QUEBEC CITY — Friday started off about as good as the Canadian men’s team could have hoped for, with five skiers finishing in the top 30 to qualify for the heats in the 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint on the first day of World Cup Finals. According to Cross Country Canada, that’s the first time five Canadian men have qualified in a World Cup race.
Racing one lap around the Plains of Abraham in the heart of Quebec City, athletes were bolstered by an estimated 25,000 cheering spectators. While they ramped up the intensity for their Canadian skiers, they went wild for Alex Harvey.
And the Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges native delivered in every sense possible.
Harvey started off as his team’s leading qualifier, clocking in with the fourth-fastest time, 4.14 seconds behind Norway’s qualifying winner, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, who rounded the course in 2:39.44 minutes. Behind Harvey, four other Canadians also qualified less than seven-tenths of a second apart. Len Valjas qualified 24th (+9:28), Julien Locke of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) 25th (+9.39), Jess Cockney 28th (+9.90), and Bob Thompson of the National Team Development Centre (NTDC) Thunder Bay in 30th (+9.95) as the final qualifier in the men’s race.
For Locke and Thompson, it was their first World Cup top 30. For Cockney, it was the beginning of one of his career-best days. For Harvey, he was just warming up.
In Harvey’s nine years as a World Cup skier, the 28 year old has racked up six individual World Cup wins — spoiler alert — including Friday’s. He won a skate sprint one other time, three years ago in Szklarska Poreba, Poland. At World Championships, he’s accumulated five medals, with his first coming in the 2011 classic team sprint and the second World Championships gold of his career in the 50-kilometer freestyle mass start less than two weeks ago in Lahti, Finland.
After winning the longest race on the circuit, Harvey seamlessly switched gears and dominated Friday’s freestyle sprint on a wide-open course with short, steep hills organizers had to work hard to integrate.
In his quarterfinal and semifinal, Harvey raced to first in both heats in a way few others attempted to do on Friday. He led from start to finish and didn’t appear to worry too much about the draft, only making sure that he was far enough ahead so that no one else could use it to slingshot past him in the finishing stretch. He won his quarterfinal by 0.34 seconds over Simi Hamilton — the lone American man to qualify for the heats — and semifinal by 0.04 seconds over France’s Richard Jouve. That one was a little closer and didn’t give Harvey enough time to remove his pole straps before the finish, like he did in his quarterfinal while Hamilton lunged for the line to secure second behind him.
It was one of those days where it appeared everyone else was working really hard, while Harvey was simply cruising. But that was confidence and the crowd he was riding, and it was a look that worked for him.
In a post-race interview, Harvey explained he decided to set the pace in the fourth quarterfinal. The heats before had been almost 10 seconds slower than Klæbo’s qualifying time, so Harvey knew his quarterfinal contenders had a chance to advance more than the top-two if they skied fast enough.
He faced a similar situation in the second semifinal. Harvey said he spoke with Jouve and Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug before their semifinal and discussed how one of them should lead, “to keep pushing, not make it easy, ’cause we want to move to the final,” Harvey said. “The strategy is actually pretty similar most of the time, but it’s a question of being able to actually do it.”
He did it and advanced to the final as the man to beat. All around the course, fans shouted for “Alex”.
Out of the gate in the men’s final, Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh surged to the front. The six finalists launched immediately into the first and longest climb on the sprint course, just short of 250 meters long, where France’s Lucas Chanavat took the lead and Harvey skied just behind him over the top. Racers dropped back into the stadium then skated back out of it again, where Harvey moved to first in front of the two Frenchmen in the final: Chanavat and Jouve.
Krogh soon after slotted into third and attacked on the steepest climb while Harvey and Hamilton proved to have the most left to answer.
