It’s not very often that one hears the Canadian national anthem at the medals ceremony for a World Championships cross-country ski race.
But sure enough, there it was on Monday, ringing out in the stadium in Otepaa, Estonia. Canadian Alex Harvey had just outsprinted Russian Evgeniy Belov to win the 30-kilometer U-23 pursuit race, collecting his first-ever gold medal from the International Ski Federation.
“This year, even though there’s World Championships coming, I really wanted to say that at least I’ve been world champion once in my life,” he told FasterSkier afterwards. “So, that’s done—I’m happy about that.”
Belov’s teammate Raul Shakirzianov was third, with Noah Hoffman the best American in 22nd place.
Sure, Harvey was the favorite, coming in as the top-ranked starter after a top-five finish in a stage of the Tour de Ski earlier this year. But as one of his coaches put it, “it’s always a ski race”—one that wasn’t decided until its last 50 meters.
Harvey had flown into Estonia on Saturday, and the pursuit was his only race there—a hiatus, of sorts, from an altitude camp in Italy.
From the start, he wasn’t messing around—he started pushing a few kilometers into the classic leg, his stronger discipline, to take the legs out from under some of the other contenders who are better in skating.
The pace wasn’t ballistic, but it was enough to thin out the field, which totally shattered when Belov went to the front on the third of four 3.75-kilometer skate laps. The acceleration left all the other men behind, and even Harvey was struggling, with a pair of slick skis.
“Had he tried harder in classic, he could have shaken me a bit,” he said. “It seemed like all the flats are in the shade, but the climbs are in the sun, so the snow was a bit more greasy and the kick was really hard. For me, it was not great…I guess he didn’t see that I was slipping.”
By the time the two men arrived at the transition, they were well clear, with a 30-second lead over the first group of eight chasers. From the start of the day, it was clear that both Harvey and Belov were at another level—their movements seemed effortless compared to the men behind.
Belov is no slouch, having already won individual gold at the championships in Otepaa, plus an eighth and an 11th in World Cups earlier this year. Big, powerful, and a strong climber, he was stone-faced for the entire hour and 14 minutes of racing, betraying no signs of fatigue—not even a grimace.
Harvey knew he had his hands full with the Russian, who he called an “amazing skier.”
But he was also perfectly content to wait for a sprint, knowing that his speed was far superior. Harvey has multiple sprint top-10’s on the World Cup, while Belov has never cracked the top 30.
Afterwards, Harvey said that he put in a small surge at the beginning of the skate leg, since the transition from classic can sometimes give people trouble. But when Belov had no trouble with the pace, Harvey settled in—and the Russian did, too. The second half of the race was a cat-and-mouse battle, and the two men made minimal ground over third place.
“The gap was big enough,” Harvey said. “We were just skiing easy, I guess.”
With Harvey happy to sit in until the finish, it was up to Belov to shake things up. He tried just twice, with attacks on climbs, but
it wasn’t enough, and afterwards, he was kicking himself.
Given another shot, Belov said, he would have pushed harder in the classic leg—and he also would have shaved. Instead, he stayed bewhiskered—a good-luck tradition—and ended up losing time on the downhills, though whether that was due to facial hairodynamics or skis remained unclear.
Regardless, though, he said he still had some power left at the finish.
“So, maybe tactically, it wasn’t the best performance,” said Belov.
There was one pitch, Harvey said, that could have given him trouble—a steep V1 section of the skate loop that’s the last tough climbs on the course. “But he couldn’t do much,” Harvey said.
The two came down into the stadium together, with Harvey right on Belov’s tails.
The last 200 meters of the skate course brought the two men parallel to the homestretch, in front of the fans, before doubling back and heading for the line. Harvey waited all the way until the turn to make his move, thanks to a headwind—but he wasn’t worried about his chances in the sprint.
“I know the guy—I was pretty confident about the finish,” he said.
When he finally opened it up, Belov had no chance, and Harvey had enough time before the line to stand up and ease up and celebrate.
Despite Harvey’s success at the senior level, it was a gratifying win, coming as it did in his final year of U-23 elibility. Harvey had been in a similar position in Italy in 2008, a favorite to win races as a last-year junior, but a leg problem derailed his hopes there.
Now, he’ll return to Italy for more training with his teammate Len Valjas, in the leadup to the 2011 World Championships in Oslo. As he put it, “it’s easy to train in [Italy] anyway…but this is a big confidence boost.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.