For Canada’s Alex Harvey, the bad news is that at next week’s World Ski Championships in Oslo, he’s not likely to improve much on his finish in his final tune-up race.
The good news is why: in Sunday’s World Cup skate sprint in Drammen, Norway, he was a stunning second place, surging on the homestretch to top Olympic medalists Petter Northug (NOR) and Marcus Hellner (SWE), and falling just a few feet short of catching Emil Joensson (SWE) for the win.
Harvey said he felt sluggish early in the day, when he skied to 22nd in the qualifier. But as the day went on, he got better and better, using Drammen’s seemingly endless homestretch to make up ground in all three of his heats. By the day’s close, he’d claimed his third career World Cup podium.
“Good sign to be able to race fast when you’re not feeling too good,” he said. “I know in a couple of days, I should be feeling better than that.”
It was a strong day for the Canadian men in the heats, with Harvey’s finish complemented by the performance of his teammate Len Valjas. In just his third-ever set of World Cup heats, Valjas nearly made the finals, ultimately placing ninth on the day after being eliminated in a cutthroat semifinal that included both Joensson and Northug.
Meanwhile, American Andy Newell’s brutal season continued, as he was eliminated in a tight quarterfinal after leading early on.
“He’s definitely kind of struggled this year, to find the form,” said U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover. “If you’re slightly off against that men’s field, forget about it, because there’s so much depth.”
By contrast, Harvey doesn’t seem to have lost a step from the peak he was riding in early January, when he placed 10th overall in the Tour de Ski. From there, he went on to collect a U-23 Championship in the 30 k pursuit in Estonia, a trip that also served as a brief respite from an altitude camp in Italy that he used as preparation for Worlds.
In Drammen, the skate sprint wasn’t the event that was supposed to suit Harvey. He’s a stronger classic skier, and with his only individual World Cup podium coming in a 50 k, he’s been stronger in distance races in previous seasons.
But Harvey told FasterSkier that he’s always had some speed—he’s just never given sprint races much focus, either in training or in competition.
“He’d always had the skills for sprinting,” said Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian National Ski Team coach. “He just didn’t, maybe, on the World Cup show it that much. When we do a lot of the sprint workouts with [teammate] Devon [Kershaw]…Alex is always, always there.”
This season, Harvey said, he didn’t change much, but he knew that he needed to pay a bit more attention to the format to be able to place well in the Tour. He was rewarded by two top-15 finishes there—his last sprint starts before Drammen.
On Sunday, Harvey was slow off the line every time. But the course was as broad as a highway, and with two long, gradual uphills, there was plenty of time to make up ground.
“You can pass basically anywhere you want,” Harvey said, “which is good, because I never have a super-fast start. You don’t need to be quick—you need to be powerful and glide well.”
He was also aided by a finishing straight that went on forever—basically giving a shot to any athlete still in contact with the leaders when each heat rounded the final corner.
In his quarterfinal, Harvey moved up from sixth to third on the last climb, and exploded on the homestretch to win the heat; he pulled a similar maneuver in his semi.
In the finals, he was stacked up against Northug and Joensson for the first time, and again, Harvey was at the back—all the way until the last descent. There, he managed to get the inside lane, and came around into the homestretch in third, behind Joensson and Martti Jylhae (FIN).
Jylhae faded to fifth. But Joensson, after fading on a similarly eternal homestretch in his last sprint in Estonia, had the staying power this time, holding off a hard-charging Harvey, as Northug was consigned to third place for the second straight day.
Just like last season, Joensson seems to be on form for the major championship of the year—he was dominating in the tune-up sprint in Canmore before the 2010 Olympics.
At those Games, though, he choked, failing to escape from the semifinals. And even after his performance Sunday, Joensson still said that he knows that medaling in Thursday’s World Championships sprint will be tough—especially with the top Norwegians and Russians opting to rest rather than race in Drammen.
“Any Norwegian can win,” he said in the press conference. “They have five great guys…it’s going to be the toughest race to win, I think. You just have to have a good day, and have a bit of luck.”
While Joensson will go in as the favorite in Oslo, Harvey, too, appears to have at least a shot at a sprint medal now.
He maintained that his best chances are still in the team sprint, the 50 k freestyle, and the 30 k pursuit, but he said that Sunday’s result means that he’ll have another podium opportunity at the championships—removing some of the pressure from the other events. And, he added, the result in Drammen is a sign that he has the closing speed for those longer races.
“It’s good to be finishing fast in skating,” he said, “because the 30 k and the 50 k are skating [the last leg of the pursuit is freestyle]. It’s going to be sprint finishes for the win, for the podium, for sure.”
The Canadians had a spectacular Olympics last year, but they still left their home games without a medal in cross-country skiing. Now, Harvey said, the squad is looking for hardware.
“This year, we want to be on the podium. It doesn’t necessarily have to be me, but we want a Canadian medal,” he said. “There’s only three guys per day that are going to get medals. But, I mean, I think every race I’ll enter, I think there’s a good shot at being on the top 10, top five.”
Newell’s Woes Continue; Kershaw Struggles As Well
If Harvey broke through on Sunday, Newell continues to run into a wall in the quarterfinals.
In seven World Cup sprints this year, he’s qualified in the top 10 all but once—including four times in the top five. But out of those seven starts, he’s made it through to the finals just once, in his first sprint of the year back in November.
In Drammen, the story was the same, even though he said he felt “pretty good.” After qualifying third and controlling his heat early, Newell couldn’t hold on and was passed on the homestretch by Italy’s Renato Pasini and Japan’s Yuichi Onda.
“I just couldn’t quite do it at the end, I guess,” he said. “At least now I get to rest up. I’m ready—I’ve been feeling good during training, and everything.”
Newell’s struggles in the heats are lost on few people: even the Swedish stadium announcer in Drammen noted the trend on Sunday. Grover, the U.S. head coach, said that the problems simply come down fitness.
“I think, for whatever reason, there’s been periods where he’s just not absorving the training very well,” he said. “I know that he feels like he’s just not in his peak form, for whatever reason.”
Still, Grover said, Newell typically struggles in his first few efforts after traveling to Europe.
“He’s dealing with that transition again… a few more days, a little bit more acclimating, I think might be the ticket for him,” he said. “His attitude’s been really good. He’s frustrated, because he’s knows that there’s more in there, but he’s staying loose.”
At least Newell qualified. Kershaw, the Canadian, was 48th, and didn’t even crack the heats—a tough result to swallow given that he won a skate sprint at the Tour de Ski in January.
After the qualifier, he said he didn’t know what went wrong. But Wadsworth, his coach, said that Kershaw was merely “a little flat right now.”
“This is something we would experience in the past, too,” he said. “With Devon, I’m still 100 percent confident…We just need to find the right balance between training and rest.”
Kershaw, Wadsworth said, will do one more hard session between now and the World Championships sprint on Thursday, likely on Tuesday. He’ll no doubt be doing plenty of mental rehashing of the weekend—his 26th-place performance in Saturday’s 15 k classic wasn’t up to his standards either—but Kershaw has a reputation for using drama as fuel.
“It definitely doesn’t hurt,” Wadsworth said.
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.