Alex Harvey made it clear heading into the World Cup opening weekend in Kuusamo, Finland, that he had one main goal — to ski into the points. That meant the top 30, which he checked off on Saturday after placing 14th in the classic sprint. On Sunday, the 26-year-old Canadian came out with a similar attitude and ended up seventh in the 15-kilometer classic, 27.8 seconds behind the winner, Iivo Niskanen of Finland.
Aim low, finish high? Not exactly. Harvey was simply being realistic.
“Any time I start a race, I want to be on the podium obviously,” Harvey said on the phone after Sunday’s race. “But I know at the same time that I have no podium in my life before Christmas.”
In Kuusamo, he had achieved as high as seventh three years ago in the 15 k classic pursuit, when the race was part of the Ruka Triple mini tour. That same year in 2011, he placed fifth in a 15 k skate in a tuneup FIS race the weekend before in Sjusjøen, and in 2010, he was ninth in Kuusamo’s skate sprint. But other than those results, Harvey said he historically has struggled to find his speed early in the season.
Last year at the Ruka Triple, he was 38th in the classic sprint, 30th in the 10 k classic and 48th in the 15 k freestyle pursuit for 42nd overall. So yeah, seventh and 14th this time around was welcome improvement.
“I was just really trying to be in the points, get things going, like, start the engine, and get some good feelings on skis,” he said. “After the sprint, I knew the speed was there, usually that’s the biggest issue for me, so I knew with the speed being there, my guess would’ve been probably a top 20, top 15, like after [Saturday], so that exceeded a bit my expectations.”
Harvey started toward the back of the pack — 88th of 96 men — and by the 8.1 k checkpoint, he was into the top 10.
“I actually tried to start a bit harder than normal,” he said, after posting the 14th-fastest time though 3.1 k. “I’ve been working on that for four years now. I know I can have one of the best last 5 k compared to anybody else, but it’s always on the first 5 k that I seem to lose a lot of time.”
He said 14th early on was, “pretty much as good as it gets. After that I was able to slowly make my way up the field, and I was able to have a really solid last lap.”
At the finish, Harvey was sixth, only to be bumped one place by eventual-second-place finisher Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway. Last season, Sundby topped everyone for the Overall World Cup crown, and Harvey finished 2013/2014 out with a career-best third overall.
Kershaw Up to 14th
Another Canadian well up into the points on Sunday was Devon Kershaw, who was 57th in the sprint qualifier the day before after struggling a bit with grippy skis. Kershaw finished 14th, 42.1 seconds back from the winner, in what he called his favorite race: the 15 k classic.
But Kuusamo has never been an easy place to start: last season, he was 77th in the sprint, 64th in the 10 k classic and 65th overall after the 15 k pursuit. In 2012, he finished the mini tour a much-better 22nd, and his best result before that was eighth in the 2011 15 k classic pursuit.
The course itself is widely considered one of the most brutal on the World Cup (although Canadian World Cup coach Tor-Arne Hetland said there are no easy courses on the circuit), and on Sunday, racers had to tackle three massive hills each lap.
On top of that, Kershaw noted that North Americans, which typically have a season-long World Cup team in place at the start of the season, have to compete with Europeans vying for a spot on their respective nations’ World Championships teams every weekend.
“It seems like Period 1 is always very difficult because the big teams are vying for spots … They can’t afford to put the focus on later in the season like I’ve been able to do my whole career as a Canadian,” he said. “So it’s a very difficult course, coupled with guys that are very well prepared. It’s always a hard place to be. If you’re a little bit off in Kuusamo, it looks worse than it is maybe.”
Fortunately, he was firing on “normal” cylinders on Sunday.
“I’ve made some significant changes in my training and been feeling really good about the preparations we’ve been doing and been feeling good in workouts, but you know, it doesn’t mean much if you can’t deliver with a race,” Kershaw said with a laugh. “To ski smooth and have a really solid race, it feels really good, and it’s just confirmation that I made the right changes, at least I believe I did, and we’ll just have to see moving forward. Not feeling amazing, amazing on the steep terrain, but it’s very rare that I ever have. It was very good compared to the last couple years.”
