Alex Harvey started Sunday’s 15-kilometer freestyle pursuit in Falun, Sweden, with one thing on his mind: a first- or second-place finish would put him on the overall World Cup podium.
After the 25-year-old Canadian won Saturday’s 30 k skiathlon race he took the lead in the Falun mini-tour, and seized a 26 second advantage in Sunday’s pursuit race ahead of Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Alexander Legkov of Russia. The skiathlon victory also put him in contention for third place in the overall World Cup standings, a fact he learned from Sundby after Saturday’s race. To accomplish this he would have to hold off either Sundby or Legkov.
Harvey said to FasterSkier on Saturday that the “optimal plan is to stay away [from Sundby and Legkov], but Plan B isn’t bad either,” referring to skiing with the two chasing skiers.
Before the race, Justin Wadsworth, Head Coach of the Canadian National Team spoke with Harvey. “We just talked before the start about the course and then I asked him if he had any plans and he said that he was just going to go out and ski steady, not bury himself and see if he could hold them off.”
Harvey started his race by skiing steadily and smoothly through the winding and hilly course.
“I started at my own pace, but didn’t want to go into the red zone; I knew they were coming,” Harvey told Cross Country Canada, according to a press release.
Just over a kilometer into the race, Harvey still had a 25-second lead on Sundby and Legkov, but by the 3 k mark the pursuers were 16 seconds behind him.
With Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson trailing Harvey by 54 seconds, and another Swede Marcus Hellner leading a chasing pack of six skiers some two minutes behind the leader, it was essentially a three-man race for first place. Sundby led Legkov and made a hard push to catch up with Harvey, and after 3 k they steadily approached Harvey ahead of them.
“I was kind of hoping that he could ski out in front of those guys,” said Wadsworth. “Twenty-six seconds is quite a bit, but at the same time when there are two of the world’s best skiers really pushing each other on certain sections it’s almost impossible to hold them off.”
By the time Harvey reached the famous Mörderbakken climb, Legkov and Sundby were only a few seconds behind him and by the top of the climb they had caught him.
“They came back to me at the six-kilometre mark,” said Harvey. “Then it became tactical.”
“He did a really good job for the first couple of k maintaining the time gap, and then Sundby pushed and the time gap came all the way down until they caught him,” Wadsworth said. “That happened pretty fast, but Alex never panicked. He knew he had pretty good skis.”
After Harvey had been caught he continued to lead the three men. With the chasing group so far out of contention there was little pressure to maintain a fast pace, and Harvey appeared calm in the lead, and the pace manageable.
“Alex was looking super relaxed even up to the point they got him,” said Wadsworth. “So it wasn’t like Alex was stressing and then they caught him. I was pretty confident that he was going to be pretty rested for the last push.”
Meanwhile, Richardsson, who had started nearly a minute behind Harvey and was skiing in fourth position, looked to have elevated his pace, perhaps having been informed that the pace had slowed somewhat at the front of the race.
Richardsson crept to within 40 seconds of the leaders until Sundby took back the lead from Harvey and began to push the pace once again. Sundby tested the two others with some aggressive hill climbing, but both Legkov and Harvey stayed with him.
Going through the stadium with 3.7 k remaining, Sundby looked to relinquish his lead, pointing at Legkov, who up to that point had not taken a turn in the lead. Legkov made no move to take the lead as Sundby slowed, and it was Harvey who ended up taking the reigns at the front of the race.
Harvey led until the base of the Mörderbakken climb, 2.7 k away from the finish line. As the skiers began the climb, Legkov attacked with his powerful hill climbing. Sundby was quick to respond to the challenge and sped ahead of Harvey to stay close to the Russian’s skis.
Legkov slowed the assault mid climb, and Sundby, sensing an opportunity, immediately counterattacked. The Norwegian hammered up the upper half of the long hill, and this time it was Harvey who responded, while Legkov was too sluggish to match Sundby’s speed.
With Legkov a few seconds behind, it was a battle between Sundby and Harvey. Sundby’s rapid climbing on a late hill proved too much for Harvey, and the Norwegian gained an advantage by several seconds heading into the stadium.
“Those are two of the best in the world and are both Olympic medalists,” said Harvey of Legkov and Sundby. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I also knew I needed to beat one of them to get into that top-three. Once Legkov couldn’t respond, I knew I just had to stay on my skis. I had great shape and the skis were really good!”
In the end, Sundby had enough time to savor his victory. Harvey took second, the result he needed for the coveted podium position on the overall World Cup standings, and Legkov was third.
It has been a breakthrough season for Sundby: he won the Tour de Ski, the overall World Cup title, and on Sunday, the Falun mini tour. “It’s been an incredible season,” Sundby told FIS. “I worked really hard for this. It was really a good battle with Legkov and Harvey today. I knew I wanted to have a [gap] between me and Alex in the finish. I am looking forward to the World Championships next year. Falun is a place with a great atmosphere.”
To NRK, Sundby said, “I have had the smoothest season of all, even if you can pick out a race here and there where I got a beating. But overall, I have been the world’s best skier.”
“Before the season, I had not thought I would win the World Cup,” Sundby continued. “I thought maybe top five. I was number seven last year and felt that I was a little better and would raise some places this year. But it has gone way over expectation.”
Harvey’s third-place finish on the overall World Cup was an important achievement for the Canadian National Team.
“It definitely gives some satisfaction with what has been a frustrating year for us, but the overall World Cup is a pretty amazing thing,” Wadsworth said. “Especially to place in the top three when you are a North American is a real feat because it means you have to be in Europe all winter and posting every weekend that you can. In the last three years we’ve had Devon [Kershaw] in second overall in the World Cup and Alex [Harvey] third now so it leaves all of us with a good taste.”
“I’m super stoked,” said Harvey of his podium. “That was a super-nice way to end the season … I had kind of given up on the overall when I had to pull out of the final stage of the Tour de Ski because so many points are given in that race, but I was able to gain a lot in the last weekend.”
“When I grew up it was never something I thought about. My dad [Pierre Harvey] was never better than eighth in the overall. Just being on the World Cup podium was something we all dreamt of in Canada. We have come a long way. We know we can be fighting for the top every weekend. Devon [Kershaw] was second a couple of years ago, and now I’m third. We take a lot of satisfaction showing that we can be consistent.”
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.