MONT SAINTE-ANNE, Québec – Alex Harvey had no idea what he was in for. Or maybe he did.
Fourteen hours after he and several other Canadian National Team members stepped off a plane in Québec City and concluded a 32-hour trip back from the World Cup Finals in Sweden, Harvey was back in his native Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Québec, preparing to race again.
If it had been up to Harvey, he would have slept in a little later. His mom woke him up with a kiss on the cheek at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday before she left for work. Regardless, he was pretty excited about his his first day at Canadian Ski Nationals, hosted by his Club Nordique Monte St. Anne.
The 23-year-old generated about as much hype as one can expect at a cross-country ski race in North America. Several news outlets flocked to the Quebec City International Airport at 10:30 Monday night to see Harvey and his celebrated teammates, including overall World Cup runner-up Devon Kershaw and Lenny Valjas.
Late Wednesday morning, Harvey’s fans followed him to the trails where he warmed up. They asked for his autograph, snapped photos and showered Kershaw with attention as well.
After both finished Wednesday’s 15-kilometer freestyle individual start, Harvey and Kershaw hardly made it out of the finish pen. Sweaty and spent after racing in nearly 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), both found they were even more sought after as two of the top finishers.
Harvey crushed his competition with the help of resounding cheers every time he skied through the stadium, winning the three-lap race in 40:54.1. His World Cup teammate, Ivan Babikov was second, 32.9 seconds back, and Kershaw finished third (+1:44.8).
“It was hard,” Harvey said of the combination of travel, lack of sleep and challenging snow conditions on Tuesday. “I talked with Devon after the race. It might have been the hardest race of the season for both of us. It was so slow out there.”
Harvey pulled through by pushing hard from the start. Five kilometers in, he led by 18.6 seconds over Babikov, Tuesday’s 10 k classic champion. Kershaw was 19.7 seconds back in third, affirming that the local hero was truly on a roll.
He kept up the pace through the second lap, coming into the stadium 11.7 seconds ahead of Babikov. Kershaw was still in third, but nearly 52 seconds back.
“I didn’t know how it was going to be here,” Harvey said, referring to his recent highs, including a World Cup Finals victory in Falun, as well as some of the lows this season.
“It ended up being good and with the fans, the crowd, just everybody being so psyched. I didn’t have a choice to ski fast or not,” he said.
Just minutes before his race, Harvey spoke to a group of young children in French. They sent him off with a chant that echoed around the stadium throughout the afternoon: “Ahh-lex! Ahh-lex!”
“They had banners and singing songs so it was really special to see all these 8-year-olds just having the best time,” Harvey said. “It motivated me for the win, for sure.”
Kershaw said the homecoming experience was humbling. Seeing how famous Harvey was in Québec and how excited people got about him, the team and the sport, was great for cross-country skiing, he said.
It also made Harvey that much harder to outdo.
“There was no chance I was going to beat Alex today,” Kershaw said.
With a tendency to open hard in races, especially individual starts, Kershaw discovered he was six seconds down on Harvey about 2 or 3 kilometers in.
“He closes way harder than me so the victory was going to be Alex’s, absolutely,” Kershaw added.
While skating in soft conditions wasn’t his specialty, Kershaw said he felt good until about 7 k, where he broke a pole. The handle ripped off and he skied the next kilometer without a pole.
“There was nobody out there; it’s not the World Cup,” he laughed.
When he did get a pole, it was 140-centimeters long, which was about 20 centimeters too short. He found better replacement soon after and finished the race with a 157 ½.
“It was a real struggle today and the conditions were really hard,” Kershaw said. “It’s kind of frustrating for some bad luck to happen, but the World Cup season’s over so let’s not get too greedy.”
Babikov was happy with his result considering he started ahead of Kershaw, Harvey and nearly 160 others in the men’s open race.
“I was just trying to ski my race, ski strong throughout the whole three laps,” Babikov said. “It was really hard to do because it’s so soft and it was hard to pole. It didn’t matter if you had poles or no poles.”
He was impressed with his teammates’ performances after one long day of travel.
Upon leaving Falun, Sweden, at 2 a.m. on Monday, they flew to Frankfurt, where their flight to Canada was delayed. Once in Montreal, the men’s and women’s national team members found they had five hours to kill because of a missed connection. Harvey said they enjoyed some St-Hubert Chicken for a pre-race meal and arrived in Québec City around 10:30 p.m.
