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SOCHI, Russia — Two of three laps through Friday’s 15-kilometer classic individual at the Olympics, Alex Harvey, the 25-year-old Canadian medal hopeful, stood in the middle of a climb, waving his arms at head coach Justin Wadsworth.
The skier Harvey had been chasing kept going, pushing over the crest of the climb back into the stadium.
Harvey looked at Wadsworth, and asked if he could stop racing. Wadsworth said yes.
For the second race at this Olympics, the Canadians had their medal hopes wrecked by what the Norwegians call a smørebom — literally translated, a wax miss — on a balmy afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-50s.
Harvey’s skis, which he called “really slow,” were so bad he dropped out of the race at the 10 k mark.
His teammate Devon Kershaw, who finished 35th, 2:47.4 behind Swiss winner Dario Cologna, put it more directly.
“I guess today, obviously, our skis — well, they were horrible,” he said after the race.
The first word Wadsworth used to describe the day was unprintable. As to what the Canadians will do to get their skis back on track, he suggested that it might even require some consultation with their competition.
“It’s very rare that the conditions really affect a single person, or a couple people, but in this case it’s affecting us because we’re not getting the kick wax right,” he said. “That’s, I guess, for the wax technicians to debrief on and figure out what it is. Maybe we have to ask other teams, like, are we on the same range of wax, or is it too thick? ”
None of the Canadians skied quickly on Friday, though Harvey, Kershaw, and Ivan Babikov, who finished 39th, 3:19.5 behind the winner, all said that they felt fine. They were just fighting skis that were far slower than their competition’s.
“It was a struggle, but this is the Olympics,” Kershaw said in his third Winter Games. “You’ve gotta give it your best every day because you don’t know when you’ll get a chance again. I just fought every second of that race to do as best as I could. Obviously, it’s tough when the equipment’s not there, but I have a lot of experience and you’ve got to keep fighting through it.
“I’m still proud of what I did,” he added. “It’s so cliche, but you’ve got to fight to the end. That’s the point of the game.”
Babikov started 30 seconds behind Kershaw and was trailing him by 7.5 seconds at 2.2 k.
“I saw he was doing pretty good, I guess,” Babikov said. “I was getting splits that I was really far behind. … You have to use what you have at the moment and ski with it and try to finish and do as best as you can.”
Born in Syktyvkar, Russia, a seven-hour flight north from Sochi, Babikov said it was cool to hear his name called in Russian and English out on the course, but it didn’t exactly help on a day like Friday.
“It was pretty loud in a couple sections, especially that uphill,” he said. “At some point when it gets so hard, your body just shuts down, but when people [are] blowing those tubes and mrrr horns and stuff, it’s kind of makes it worse actually, like, oh my God.”
He considered the race “one of the hardest” he’s ever done. “I think it’s not gonna get any harder than this,” Babikov said.
Then again, you never know.
“The 50 k could be really hard too and slow, but usually skate I feel better,” he said. “There’s no kick in skate skis right?”
Harvey was one of four skiers in the 90-man field that did not finish, pulling out after 10 k with the 38th-ranked time. Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, who started 30 seconds behind Harvey, caught him at 5 k and dropped Harvey on the long downhill to start the second lap.
Wadsworth said the gap was 15 seconds from top to bottom of the hill. “That’s a lot,” he said.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Harvey explained. “I kept pushing.”
Then Norway’s Chris Andre Jespersen, who started a minute after Harvey, caught the Canadian before the base of the big hill before the end of the lap.
“I stayed with him the whole way, honestly feeling really good,” Harvey said. “And then on the little downhill before the last sprint uphill, he put five or ten meters on me instantly. So then I saw Justin and I was like, ‘Look. I’m feeling good, but I’m losing so much time on the downhill. I’m just going to stop, there’s no point.’ ”
Wadsworth understood that Harvey, who’s expected to start at least the next two team events, didn’t want to waste too much energy on this race. “When you have skis that bad, you do have to look at the big picture,” Wadsworth said.
Graeme Killick placed 65th in his first Olympics, after finishing 45th in last weekend’s skiathlon.
Looking ahead to the rest of the Olympics, temperatures are forecast to get slightly cooler, around the mid-40s during the day and 40 at night starting Monday. Still, that might not be enough to freeze the snow and/or drastically change the conditions.
“It’s tough racing, but the best skiers still win, and that’s the way it usually is,” Wadsworth said. “The team sprint is classic and that’s our best medal chance, and at this point it’s a little scary to think about. I know the [wax techs] will go and try everything we can.”
After the race late Friday afternoon, Wadsworth said his staff was out re-testing the race skis they tested earlier in the day.
“I don’t know what they’re going to find,” he said. “I think they need to test different wax, too, but those guys know what they’re doing.”
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting
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.