At just 22 years old, Canadian Alex Harvey is already in possession of a World Championships gold medal, thanks to his victory in Wednesday’s team sprint—something his father, legendary skier-cyclist Pierre Harvey, never earned in his career.
But the younger Harvey will have to wait at least one more year to equal Pierre’s 1988 win in the prestigious Holmenkollen 50 k. In Sunday’s 50 k freestyle at the storied venue in Oslo—the final event of the 2011 World Ski Championships—Harvey was fifth, just two seconds from a bronze medal, and less than 10 from gold.
After skiing with the leaders through 49 kilometers, Harvey ran out of gas when Russian Maxim Vylegzhanin broke open the whittled-down lead group of eight men, with an attack on the course’s last big climb.
But to say that Harvey faltered is kind of like saying Vylegzhanin’s attack was a failure. (It netted the Russian a silver medal.) At the end of the day, Harvey had still beaten all but four of the starters out of an 82-man field.
“It’s not skis, [or] luck—it was just the last hill. I had snow in front of me. I had some room. I gave everything I had—I just didn’t have it,” Harvey said. “But it’s still fifth—I’m happy, and it’s an amazing championship.”
Ivan Babikov was the only other Canadian finisher, in 17th—he was Harvey’s only teammate on Sunday, after Devon Kershaw came down sick. While Babikov looked strong throughout the day, even leading at one point in the race’s latter stages, he was felled by cramps after a bad feed in the closing kilometers.
Harvey, though, showed few signs of fatigue until the finale. He ended up on the wrong side of a few splits, but was always able to get back to the leaders—and usually thanks to someone else doing the work.
“Tactically, and technically, it was perfect,” Harvey said.
There was no question the Canadian was gunning for a medal on Sunday, and after his performances over the last month—helping the Canadians to the team sprint win here, and a second place in the tune-up individual sprint just before World Championships—he was listed as among the favorites. But afterwards, he said that the cards were stacked against him from the start.
First, he broke a pole early on, and had to burn some matches to get back into position in the pack. (It also took him a couple of replacements before he found a suitable one; he ended up with a brand new pair of poles halfway through the race.)
Then, as the race continued, Harvey had to deal with a bigger challenge: the course just didn’t suit him.
The loop skied by the men featured a huge climb—Tord-Asle Gjerdalen, who was third on the day, called it “the hardest course in the whole circus of the World Cup.” And the steeps are not Harvey’s forte, especially in freestyle technique.
“I could not have done any better than that today. It’s just offset [V1], I’m not there yet. I was hurting so bad on the big climbs,” he said. “It’s such a hard course—I don’t have the engine for that.”
Babikov, on the other hand, has one of the best engines in sport, and the climbs on the Oslo course were perfect for him. His muscles just wouldn’t cooperate.
He made one of the final selections over the top of the biggest ascent, and was with the lead group of 20 men until roughly five kilometers to go, when his legs cramped. He blamed the problem on a bad feed that he took at the top of the course—it was too cold.
“I can’t take the cold stuff. It just goes to my legs right away—I get cramps,” Babikov said. “They gave me, I think, Alex’s Coke, and I think it was too cold for me.”
With the Oslo championships wrapped up—complete with the team sprint gold—the Canadians will now move on to Lahti, Finland, for the next stop on the World Cup circuit. These guys don’t get much of a break—the first race in Lahti is a pursuit this coming Saturday.
According to Justin Wadsworth, the team’s head coach, Canada will have five men in Finland: four from the World Championships team in Kershaw, Harvey, Babikov, and Len Valjas, along with Continental Cup leader Graham Nishikawa, whose transportation and lodging are paid for by organizers.
As for women, Dasha Gaiazova and Chandra Crawford will continue on, along with Continental Cup leader Perianne Jones, all three of whom were in Oslo.
There’s a lot on the line for the Canadians in Lahti, since only the athletes in the top 50 of the season ranking go on from there to the World Cup Finals, in Sweden.
Kershaw and Harvey are in, but for Babikov, Wadsworth said, it will be “a stretch, at this point.”
Gaiazova is also on the edge, but her chances are better, while Crawford has an outside spot. As the Continental Cup leaders, Jones and Nishikiawa will both get starts.
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.