QUEBEC CITY — As 75 men jogged out into the center of the World Cup area assembled on the Plains of Abraham for the men’s 15-kilometer classic mass start on Saturday, one man in particular stood out. Alex Harvey, wearing the red suit of the Canadian national team, led the group out. He wore bib No. 1, but if you couldn’t see that from a distance, it didn’t matter. Essentially everyone knew who he was.
The official hashtag of World Cup Finals in Quebec City this Friday through Sunday has been #GOALEX2017. He is a celebrity in Quebec, a hero to its locals, and someone even non-skiers know quite a bit about.
And so far, the 28 year old appears to be soaking up every minute of his homecoming. One day after winning the freestyle sprint to start the finals, Harvey was seeded first in Saturday’s classic mass start. He led racers into the stadium, waved to spectators, started on the front line, and led the pack out of the stadium.
Even when others took turns leading, with Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug, Emil Iversen and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo setting the pace on the first of four laps, the possibility of Harvey winning never seemed in doubt. He consistently positioned himself within reach of the lead, skiing around sixth for much of the first lap.
On Lap 2, the lead group remained about 30 strong. Harvey skied within two seconds of the Norwegians up front, with Pål Golberg, Didrik Tønseth, Finn Hågen Krogh, Dyrhaug, and even Klæbo — the 20-year-old Sprint World Cup champion — all still in contention. By the end of Lap 3, Harvey was into second, right behind Tønseth.
With 3.75 k to go and the crowd’s ability to see the racers on most of the exposed course, the excitement among Harvey fans began to exceed its already high point from the start. Bells, horns, “Gooo Alex!”
Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh attacked on an uphill and Harvey stuck behind him in second. On the second to last climb, a short and steep pitch that ascends up from the Old City’s historic wall, Dyrhaug surged into first, Bessmertnykh followed him in second and Harvey in third.
Behind them, Klæbo was sizing them all up in fourth, waiting for the perfect time to strike. He did so by moving to the outside lane on the last long downhill and glided into second behind Dyrhaug. They ascended the final pitch together and rounded the final corner before the 100-meter stretch to the finish, where Klæbo continued to accelerate past Dyrhaug and double poled to his first World Cup distance win in 35:23.7 minutes. Dyrhaug finished 0.5 seconds later for second place, Bessmertnykh 0.8 seconds back in third, and Harvey 1.2 seconds behind Klæbo in fourth.
While it wasn’t a podium for Harvey, it was a result he was proud of.
“I’m very satisfied,” he told reporters afterward in French. “Making the top 10 is always a big deal. Today was another step towards securing a third spot in the overall [World Cup]. That was my big goal coming in. So I’m satisfied … You can’t make the podium every time. I felt very good physically.”
With one World Cup race remaining, Harvey, who’s ranked third in the world, extended his lead on Finland’s Matti Heikkinen in fourth to 92 points. Heikkinen finished 26th on Saturday, 1:04.9 minutes out of first, and will start Sunday’s 15 k freestyle pursuit 27th, 2:15 behind Klæbo as the World Cup Finals mini-tour leader. Dyrhaug will start 22 seconds back in second, followed by Harvey 1 second later in third, and Krogh another 11 seconds back in fourth.
“Every pursuit is a manhunt so I’ll be hunting the young Norwegian in front,” Harvey said. “It was Klæbo’s first victory in a distance event. We saw him come in second behind Sundby in this year’s first mini tour. So of course, he’s strong. I mean, the guy won five or six gold medals at the Junior Worlds. He’s a complete skier…”
Asked if he thought he could work with Dyrhaug to reel Klæbo in, Harvey wasn’t counting on one Norwegian helping him bridge the gap to another.
“I don’t think Dyrhaug will chase, but I will,” Harvey said.
Dyrhaug told reporters that might not be the case.
“Tomorrow is going to be an exciting day,” he said in English. “I saw that me and Alex are going out together, so it is in both of our interests to cooperate and do good teamwork, and hopefully we can catch Johannes and then we’ll have to see…
“We ought to talk together with team staff, hear what Johannes says, too,” he added. “But it is in both interests to have a big gap behind [us]. So if I’m strong, I’m thinking maybe I’m going to help Alex to … yeah, and we’re going to cooperate.”
In the last year that Klæbo’s been racing World Cups, the three-time 2016 junior world champion (in the freestyle sprint, 10 k classic and freestyle relay) has reached the podium six times in individual World Cups and claimed bronze in the freestyle sprint at this year’s World Championships. But before Saturday, all of his podiums (with the exception of one mini tour) had been in sprints.
“I hadn’t dreamed about doing a distance race in the World Cup … and cross the finish line in first,” Klæbo said after. “It’s unbelievable.”
