This time last year, the most racing Alex Harvey had done leading up to the World Cup opener was a time trial with teammate Devon Kershaw at the Canadian’s training base in Davos, Switzerland.
Harvey went to Davos again this year, only as long as he had to, though, since the snow wasn’t ideal, before meeting the rest of the team this past Monday in Gällivare, Sweden. There, he and three other Canadian World Cup Team members and four development-team skiers converged for about five days of training before the first International Ski Federation (FIS) race of the season in Europe.
Perianne Jones was one of them. A year ago, she was still home in Canmore, Alberta, trying to get her iron levels under control. She didn’t start racing until Dec. 21 at the World Cup in Asiago, Italy.
On Saturday, Jones, part of Canada’s development B-team, put down the second-fastest women’s qualifying time in the 1.2-kilometer classic sprint in Gällivare after Petra Novakova of the Czech Republic. The two faced off in the A final, which Jones led from start to finish and won by 1.8 seconds in 2:54.19.
“It’s been great to get to Europe and get adjusted, and get the racing season going!” Jones, 29, wrote in an email. “I wanted to have good feelings racing today, and just go through a race day/prep and everything to make sure I have things dialed in for next weekend, and of course I wanted to win too! Training has been going well, I feel much better right now than I did this time last year, so that’s a good sign!”
After Novakova in second, another Czech, Karolina Grohova finished third 1 second later. Sixteen-year-old Swedish junior Emma Ribom was fourth (+4.09), Norway’s Anna Svendsen placed fifth (+5.73) and Nelly Johansson of Sweden was sixth (+11.0). Twenty-four women raced the heats.
The men’s 1.4 k sprint was a speedy one, with Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov setting the pace in the qualifier with the fastest time of 2:46.12 and ultimately winning the final in a blistering 2:38.55. Canadian World Cup sprinter Lenny Valjas qualified third (+2.31) after Evgeniy Belov of Russia in second (+0.33). Harvey qualified in fourth, 3.65 seconds after Ustiugov, which he was pleased with.
“Just because I’m a dork, I looked at times from last year in Kuusamo and I think he beat me by six seconds [in the classic-sprint qualifier],” Harvey said on the phone after Saturday’s sprint. “So now to be 3.6 behind him in the qualifier is probably good thing. It means I have a better chance of qualifying in Kuusamo next weekend.”
Ustiugov was a top qualifier in the classic sprint at World Cup Finals in Falun last season, clocking the second-fastest time there — about 3.3 seconds faster than Harvey, who qualified in 10th.
But it took Harvey two World Cup sprints (three if you count his disqualification in Asiago) before he made it to the quarterfinals for the first time last winter.
“I think this year is probably a bit better, but we’ll see when it really counts in Kuusamo,” Harvey said of the 2014/2015 World Cup opener next weekend.
To his team’s advantage, it won’t be their first race of the season.
“It’s different for everybody, but for me, it’s important to get some races in — that’s why I chose to do both races this weekend,” he said, referencing Sunday’s 15 k classic. “Last year all I’d done was a time trial with Devon in Davos. When you’re doing quite similar training, you’re going to be in quite similar shape so it’s hard to know if you’re on or not because you don’t compare with other nations.”
On Saturday, Harvey ended up second overall — winning his quarterfinal and finishing right behind Ustiugov in both the semifinal and final. Belov was third, Valjas fourth, Russia’s Stanlislav Volzhentsev fifth and Canadian B-team member Jess Cockney sixth. Thirty-five men competed.
Because of his qualifying time, Harvey started in the fourth lane, toward the outside of the pack in the A final. Everyone raced on classic skis on a minus 5-degree Celsius morning, Harvey said, and he nearly caught Ustiugov up front along the big climb back to the stadium. With 300 or 400 meters to go, he was fourth, then surged ahead of Valjas and Belov right before the finish.
Harvey said he let out a mini fist pump at the finish, then he remembered what Canadian World Cup coach Tor-Arne Hetland told him the day before.