By the time Harvey fell asleep, he said it was 6 a.m. Falun time.
While he and the rest of the national team planned to recover for Thursday’s sprints, recently moved from Québec City’s Plains of Abraham to Mont Sainte-Anne, several outsiders to Canadian cross-country were also looking forward to the competitive sprint day.
Canadian biathlete and World Championships team member Marc-André Bédard was encouraged by his performance in Tuesday’s 15 k, where he placed fourth (+2:25.7) despite starting nearly 45 minutes after the frontrunners. Because he and several other biathletes didn’t have FIS points, they were seeded near last.
“What was really hard was to pass people all race,” Bédard said. “It felt like I said ‘track’ 200 times today.”
Without any splits throughout the race, he had no idea where he stood or where he finished for several minutes after the race.
“I had no expectations … I was hoping to be in the top 20, top 30, it’s hard to say,” he said. “I’m really tired, too. I wanted to have fun and I’m really happy with the result.”
Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre athletes David Greer and Brent McMurtry placed fifth and sixth, respectively. Baptiste Gros of France was seventh and Erik Carleton (Rocky Mountain Racers/National Para-Nordic Team) finished eighth before catching a flight to Finland with Brian McKeever for the IPC World Cup on Thursday.
Michael Somppi (Thunder Bay National Development Centre/NST) was ninth and Kevin Sandau (Alberta World Cup Academy/NST), who flew in with the national team Tuesday night, was 10th.
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Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.
March 21, 2012 at 3:46 pm
I think it’s great the Canadian National team actual competes at their National Championships unlike their neighbors to the south. Amazing skiing on their part.
March 22, 2012 at 12:14 am
Cut the USST folks some slack. It’s not their fault that US nationals are scheduled at the same time as the tour de ski and in the middle of the world cup season. If Canadian nationals were at the same time you wouldn’t see any of their top skiers there either. Aside from the risk of getting sick due to the additional travel the Tour de Ski offers a much bigger potential for earning prize money (read salary) than US nationals.
March 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm
There’s almost too much to say here. But I will throw out a few tidbits.
In the first place, the USST has the biggest influence in scheduling the Nationals and any other major races in the US. So, if they schedule our Nationals to conflict with the TDS, there is probably a reason. Ask them.
Next, our participation at the TDS has been minimal, especially during the first few years. We simply have not had the skiers to compete until very recently, and then there have not been many entrants and very few finish the full course.
Yes, it is tough to have a country’s national championships with the big guns absent. Seeing the welcome the Canadians just now got for entering their championships, under trying circumstances, could be a lesson for the US.
March 23, 2012 at 8:42 pm
Caldwell – thanks for expanding what I was trying to say in one sentence. US Nationals are lame compared to Canadian. At least since USSA has changed to their modern championship selection system.
March 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm
I think perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, I was referring to the USST athletes not the entire USST/USSA entity, I’m very aware of who controls our race calendar. I would love to see our top skiers race at nationals every year as well. Also as far as I can recall nearly all of the healthy members of the national team who weren’t racing the TDS have been at nationals the past few years.
March 28, 2012 at 8:12 am
Just so people are aware, only this year has the CCCski championship been pushed ahead so that we could welcome our national team. Yes it is later in the year but it took tremendous courage for these guys to fly out to Quebec at the last minute. At least Alex slept in his bed. Devon was so devoted to this, it was amazing ! However, this does not happen every year. Chandra and Lenny were there last year, most of the crew was still on WC schedule.
Don’t expect the same crazyness when the show goes to Newfoundland…
But yes, your schedule and sprint qualification is pretty crazy. To me, the spring series is where its at for the US.
The vibe in QC was amazing but the conditions at Craftsbury are also miraculous.
March 28, 2012 at 8:15 am
BTW I think CCCSki should give a two year award for nationals, 2 years in Canmore and 2 years in QC, then have a new spot. Some of the spots in the past years have been disasters… Duntroon anyone ? Going to Newfoundland is gong to bust our budgets big time, they should also seriously look at that… The racing costs in Canada are EXPLODING ! Expect a few clubs to head out south next year if things deteriorate…