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SOCHI, Russia — Alex Harvey wore bib four in Sunday’s Olympic pursuit race in Russia—a number that he adamantly did not want to match his result.
It didn’t, but for the wrong reason: Rather than finishing on the podium, the Canadian medal hopeful placed 18th, hindered by a pair of classic skis that he said were both slick and slow.
“No kick and no glide, either. So, worst of both worlds,” he said after the race. “I said I’d rather be sixth than fourth. But I’d also rather be sixth than 18th.”
Harvey, who was nearly two minutes behind winner Dario Cologna, said he was “pissed,” and “disappointed” with the result, but added that his best medal hopes come in the team sprint later in the games.
Harvey’s finish was the best out of seven North American athletes Sunday, with his teammates Ivan Babikov and Graeme Killick placing 25th and 45th, respectively.
The top American skier, Noah Hoffman, also struggled, slowed by a crash that broke one of his poles, and a snag in his transition between classic and skating.
He ultimately finished 35th, about three minutes behind Cologna, and far from his best results this season. But Hoffman still seemed upbeat at the finish, eyeing the 50-kilometer skate race at the end of the games.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “There’s lots more chances.”
In his first-ever Olympic race, American Erik Bjornsen placed 42nd, punctuating the result with a grin and a wave of his pole as he crossed the line.
“I don’t know how I finished, but it was fun,” he said immediately afterwards. “An Olympic race! I’m happy.”
Bjornsen’s teammates Brian Gregg and Kris Freeman were 47th and 54th, respectively.
For Harvey, who has already notched several podiums this season, the silver lining to Sunday’s pursuit is that his fitness still appeared sound — after struggling during the classic leg, he skied sections of the skate course faster than anyone else in the race.
“I felt good,” he said. “But, I mean, it was so hard to make the skis work.”
After an overcast morning, warm sun began unexpectedly pushing through the clouds during the middle of the race, which Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said was a surprise.
The heat baked both the athletes and the tracks — and the Canadians’ skis simply weren’t working, at least for Harvey.
“Sometimes, if you have fast classic skis and you’re a little slick, you can make it work through the stadium and other places. But they just weren’t that fast,” Wadsworth said. “It just put them behind the eight ball going out on the skate. And then Alex just tried to push on the skate a little bit, and he was steady and steady—he felt fine—but it was just too far.”
Babikov maintained that his classic skis were “fine,” and said his bad day was simply due to “not feeling great.”
“It was just one of those days when I can’t really tell what was wrong,” he said. “I just didn’t have it today.”
Babikov, a former Russian citizen, said he heard some cheers in his native language. But they didn’t help.
“When you don’t have it, you just don’t have it,” he said.
Hoffman, the top American finisher, appeared to have it in the early portion of the race—he managed to work his way up to seventh place halfway through the classic leg.
But then, he crashed, catching his skis in loose snow, spinning himself around, and breaking one of his poles in one of the worst possible places — just before the stadium, where there were no coaches to give him a replacement.
Then, in the transition between classic and skating, he somehow managed to pull his straps out of both of his poles, which took him nearly half a kilometer to fix, and allowed a nearby Italian skier, Roland Clara, to get away.
“I was really bummed about that,” Hoffman said. “I thought he was going to be a really good person to stick with.”
Afterwards, Hoffman said he was looking forward to moving past some of the distractions of the Olympics that had siphoned off some of his energy over the past few days.
“There’s just a lot going on,” he said. “I need to get back into a good routine of more napping and some downtime—time off my feet.”
He added: “I need to chill out.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.