“Yesterday Tor-Arne said, ‘Do not let up before the line ever,’ ” Harvey recalled. “If I did that in the first race of the season that would’ve been bad. I let up a bit, but I didn’t get caught.”
Finishing 0.97 seconds after Ustiugov, Harvey held off Belov by two-hundredths of a second. But Harvey was skeptical about the final times.
“I didn’t think it was that close,” Harvey said. “I knew I had him, but I guess he must’ve stretched because Lenny was coming from him. I felt like it was bigger than just two-hundredths of a second.”
Valjas finished three-hundredths of a second after Belov, Volzhentsev crossed the line almost three seconds later, and Cockney was another 2.26 seconds back in sixth.
In an email, Valjas explained he was coming off a huge training load this fall, but took some time off before flying to Europe to recover.
“I’ve been feeling really good skiing this week, especially considering I’m still dealing with jet lag,” the 26-year-old Toronto native wrote. “The heats today were easy until the final. [The] Russians pushed the pace hard. Coming into the final straight it was two Russians leading Alex and I in. I was very happy with my kick at the end, I could see I was gaining on the others but it was a little too late as I lost a ridiculously close lunge to Belov.
“Fun day racing and I’m ready for Kuusamo,” Valjas added. “Looking to get back into the points after missing the top 30 last year with my knee surgery.”
“Tor-Arne said, ‘Do not let up before the line ever.’ If I did that in the first race of the season, that would’ve been bad. I let up a bit, but I didn’t get caught.” — Alex Harvey, second to Sergey Ustiugov and just ahead of another Russian, Evgeniy Belov, in third
Cockney, 25, wrote in an email that the qualifier felt “pretty weak,” and was disappointed with qualifying eighth, 10.39 seconds after Ustiugov.
He devoted much of his offseason to improving his qualifiers and quickly resolved to target certain training aspects this coming week to get back to where he had been in previous workouts this fall.
“ I tried to really pin it for the final and ski hard from the gun,” Cockney explained. “I moved towards the front for the first climb and held onto second behind Ustiugov for a big chunk of the race but I was really gassed near the end and wasn’t able to hang on to anyone moving past me.
“Today was a good starting spot for the early season,” he added.
Next weekend, he’ll race a Norwegian Cup near Lillehammer instead of the Kuusamo World Cup in Finland. The races will be the same format as in Kuusamo, and he’ll race with Team Trøndelag, he explained.
In the meantime, Harvey said the FIS races are a good tuneup before the real thing. Not only did it help him remember what it feels like to wear a race bib and step on the start line, but it was a good reminder for timing critical parts of the morning (eating, warmup, etc.) — and at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday in the dark in Sweden, that wasn’t easy.
“I mistimed my warmup for the qualifier so I didn’t feel like I had enough time,” he recalled. “These are things you can learn for a real race. When it’s a time trial, you can just tell the coach, I need five more minutes, and he might postpone the start, but today he couldn’t, so I think it’s good to have a real race with a real bib and everything.”
Two years ago, the Canadians opened the season with FIS races in Bruksvallarna, Sweden. Harvey, for one, was glad they weren’t there nor in Beitostølen, Norway, this year.
He spoke with Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, who recently left Bruksvallarna for Gällivare. (Hellner opted out of the sprint, but planned to race Sunday’s 15 k.)
“He came here because he said it was sh*tty,” Harvey said. “They had to do their interval sessions at noon because there was too much traffic on the track before that and said it was pretty bad conditions and a really short loop. And Beitostølen, it’s mayhem there. It’s probably a bigger deal than an actual World Cup. It’s live on TV and there’s so many media, journalists, people so it’s just a lot of people on the tracks. Here were able to do the races and then we’re able to relax and have nice enjoyable training sessions.”
And they’ve got some competition as well.
“It’s good to race these Russian guys and some Czech guys, too,” Harvey said. “Ales Razym is a decent sprinter and tomorrow there will be a decent field, too.”
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Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.