As Krogh led into the last uphill, Harvey followed, then Hamilton, Jouve, Chanavat and Norway’s Sindre Bjørnestad Skar — the last three within striking distance of Hamilton in third place. Harvey tucked behind Krogh and absorbed his draft, breaking out his powerful V2 with 100 meters remaining and leaving Krogh chasing him to the line. There, Harvey threw up his arms to celebrate, while Hamilton lunged for third in a photo finish with Jouve. The Frenchman took it by 0.07 seconds, Hamilton ended up fourth, 1.01 seconds behind Harvey, Skar fifth (+1.51), and Chanavat sixth (+1.72).
“At the last turn, I was confident,” Harvey said in French. “I looked at him [Krogh] and I knew I had him, but I was focusing on staying second because of a strong headwind in the last downhill.”
“To be beaten by the 50 k World Champion on the home stretch is tough,” Krogh told the International Ski Federation (FIS) on Friday. “I was simply not good enough.”
In the finish area, Harvey appeared about as elated as he was after the 50 k in Lahti, a reaction he said was “pure instinct.”
“But sprinting comes with greater stress, with the risk of falling, of breaking a pole…” Harvey said in French. “To cross the finish line after a sprint is like a deliverance.”
The win comes just over a year after Harvey placed second in a World Cup skate sprint in Quebec during the Ski Tour Canada. After passing Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov in the finishing stretch, he had been in first until France’s Baptiste Gros snuck up on him on the inside lane. Harvey finished half a second back in second place, but it was still a day he’d remember — his girlfriend Sophie came out on course to congratulate him.
On Friday, he made sure to lock up the win. And he was met afterward by Sophie, his sister (also named Sophie) and his dad, Pierre Harvey, alongside the finishing lanes.
“Last year it would have been nice to win,” Harvey said in English on Friday. “When I passed Ustiugov last year, I had so much more speed than him … I didn’t ease up, but I thought I was going to win … and then I saw Baptiste just blow by all of us in the corner of my eye. So I had a bit of that in my mind and just making sure it wasn’t going to slip through my finger two years in a row.”
Asked how this stacked up to his 50 k win, he said it was close.
“Today’s victory really isn’t far behind my 50 k win,” he said in French. “My second place last year here was already incredible, so to top that off with a win at home is a dream come true.”
The win comes after Harvey has competed two 50 k races, including last weekend’s Holmenkollen World Cup in Oslo, Norway, in less than two weeks and traveled across the Atlantic back to his home province.
“What surprises me is how well he recovered after the double 50 k, in which he did very well, both times,” Louis Bouchard, Harvey’s personal coach and Canada’s co-World Cup coach, said in French. “Usually in sprints, he will hang at the back and make his move right at the end in the final stretch. So tactically, he skied differently today. He felt strong to the point of leading every round right until the end. It’s also rare to see Alex qualify so strongly. His form his tremendous at this point.”
Pierre Harvey, a local hero and the inspiration behind the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, spoke with reporters after the race. Five years ago, he had been on site to witness his son’s first-career World Cup win in Falun, Sweden.
“It’s always very emotional,” Pierre said in French. “I was there when he won his first World Cup in Sweden, which I didn’t think he could ever do at the time, but winning became a familiar sight in a way. I thought he would burn himself after the qualification, but he managed to win every round after. It was impressive to see him beat Krogh, a very capable sprinter, in the last stretch.”
Asked what propelled his son on Friday, Pierre said racing at home.
“In front of friends and of a cheering crowd, along with great ski conditions, is an extra motivation,” he said. “He left home on the fifth of November, so coming back after months of racing in Europe, he really wanted to put on a show for his friends. I hope he keeps his energy levels high for tomorrow and Sunday’s races.”
Two more World Cup races remain to close out the season: a 15 k classic mass start on Saturday and 15 k freestyle pursuit on Sunday. Harvey has essentially solidified third place in the overall World Cup rankings with 57 points separating him from Finland’s Matti Heikkinen in fourth place.
“Today’s win comes with 50 points, 30 bonus seconds and 10 seconds I put on him in today’s qualification,” Alex Harvey explained. “I feel secure with this lead on him.”