He added that he was most pleased with his first and last laps, and said he “fell asleep a little bit” on some of the steeper climbs in the middle. Starting 50th, he finished sixth and dropped to 14th, but he expected that.
“The splits didn’t really tell me a whole lot today … like, 28 of the best distance skiers in the world were behind me,” Kershaw said. “But I knew of course getting splits like that meant I was starting faster like I wanted and I had good snap.”
His 3.1 k time ranked ninth fastest at the end of the day, and he hovered around 24th at 8.1 k and was back up to 13th with 2 k to go.
“The flatter sections, the double-poling sections and the gradual sections, in my whole career that’s where I’ve been the strongest,” he explained. “I was feeling right back to normal on that terrain and the steeper hills, the first hill, I’ve still got work to do [there]. I felt like my technique was slipping a bit on that terrain, but my skis were very good today and I was super happy with what the boys put together for me. We did a good job testing [skis] after [Saturday] so we adjusted really well.”
Ivan Babikov (Canadian World Cup Team) finished 57th, and Graeme Killick (Canadian Development B-Team) was 71st.
Another national-development-team skier, Emily Nishikawa notched her best World Cup result in Europe, placing 38th in the women’s 10 k classic. Two years ago in Canmore, Alberta, where she lives and trains with the Alberta World Cup Academy, she placed 34th in the World Cup skiathlon.
“I was really happy with my race today!” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “I started out a little slower, that was the plan, to really ramp it up in the 2nd half, and I was able to do that.”
Skiing around 60th for the first half of the race, she jumped to 40th by 8.1 k and closed for 38th, 2:43.9 minutes behind Norwegian winner Therese Johaug.
“I caught some great rides from [Finland’s] Aino Kaisa Saarinen, and [Poland’s] Justyna Kowalczyk [who ended up fourth],” Nishikawa wrote. “I was really happy to hang on to Justyna for the last 4 km. I lost a few seconds to her on the last climb into the stadium, but I was really happy with the way I skied.
“I am really looking to build off this great start to the season,” she added. “I know I can get into the top 30, I was close today, and that really motivates me for the next race.”
After the first World Cup weekend in his first season with the team, Hetland was generally impressed.
“For Emily, a personal best in the World Cup, that’s a good start for her,” he said on the phone Sunday. “That she could ski together with Aino Kaisa Saarinen, with Kowalczyk on the track, that’s a good race for her. For the boys, of course the results from Alex have been very good and also the 15 k from Devon today was also good.”
“Ivan was a little bit under his best level in the race today, but he will be improving to the next weekend,” Hetland added.
Babikov posted the 45th-fastest time at 3.1 k, and by 8.1 k, he was up to 37th.
“In the start he lost a little bit time and then he had a good part in the middle and was climbing on the result list,” Hetland observed. “But on the last hill, he broke a pole and lost a little bit of time. He would have been somewhere between 29 and 45th if that didn’t happen. He will be better when he gets some more races.”
Looking at the rest of the team, Hetland said Valjas, who missed qualifying in the sprint in 39th, was close to the heats, but not quite fast enough. “But it’s easy,” he said. “Also I think [Killick] will need some more races on this level before he’s on his best level, and he will get new chances on the next weekend.”
Canada’s other male development skier in Europe, Jess Cockney raced at the Norwegian Cup this weekend, placing 13th in the classic sprint and 39th in the 10 k classic. Perianne Jones (Development B-team) was 48th in the women’s sprint.
“I think it’s good racing, but there is potential for racing faster so we will keep on working hard,” Hetland added. “Now we have to reset and preparing for Lillehammer and then we will do as good as possible there.”
Kershaw said it’s been helpful to talk with Hetland about realistic expectations and not get too wrapped up in past results — or overall finishes, like when he ended up second in the 2011/2012 World Cup.
“I feel the funniest thing with skiing, or even with anything, is you’re kind of, or I tend to, compare myself to the best I’ve ever been — and the best I’ve ever been was the best in the world,” