Consistent improvement is the theme of Canadian Alex Harvey’s 2013/2014 racing season. Glancing at his results from the beginning of the season in November, a series of 30’s and 40’s scatter the page. When you look at the last few weeks, however, he’s been consistently in the top ten.
The upward trend has continued in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, where he claimed victory in the World Cup freestyle sprint.
The victory marks a first for the Quebec native. Despite the fact that Harvey has a world championship in the team sprint under his belt from 2011 with Devon Kershaw, and has claimed multiple stage World Cup victories, Saturday’s win marks the first time the 25-year-old has sat atop the podium in an individual World Cup race.
To earn his victory, Harvey bested Josef Wenzl of Germany and Baptiste Gros of France, who placed second and third. Frenchman Cyrill Gaillard and Martin Jaeger of Switzerland rounded out the top five.
The 1.5 k course in Szklarska Preba was fast and icy, making for a dangerous day. In a men’s race filled with sprint specialists, the heats were bound to tight. Racers not only had to maneuver the tactics of the pack, but also had to stay on their feet.
Despite the hazardous conditions, Harvey knew that he had the fitness to take it all the way. All he need to do was get into the front to stay away from the messy fray the ensued behind him.
“The conditions were getting icy and a little dangerous so I knew I had to get out in front. I wasn’t afraid of being tired because I knew I was in great shape so my tactic was to stay out in front today. I had no choice,” said Harvey in a press release.
While Harvey was able to get out in front in the A-final, he was not as fortunate in his semifinal. After a relaxed start he found himself at the back of the pack, unable to maneuver to the front. Going around the last corner into the finish he was stuck behind the three skiers in front of him.
In an attempt to get around them he swerved into an adjacent lane. The move did him no good, as he finished fourth in the semifinal, two spots away from automatic qualification. Fortunately for Harvey, his semifinal heat was faster that the second and he was able to advance to the A-final as lucky looser.
Justin Wadsworth, Canadian Head Coach, believed that Harvey’s ability to learn is what earned him a spot on the podium today.
“He (Harvey) is really good tactically and he learns from his mistakes. In the semifinal, he saw he got out and had a slow start and didn’t fight for a position and was caught in the back of the group the whole way,” Wadsworth said in an interview. “He easily could have given up a position or two out of the start but he really pushed hard on the side to move up.”
From the start, Harvey went head-to-head with Gros on the only climb of the course. The Frenchman gained a slight gap, but Harvey knew that he didn’t need to worry as he had some of the fastest skis on the course.
“Alex knew that the skis were super fast. Everyone said we had the fastest skis out there; us and the U.S.,” said Wadsworth. “You need those kind of skis on those fast downhill finishes.”
Coming into the finish, Harvey and Wenzl sped past Gros and rocketed into the stadium. Harvey gained the lead, and Wenzel hopped in the lane behind him. From there, Harvey’s first career World Cup was his for the taking.
Behind Harvey was American Andy Newell, who earlier in the day had placed second in the qualification round. Newell had been feeling optimistic about his chances all day, and after lunging through the legs of Wenzl in his semifinal to take second position he advanced to the A-final.
“I was pretty fired up going into today and knew it was a good chance to be on the podium.” Newell said in an interview. “ But it was a very nerve-racking sprint course out there because of the way it plays out because of the tactics.”
Tactically, Newell had been skiing extremely well all day, but in the last S-turn leading into the finish disaster struck. In a risky move, Newell tried to edge around Gros to claim a better position in the final stretch, but there was not enough space.
Newell then hit a V-board, overcorrected, and bumped into Gros.
“It was too much of a gamble on my part. I had been feeling good in the finish stretches all day and I knew I could have passed those guys. At that point in the race I felt like I had a podium basically wrapped up and I shouldn’t have made that gutsy pass like that. It was kind of dumb.”
After bumping into Gros, Newell fell hard on the corner, and was knocked out of contention.
“It’s really frustrating. I haven’t been that angry or upset after a race in a long time,” he said of his feelings post-race.
Despite the disappointing, result Newell is keeping his sprits high and sights set on the future.
“It’s always good to be racing heats,” the veteran racer said of his experience racing today. “I felt like I had a good finish speed today and good lunges. It’s great to be able to practice that stuff. Things are looking good. We have one more skate sprint before the Olympics so I just keep hoping to improve on that.“
Harvey was also focused on chat he could take away from the day’s race. The Canadian, who was the third in the Tour de Ski sprint rankings, was happy with the win because it validated the success he found in the Tour. “It is great to get another podium. I felt pretty good coming back from the Tour de Ski, but you just never know. This race confirms things for me,” said Harvey in a press release.
While the Norway, Sweden, and Finland were all holding their respective national championships and thus had no racers in Saturday’s World Cup, Harvey felt that the competition was just as competitive as usual. “The Russians have been the ones to beat in sprinting and I was able to do that today,” he said.
Wadsworth also felt some validation from the result, as the entire Canadian team had a very slow start to this year’s ski season.
“Our whole goal this year was to build towards Sochi and not worry too much about the early season. A lot of the other teams were trying to qualify people. We put the training in, and I think it’s starting to show,” he said.
It certainly appears that the Canadian training is paying off in such an important Olympic year, with Perianne Jones finishing tenth in the women’s race, and Devon Kershaw making the quarterfinals to finish 18th.
“[Perianne Jones] had a good result today. Devon [Kershaw] actually felt good but just got in some traffic, but he said it’s the best he’s felt all year. It’s starting to come around,” said Wadsworth.
With the Olympics looming, many teams are focused on making sure that their teams are ready, both physically and mentally, to get their best results possible.
For Harvey and Kershaw that meant taking last week off from World Cup racing to revive and train in Switzerland. While their plan had been to race in the Czech Republic, they were so enthralled with the good skiing, culture, and atmosphere of Switzerland, they made a spur of the moment decision to stay an extra week.
Wadsworth supported the decision and believes that his team will be at their best over the next weeks. “Everything is going the right direction. We just need to stay healthy and stay focused on the process. We just have to take care of the things we need to take care of: quality training and a good team vibe,” he said.
The World Cup continues for the min in Szklarska Poreba tomorrow with a 15 k classic mass start.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.