Ahead of him, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Russia’s Ustiugov are not racing in Quebec. Sundby already locked up the World Cup overall and distance titles, and Ustiugov is still 282 points clear of Harvey in third place.
After Day 1 of 3 in the World Cup Finals mini tour, Harvey leads by 2.3 seconds over Krogh. All 74 racers remaining in the men’s field will start Saturday’s mass start together.
The Sprint World Cup podium was awarded on Friday, with Norway’s 20-year-old Klæbo in first, Italy’s Federico Pellegrino (last year’s Sprint Crystal Globe winner) in second, and Skar in third. Both Klæbo and Pellegrino were eliminated in the semifinals, with Pellegrino placing seventh and Klæbo eighth on the day.
As for third and fourth place on Friday, Jouve was thrilled with his fourth individual World Cup podium and first this season after being injured in December and January.
“It was a really good day for me,” Jouve said in French. “I passed through my quarter and semi as I wanted. I managed to stay in a good position in the finals. I had very good legs and fast skis.”
Asked what he thought of the crowd’s favoritism for Harvey, he said it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.
“We were here last year, and the public is pleasant and cheers for everyone,” Jouve said. “It’s normal to see them favor the local star.”
Even Hamilton, frustrated with fourth, was happy for Harvey.
“He’s such a good guy. He’s such a great North American teammate. He’s always so psyched when we ski well, and we’re always so psyched when he skis well, as well as all the other Canadians,” Hamilton said. “We are really just like kind of one bigger team, us against all the Europeans we feel like sometimes, so it’s cool to see him so successful and skiing so strong. And he handles his success with so much humility and grace.
“Someone as talented as he is, and somebody who works as hard as he does, it’s awesome just to feel the energy,” Hamilton added. “He’s such a good ambassador for our sport, and I think that that’s a testament to see all these people cheering him on, because they know that he’s such a great guy, more than just a good ski racer.”
Hamilton faced Harvey in all three of his heats and followed him in every one.
“I knew that Alex and Finn were far enough ahead of us that, unless they tripped or something, that we weren’t going to catch them,” Hamilton said of the final. “So I also knew that I was ahead of Jouve and the other two that were behind us a little bit, so I knew that, especially with the tailwind, if I just skied it well that I would have held onto third. And I just didn’t do that, and it sucks. I want it back. I want to do it again. I felt good going into it, I felt like my energy was really good during the entire final, and for whatever reason, I just didn’t ski it.”
Four Canadians in Top 20
Earlier in the day, Cockney tied his second-best individual World Cup result in 10th and popped his second top 12 of the season to meet the criteria for the Canadian 2018 Olympic team. After qualifying in 28th and hanging around fourth or fifth for most of his quarterfinal, Cockney used the draft and his reserved energy to sprint from fourth to second in the finishing stretch. He finished just 0.09 seconds behind Klæbo, who won that quarterfinal, and edged Great Britain’s Andrew Young by 0.07 seconds. While Young didn’t advance, Cockney did, and he went on to place fifth in the first semifinal, 1.3 seconds behind Krogh, the winner of that heat.
“You can see just how wide open this field is, and it’s so windy that you kind of had to be smart about where you wanted to use energy,” Cockney said of his tactics.
“I knew the start was straight into the headwind. You could come down with the tailwind behind you and make back a couple spots, or at least close the distance behind some people. And that’s just exactly what I wanted to do in the quarterfinal, and I was lucky that it worked out well, and I had some energy saved from doing that for the finishing straight. So that was really big for me.”
As for his finishing gear, Cockney laughed and said he’d like to think he’s had that all along. His trouble has been getting into the heats. In the one other World Cup sprint he qualified in this season — the classic sprint in PyeongChang — he went on to finish 10th.
“It’s funny, I’d like to think I always have some kind of sprint like that, but I never get into the sprints; my qualifying speed is still not there,” Cockney said. “Today, to actually see it on a race course and see it at a World Cup — I’m really happy with that. I can do it on a domestic level, but being consistent at an international level is still taking some time.”
