CANMORE, Alberta – A lot can happen in a four-lap mass start around the Canmore Nordic Centre. Just ask American Andy Newell, who collided with Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby at the end of the first lap. Or Newell’s teammate Noah Hoffman, who worked his way from 30th to lead halfway through, then faded back to 22nd.
Add two sprint bonuses to the mix and you’ve got one unforgiving 15-kilometer classic race on arguably the toughest courses on the World Cup circuit. Having a bad day? Good luck.
Alex Harvey thought just that as he warmed up Thursday. The top Canadian at last weekend’s Québec World Cup sprints in 21st, Harvey had less pressure riding on him in Canmore, but was still hoping to perform after a less-than-satisfactory start to his season.
But in training, he just wasn’t feeling it. Four days after arriving in Canmore, about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level, he was still trying to transition from the 70-meter-high sprint course in Québec City.
“It’s either the third or the fourth day that it really hits you at altitude,” Harvey said. “I guess for me it was the fourth day.”
Regardless, he put himself in position to contend and hung on to finish a season best 11th on Thursday. It wasn’t easy to do in Canmore, and he thought hard about his strategy beforehand.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna have to ski smart the first couple laps, kind of drift a bit on the uphills, let other guys go by me and then work my way back in the group on the flats,’ which is what I did,” Harvey said. “I think it paid in the end. First time up the incline I was feeling pretty tired already.”
Just 20.2 seconds back from the winner, Tim Tscharnke of Germany (who won in 41:14.8), Harvey had started in bib 17 and stayed patient while hanging around the top 10. He followed the lead of teammate Ivan Babikov, who pushed hard out of the start with the first seeded group. The two skied together early in the race and remained within the top 20 for most of it.
Meanwhile, Newell worked his way toward the front of the first lap right behind Babikov, but fell out of contention on the downhill into the stadium. Harvey continued to pace himself while several others blew up.
“Coming from sea level, it felt really fast. It felt hard,” Harvey said. “It was really painful the whole way … [but] I think the body needed a hard workout. We didn’t do any intensity workouts since Québec just because it was a such a short time between the races. Still, 11th is my best race of the season so I’m happier.”
Another North American notching a season best, U.S Ski Team veteran Kris Freeman (Maine Winter Sports Center) tallied 14th, 33.9 seconds back, for his top Canmore World Cup finish (he was 18th in a 15 k skate in 2005).
After skiing within or close to the top 10, the 32-year-old Freeman dropped off the pace slightly on the last gradual uphill. He had worked hard to get his own track and contend with the leaders, and had little energy left on the multi-tiered climb.
“I hate saying that it’s still early in the season; hopefully that last gear will come around,” Freeman said. “The good news is I blew up with two k to go and only dropped from 10th to 14th so that’s OK, I guess.”
Without an individual top 30 this season before Thursday, Freeman said this result was a good sign.
“It was … important to get in the top 15 today and prove to myself that I belong here and get some confidence rolling,” he said. “It’s a solid race. I would’ve loved to have been able to hang with the leaders, but just that last little bit wasn’t there.”
U.S. head coach Chris Grover said the team didn’t have its best day Thursday, but several athletes scored individual victories: Hoffman (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown) learned what it was like to lead a World Cup and Erik Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University) tallied his top individual result in 36th.
“I’m proud of him for regrouping,” Grover said of Hoffman, who lost contact with the leaders after the first sprint bonus around 6 k. “He was definitely hurting on the third lap, but he pulled it back together and hung on for quite a good finish. That was great for him and nice to see Freeman kind of back in the mix. Really excited also to see Erik Bjornsen having a strong race for a young guy. He’s going to be one to watch for the future.”
While Hoffman was disappointed with his result, stating “I just blew to pieces the third time up the big hill,” he wouldn’t have changed much except maybe letting a few guys go ahead for the preem rather than try to stick with them.
“I spent what I had too early,” Hoffman said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bjornsen smiled broadly after racing for the first time Canmore. He said he struggled on the third lap, but caught a second wind on the fourth.
“I was super excited my first couple laps, skiing with the group and stuff and feeling comfortable,” he said. “They kind of made a kick at the top of the hill for the BMW points and I think that’s kind of where I dropped off.”
Regardless, he skied with and passed iconic skiers like Maurice Manificat of France (who started in the first group in bib 4 and ended up 44th).
“It was just fun to ski with some World Cup guys,” Bjornsen said. “Saw Manificat in the group and I said, ‘All right, I’m tucking behind this guy,’ so I skied behind him for a lap, like, this is nuts. It was a blast.”
Canadians Make Progress
Among the more seasoned racers closer to the front, Canadian Devon Kershaw wasn’t particularly pleased with placing 17th. On the flip side, his all-time best in Canmore was 16th, he said.
“I know this course like the back of my hand, but man, it smacks me pretty good every time I race here,” Kershaw said. “I’ve just never been able to translate it to a great race.
“I gave it everything I could and that’s all you can do,” he added. “Am I happy with 17th? Absolutely not. This is my favorite race, 15 k classic, and I wanted to feel better than that today.”
A hefty amount of racing and traveling had taken its toll on Kershaw, and he was looking forward to getting away for two weeks of distance training in Europe before the Tour de Ski.
“It’s an energy drain for sure to race at home, but at the same time, I’d rather be here than northern Scandinavia where it’s not even light, quotation marks, for three hours a day,” Kershaw said. “It’s a beautiful place to race and a beautiful place to come home to.”
Babikov, who was 20th (+59.1) said he lost contact with the group around the same time Hoffman charged for the bonus (where Hoffman was fourth for eight bonus points). Before that, Babikov said he felt good on the first and second laps. His body just didnt’ respond at the end.
“It’s just the beginning of the season or the third weekend,” Babikov said. “For now it’s just a matter of the shape, who’s where, like who’s feeling what, and we just try to ski smooth. Just trying to relax and ski in the points.”
Not far behind, Canadian sprinter Lenny Valjas notched a notable distance result in 24th (+1:20.5). It was his first race without wearing a cast for his injured hand, and he said he felt great.
“It was a tough course, tough day, but I am happy with the result,” Valjas said. For this weekend, that’s it for distance races. He’ll do the freestyle sprint on Saturday but skip the 30 k skiathlon on Sunday.
“I will be watching and cheering,” Valjas said. “Too long for me.”
As for what happened to Newell, who placed 59th of 63, he explained the poorly timed pile up.
“I was feeling great for the first part if the race and somehow moved up into the top 3 or 4 without even trying too hard,” he wrote in an email. “Martin Sundby just kind of jumped in front if me on the big downhill into the stadium and we had a long slide together and hit really tangled up. So we went from the top few skiers to the very back and lost a ton if time.
“We both tried to catch back up and ski back to the pack but it was tough to bridge the gap,” he added. “In the end Sundby ended up pulling the plug. I tried to hang in there and ski it in the last two laps but was not moving quickly.”
Canadian Jesse Cockney (Alberta World Cup Academy) said he’d put this race far behind him after placing 63rd. His teammate Graham Nishikawa called it downright hard after placing 38th (+2:22.7).
“I tried to hang with the lead group for as long as possible, but blew up on the third lap,” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “Overall I am happy, I went for it.”
Other top Canadians include Kevin Sandau (39th), Graeme Killick (40th), David Greer (47th) and Brian McKeever (49th). Tad Elliott was 46th for the U.S. men and David Norris (Montana State University) placed 48th to make the top 50.
— Topher Sabot and Gerry Furseth contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.