 hours.
It’s his first championships gold since winning the classic team sprint with Devon Kershaw at 2011 world champs, and fifth medal in four World Championships.
“He turned around these world champs for all of us,” Babikov said of the Canadian team. “He was solid. We were with no medals so far, and winning 50 k, he’s the king now.
“This is the legit distance and he took it today,” he added.
“It’s a long championship,” said Louis Bouchard, Harvey’s personal coach and Canada’s World Cup co-coach. “He feels every day his energy’s still there, so he knows today, if he’s good tactically, then he can do it.”
Asked how nerve-racking it was watching the final 5 k unfold, Bouchard responded, “I was pretty nervous, too much maybe. But that’s OK.”
For his fifth medal of these championships (and sixth world-champs medal of his career), the 24-year-old Ustiugov crossed second for his third silver of the week, just 0.6 seconds behind Harvey. Finland’s 33-year-old Heikkinen took third (+1.4) for his first medal since 2011 World Championships.
“Today I skied within my own limits and at the end I was fresh enough to attack,” Heikkinen said in a press conference.
Asked about his not-so-characteristic finishing kick on Sunday, Heikkinen said he remembered how he faded to 20th in the 50 k classic mass start at 2015 World Championships.
“After Falun 2015 world champs, I was watching the race after and I was walking in front a mirror and I said, ‘I won’t ever again be like that after a 50 k,’ ” he said. “I’ve been training two years now at a high level [with my team] … and that’s why I’m top three in overall World Cup, so it was possible.”
Behind him in a photo finish for fourth, Musgrave capitalized on Sundby slowing before the finish — probably after the Norwegian realized he had missed out on a medal — to place fourth (+2.9). For Musgrave, who turns 27 on Monday, it was his first World Championships top 10. For Sundby, who had been on a quest all week for his first individual championships goal — it was a bummer. The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, will be Sundby’s next opportunity.
From a North American and perhaps international standpoint, American Tad Elliott skied the gutsiest of races. Halfway through the race, Elliott, a 28-year-old Colorado native and former U.S. Ski Team member, remained a not-too-far-off the back chaser, 27 seconds behind the lead group. His margin back slowly accrued over the remaining distance.
“At 25 k, man, some guys were really struggling and they balled it up,” Elliott said afterward. “I should have sent it a little harder but that’s how it goes sometimes in that pack. I thought I could get there, but I just missed it.”
Elliott, of Ski Club Vail, finished 27th (+3:16.8) for his best individual result in three World Championships. In recent years, Elliott has struggled with illness, which impacted his ability to train and peak. Those difficulties caused him to question whether or not his best years were behind him. Evidently not.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to come back [to skiing]. I was so sick. I was so bummed. I was like, ‘Am I ever going to get back? Am I ever going to get back to top-30 form?’ ” Elliott said. “We knew if everything went right, I would qualify for worlds … then to get top 30 here, man, I feel like I’m starting to get greedy. I’m starting to want more, I’m starting to want more opportunities. But I’m proud of this effort, I’m going to savor it a bit.”
In the first few kilometers, Russia’s Petr Sedov skied too wide on a 180-degree corner and stalled out. American Kyle Bratrud, the next skier to round the turn, was unable to avoid the Russian and collided. Soon after, due to the impact, Bratrud was unable to complete the race.
U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman finished the day in 50th (+8:53.1).
Devon Kershaw was Canada’s second skier on Sunday, crossing in 38th (+5:45.5). Also for Canada, Graeme Killick and Knute Johnsgaard finished in 43rd (+7:04.0) and 55th (+12:03.3), respectively.
“[Alex’s performance] was incredible and such a big boost for our entire team,” Babikov said. “You should see all the techs, and Devon and Graeme and Knute, who didn’t really have a great race today, and they’re still so psyched for him.”
— Gerry Furseth, Jake Ellis and Alex Kochon contributed