While athletes from Norway, Sweden and Russia compete against their own teammates for spots on their respective Olympic teams, Canada’s four prequalified men are biding their time and focusing on rest and recovery. That’s according to Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth, who was pleased with Alex Harvey’s 16th-place finish in the men’s World Cup 15 kilometer classic race in Lillehammer, Norway, on Saturday.
“We skied a good race today. It was a solid effort and pretty good results so that’s going in the right direction,” Wadsworth said of his men’s team, which placed 16th, 35th, 56th with Harvey, Ivan Babikov, and Devon Kershaw, respectively. Last year’s NorAm winner, Jess Cockney, of the Alberta World Cup Academy and Canadian Senior National Team, placed and 68th, getting closer to the kind of result he needs to prequalify for the 2014 Sochi Games.
The first Canadian to do so this season, Harvey cracked the top 20 in 35:50.2 minutes, just over 50 seconds behind Norwegian race winner Pål Golberg.
About 4 1/2 seconds outside the top 30, Babikov placed 35th, 26.6 seconds after Harvey
“Ivan was close to the points and it was pretty tight,” Wadsworth said. “I think more seconds would have moved him up into 27th or 28th or somewhere in there so that was not a bad effort on his part.”
Of the 15 who finished faster than Harvey, half were Norwegians, the other half were skiing for either Sweden or Russia. Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin put himself in the mix in second, 14.2 seconds behind Golberg.
“You can look at the results for Alex and you take away from people, like the Norwegians and there’s not that many countries ahead of him,” Wadsworth said.
Both Harvey and Babikov said it was a packed course, three times around the 5 k loop, but Harvey didn’t mind the company or the competition. Fifteen seconds before Harvey started, Russia’s Stanislav Volzhentsev, who ended up 15th, lapped through. Recognizing him as a strong classic skier who placed fourth in the 15 k at 2011 World Championships, Harvey latched on, skiing with him for the rest of Harvey’s first lap and the beginning of his second.
Harvey spent much of the rest of the race skiing with Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, who picked him up just like he had done with Volzhentsev, on lap two and Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic on his third lap. Bauer stayed with Harvey and Heikkinen for about two kilometres, then took over and dropped them, Harvey said.
“I was kind of starting to feel the burn there, so I think for [Bauer] trying to put a burst to drop us kind of killed him a bit because it was early in the race for him,” Harvey said.
Heikkinen ended up 17th, 3.7 seconds behind Harvey, and Bauer placed 19th, another 1.8 seconds back.
Despite having a solid race on it, Harvey didn’t exactly prefer the course, known for its steep climbs and high-speed descents. It’s not the downhills Harvey has trouble with, however. His back has been known to bother him with classic climbing.
“When I first saw it on Thursday, I was pretty intimidated,” Harvey said. “Even [on Friday], I felt good skiing, but it’s not the type of course that I like personally with so much climbing and no flats at all.”
“Two years ago in Lahti, I dropped out after the classic portion because there was so much striding and it was kind of jamming my back a bit so today, I tried to stay relaxed and the work we’ve done this summer,” he added. “It’s early in the season to say that, but it looks like it’s paying off with stability and everything and even [afterwards], my back is not tired.”
After pacing it relatively well, Babikov said he felt a little tired toward the end of his race.
“I checked the times and I lost a bit on the finish on that last lap at the end,” Babikov said. “But I felt like I had good kick and good energy and I was going as hard as I could. Energy-wise, it was good, I’m pretty satisfied.”
But Babikov said he didn’t recover well after last weekend’s races in Kuusamo, Finland, so he is looking to rest over the next few days.
“Last week, I felt really good in the [10 k classic],” he said of his 28th-place finish on Nov. 30. “But then the next day [in the pursuit], I did not feel good at all. My legs were really heavy. I didn’t have time to recover after that so it was kind of surprising. I’m back in the same feeling today, so hopefully I will have more recovery.”
According to Wadsworth, other teammates will also focus on some quality R & R, including Kershaw, who Wadsworth said is not at the top of his game just yet.
“I know where Devon’s training has been all year and he’s super fit and he needs some rest to kind of bring it out,” he said.
In an email, Kershaw wrote that Saturday’s effort was not his strongest, finishing 2:03.7 after the winner.
