QUEBEC CITY – With every passing lap that Alex Harvey led or was close to the front of the World Cup freestyle team-sprint final on Friday, fans lining the 800-meter course squealed with excitement. This was what they had bargained for; their 24-year-old Canadian National Team prodigy from nearby Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges was going for the win.
It didn’t look like anything could stop him. But it’s what you don’t see that trips you up.
Throughout the races, with each competitor covering 1.6 kilometers at a time and alternating for three legs apiece, announcers served as the eyes for ground-level spectators scattered around the course. A not-so-hot exchange put Harvey’s teammate, Devon Kershaw, toward the back of the pack at the start of has last two laps, but Kershaw clawed back into contention by the final exchange.
Harvey shot out of the tag zone in fifth behind Russians Nikolay Morilov and Alexey Petukhov, Sweden’s Emil Jönsson and Norwegian Eirik Brandsdal. With two laps to go, the Canadian was going for first. The French announcer narrated excitedly as Harvey moved up behind Jönsson, but then something else happened, which initially confused those that didn’t speak Quebec’s native language.
The names Jönsson and Harvey stood out.
Within seconds, it became apparent that Harvey lost contact with the group as he started the final lap in seventh. Jönsson had tripped on the gradual uphill in the middle of the curving course and Harvey couldn’t avoid him as he rounded the turn close behind.
“I think he got tangled up with one of the Russian guys,” Harvey said. “I went around him on the right and then my ski got caught on the fence. I tried to come back as fast and efficiently as possible, not rush too much, but just ski fast and come back. … It’s frustrating to crash but it’s part of the city sprints, I guess.”
In the end, Harvey finished fifth. It wasn’t what he and Kershaw had hoped for and definitely not what they envisioned, but it was sprint racing.
“Especially city sprints like that, luck is a big part of it,” he said. “We got lucky in the semifinal and hopefully we’ll get lucky again tomorrow.”
Harvey and Kershaw won their semifinal ahead of Norway’s first and second teams in second and fourth, respectively. Russia’s second team with Morilov and Gleb Retivykh was third, and the second Canadian team with national-team member Lenny Valjas and Jesse Cockney of the Alberta World Cup Academy advanced in fifth.
Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth was glad to have this race out of the way for his athletes, referring to the pressure that might have come into play.
“Maybe it’ll take the pressure off for tomorrow a little bit,” Wadsworth said of Saturday’s individual freestyle sprint. “I think there was so much expectations, especially for Alex. To have something like this to happen, it just shows you can not win the race and still you live another day.”
Kershaw said it was a good sign that he felt better as the day wore on, but the pace was also slower in the final, he said. His last leg started a bit rough when a few racers stood up in front of Harvey as he entered the tag zone. The Canadians dropped four spots and were unable to completely recover. Their final exchange wasn’t great, either.
“We had such great exchanges in our semi and I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re so good at exchanges,’ and then we got cut off a little bit by a Russian team after my second lap and that really cost us,” Kershaw said. “It put Alex too far back and then what are the chances Emil Jönsson crashes? … We were right in the mix when [Alex] crashed, but you just can’t crash. To me, him, anybody, it’s hard to get back in it.”
Kershaw expected things to go much better for them Saturday.
“Frick, Alex is in ridiculous shape,” he said. “Do you know how pissed he’s gonna be? Especially getting taken down when it’s not his fault. Tomorrow I think he’ll be on the podium for sure. He’s skiing really well.
“There’s no hiding it,” he added. “Every team in that final wanted to win and we really wanted to win because this Alex’s hometown and he’s such a big deal here, but he’ll win tomorrow.”
Wadsworth isn’t worried, referring to World Championships as the ultimate goal. Also, Valjas, who’s coming off a broken hand, made the final with a teammate in his first World Cup team sprint. They finished 10th after Cockney made a big push to get in the mix after running between eighth and 10th, but ran out of steam and fell on his second-to-last lap.
“The first two laps felt relaxed and calm and then I thought, ‘Well, I might as well go now,’ because there weren’t many opportunities to make a move,” the 23-year-old Cockney said. “So I ended up making up ground on two or three people on the first 200 meters or so and then it kind of disintegrated over the last tour of the loop again.”
Just before the biggest bump on the course, he crashed alone and lost all his momentum.
“I had to ski up the jump and it was so slow,” Cockney said. “The video’s gonna be hilarious so I can’t wait to see that.”
With a top 10 behind them, Cockney and Valjas said they felt confident going into Saturday. The softening sugary conditions benefited Valjas, who said it was easier on his hand.
“I wasn’t sure how the jet lag would feel, but I felt great out there,” Valjas said after flying with the team from Finland on Monday. “Looks like everyone else was feeling OK, too. The pace was fast all day, but I wanted to make the final. So we gave it a good shot and I’m totally content with today.”
— Nat Herz 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.