He was the most consistent race leader on Saturday, winning one of sprint preems and crossing in second behind his teammate Iversen for the other. In all, he accumulated 27 bonus seconds, which were deducted from his overall time in the mini tour — putting him first by 22 seconds over Dyrhaug.
“I just tried to be in the front for the bonus seconds to be able to get some seconds,” he explained of his race tactic. “So that was my plan.”
Despite trying to lead for most of it, he noticed others trying to do the same on the third and fourth laps. In the final stretch of the race, coming off the long downhill toward the finish, Klæbo focused on moving up from fourth.
“Niklas gapped our group in the last downhill there so we had push really hard on the last uphill to get to him,” he explained. “At the finish, it was just all out.”
Bessmertnykh, who will start the pursuit in 13th, 1:08 back, after placing 59th in Friday’s sprint, described Saturday’s mass start as “a fun race,” in a post-race interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS). “There was a lot of things happening all the time. I followed Niklas and Johannes on the last climb. We gained a small gap. I managed to ski well the last curve before the homestretch and carried in good speed.”
Dyrhaug was also satisfied with his race.
“The only thing was, I was one meter behind in the end,” he said. “I tried my best. I went all in for a long sprint, when it was one half k left, and it was almost.”
Under blue skies and a beating sun, Dyrhaug described Saturday afternoon in Quebec as “amazing.”
“We have been competing for like 40 races this year, but this is the most pretty day, and most pretty conditions for the whole year, so thank you, Quebec,” he said.
Waxing was a challenge, with temperatures warming quickly to about 2 degrees Celsius (mid-30s Fahrenheit) by midday.
Devon Kershaw was the second Canadian in the top 30, finishing 28th (+1:08.4) after breaking a pole early on.
“It was pretty chaotic and broke a pole there pretty early in the start and went all the way back into the 60’s, so made for a lot of work to try to get back in,” he said after. “I am proud of the fact that I was able to ski back into the points, but I had a better body than that today for sure and just had a bit of bad luck there.”
He finished 9.3 seconds ahead of his Canadian World Cup teammate Graeme Killick, who placed 32nd (+1:17.7), and the two essentially skied together from 5.25 k on.
While Kershaw said he thought the 3.7 k course would be better suited to skating, he was impressed with the atmosphere and the race organization.
“I think for a classic, there are a lot of corners and it’s pretty tight … [but] to bring the skiing to the people like they did and to use the terrain they have available, I tip my hat, its a great event,” he said. “It is the most crowds I have ever skied with in Canada, the sun is shining, the venue is fantastic, the organizers did a great job, the tracks are in perfect condition. What a great place to race.”
Erik Bjornsen led the U.S. men in 31st (+1:16.8) and two seconds behind Switzerland’s Roman Furger in 30th. After losing contact with the lead group of 29 on one of the bigger climbs at the end of the second lap, Bjornsen found himself skiing in “no-man’s land” with Sweden’s Teodor Peterson.
“It was a bummer to lose that front pack,” Bjornsen said. “I was struggling on the hills out there; I was a little light on kick. I think a lot of the guys were, but I wasn’t doing much striding. It was pretty much from double pole, to having to run outside the track. I felt pretty good, but I was losing time.”
While skiing with Peterson, Bjornsen said he led at times and wanted Peterson to help drive the chase as well. Peterson ended up just ahead of him in 29th (+1:14.3).
“I was like, ‘Come on, dude.’ I could see that there was a group behind, chasing us, and we were kind of right in that no-man’s land, which is always a bad spot to be,” he said. “But it was fun. It’s fun to be racing in North America, and have people cheering my name. It’s so unique, and I love it. I wish we could race over here more often.”
Matt Gelso was the second American in 37th (+1:32.6), Andy Newell finished 45th, Scott Patterson 46th, Noah Hoffman 48th, Ben Lustgarten 49th, David Norris 50th, Simi Hamilton 54th, Paddy Caldwell 59th, Jack Hegman 62nd, Cole Morgan 64th, and Brian Gregg 69th.
While the U.S. started 12 men, Canada had 15 in Saturday’s mass start with Bob Thompson finishing 55th, Knute Johnsgaard 57th, Len Valjas 61st, Russell Kennedy 63rd, Evan Palmer-Charrette 65th, Andy Shields 66th, Jess Cockney 67th, Brian McKeever 68th, Joey Foster 70th, Gareth Williams 72nd, Ricardo Izquierdo-Bernier 74th, and Julien Locke 75th.
— Gerry Furseth, François Léger Dionne, Jake Ellis, and Ian Tovell contributed