“The race today though was another stink-bomb. I am a notoriously slow starter in seasons, but nothing like this (usually),” Kershaw wrote. “That said, I did design and train a certain way, not doing any pre-World Cup races for example before Kuusamo and putting another small 10-day block of moderate altitude in Davos with solid amounts of training load going into the season, so I shouldn’t be too shocked.”
“Still, I am not used to getting rocked this hard, especially on striding-heavy classic courses,” he added. “I really feel as though it might take me all the way until the Tour to find any mo-jo. I hope I’m wrong, but facts are facts.”
He attributed his recent race performances to where he is in his training.
“I had been feeling quite tired and muscularly loaded from the big block of training I did both in Val Senales and the 10-day training camp in Davos, where I pushed the training as well,” he explained. “I’ve known all along that I wasn’t going to light the world on fire early in the year, but I must say that Kuusamo was a major disappointment.”
In three races, Kershaw did not crack the top 60 last weekend. On Friday, the day before the first Lillehammer race, he wrote he felt “OK for the first time in weeks. I thought it could translate into some better feelings out on the race course, but it turns out it’s going to take more time to feel somewhat normal.”
But Wadsworth wasn’t expecting his squad to claim top spots in what is only the second weekend of World Cup racing.
“Devon started out well the first 5 k. I think he was like two seconds behind Alex and just started feeling not super good,” he said. “I know he’s really frustrated but he did a lot in the last five or six weeks.”
Wadsworth pointed out that this season also culminates with the Olympics in February, which can be challenging for small teams like Canada’s.
“You go in every weekend wanting your team to do well,” he said. “For our guys, no one has to qualify for anything so we’re going up against a lot of countries where people are really gunning for their Olympic spots.”
Wadsworth said he sees the same kind of thing happen every four years.
“I told the guys three or four weeks ago when we made the plan ‘Look, it’s gonna be hard to come in now when everyone else is really, really going fast,’ but you have to know how these years go and and its pretty vicious to be in that kind of a circle when you’re not in top shape.”
Wadsworth said there’s still plenty of skiing left this season and thinks Cockney is due for a strong showing.
“He’s been skiing pretty well; he hasn’t been totally out of his league in these races,” Wadsworth said. “He probably would have won a race in the NorAms in Canada at the pace he was skiing [today] and he looked pretty good so I think he’s getting some hard efforts under his belt now and he’s really going to be gunning for the sprints in Davos, which really suits him well.” he said.
In an email, Cockney explained he took the past week “pretty easy” in training after a tiring mini tour in Finland, where he placed 94th overall.
“I was relaxed off the start but I was really ragged skiing my last lap and a half as I was trying to push to hang on to some of the later starters,” Cockney wrote. “I’m not happy with the result but I feel like my body is responding well to the increase in speed and I’m hoping for big things the next two weekends with the sprint races in Switzerland and Italy.”
But there’s still another day of racing left in Lillehammer before teams head to Switzerland. The Canadians will field a men’s 4 x 7.5 relay on Sunday, with Lenny Valjas skiing the opening classic leg, Harvey racing second, Babikov skating in third, and Kershaw closing with the final skate leg.
“My real hope is [Valjas has] enough to keep us in the game, within 30 seconds or so of the lead and maybe he’ll surprise us and do even better than that,” Wadsworth said. “He’s been training pretty solid and getting some intensity sessions in.”
Harvey said the course should be perfect for Babikov: “I think it’s only climbs.”
And Harvey and Kershaw are switching their traditional relay roles.
“We think sometimes with the second and third leg, people go really, really hard,” Harvey explained.
Kershaw admitted some nerves: “I will anchor for the first time ever and the course has no flats on it at all really, which is my strength in skating, so with how I’ve been feeling and racing, I don’t expect much out of myself.”
He added that he’s committed to his team and putting “forth the best I can out of myself and then some (because it’s a relay). That’s all I can ask. But I can admit I am intimidated to skate on these hills. They’re not exactly short or gradual,” he wrote.
The Canadian women did not compete in Saturday’s distance races, but Dasha Gaiazova won a FIS Scandic Cup skate sprint in Östersund, Sweden, and Chandra Crawford placed fifth.
“Fun racing in a chill Swedish Cup, especially when I get a chance to practice winning :)” Gaiazova tweeted.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Emily Schwing is a public radio reporter in Interior, AK. She normally writes about athletes of the four-legged kind. When she's not chasing dog teams, skiers and local news, she's breaking trail on her rock skis with a dog name Ghost. Follow her on Twitter @emilyschwing