Four Canadians landed in the top 20 with Valjas in 19th and Locke in 20th. Valjas finished fourth in the first quarterfinal, 1.81 seconds behind Chanavat, who won. Locke placed fourth in the third quarterfinal, 1.89 seconds behind Pellegrino as the winner of that heat.
“I’m a bit disappointed,” Valjas said. “I didn’t feel like I was able to show my potential today. I always felt boxed in, and every time I tried to make a move, there was somebody there. The course is so turny that when you’re beside somebody you get boxed in, so it’s frustrating. I think I had more speed than I showed today, but I ended up not skiing it well tactically, starting at the back.”
Asked about the conditions, Valjas elaborated that Quebec had some of the best snow that World Cup skiers have seen all year. Quebec City was hit with a massive snowstorm earlier in the week on Tuesday.
“Europe is sometimes good, but this is all-time conditions here,” Valjas said. “It’s fast, it’s wide. It’s just, with the curves, it’s harder to pass than I thought.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Locke, a 23-year-old member of Canada’s U25 Team, was pleased with his performance in his third World Cup start as it marked his first time in the points (top 30). In his first World Cup race last month, he came close in 36th in PyeongChang.
“At the start of the season, my two main goals were to go to the Korea World Cup and the World Championships,” Locke said. “And I went to Korea, and I unfortunately had a crash there, so I was really hoping for another second chance, and to qualify to come here was fantastic. It’s crazy having Alex here, a world champion coming home, and the atmosphere is incredible. So since this race was announced, doing a good sprint here was my big goal for the year.”
Thompson, 26, ended up 30th after finishing sixth in the same quarterfinal as Cockney. After making his World Cup debut at last year’s Ski Tour Canada, Thompson started this season on the World Cup in Europe and raced to 31st in the classic sprint in PyeongChang. On Friday, he scored his first World Cup points as well.
“Getting in the heats has been the goal for every sprint World Cup I’ve gone to do, which is, this is the 17th now, and I think it’s about the seventh sprint or so,” Thompson said. “… Goal number one is, get a top 30. So I got that, I can reassess, and raise the bar a little bit.”
Newell Narrowly Misses Qualifying
For the U.S., Andy Newell missed out on qualifying by eight-hundredths of a second in 31st. Erik Bjornsen was 0.98 seconds back in 33rd, and Cole Morgan (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation) another second back in 34th.
“For Andy to be in 31st, disappointing for him,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “He felt good out there; he’s a little bit mystified. … And then also for Erik Bjornsen and Cole Morgan, who skied great, to be so close to going in … If we’d gotten three or four guys into the heats then I think it would have been a great start to the day. So a little disappointing to miss that opportunity.”
“I was feeling pretty good out there skiing, so I don’t know why it was slow,” Newell said. “I couldn’t figure out why.”
Bjornsen said he hasn’t raced much since World Championships and hoped Friday blew the cobwebs out.
“I was hoping for a little bit more today,” he said. “I obviously wanted to qualify … but I’m excited for the next couple days. … Tomorrow’s a 15 k classic, which is my favorite event, so yeah, hopefully I can put together some good races.”
Also for the U.S., Paddy Caldwell placed 50th, Matt Gelso 57th, Scott Patterson 58th, Jack Hegman 61st, Brian Gregg 62nd, Ben Lustgarten 69th, David Norris 70th, and Noah Hoffman 73rd.
Canada’s Andy Shields came close to qualifying in 35th, Russell Kennedy followed in 36th, Devon Kershaw 38th, Knute Johnsgaard 41st, Evan Palmer-Charrette 47th, Joey Foster 53rd, Graeme Killick 64th, Ricardo Izquierdo-Bernier 71st, Brian McKeever 72nd, and Gareth Williams 74th.
— Gerry Furseth, François Léger Dionne, Gavin Kentch and Jake Ellis contributed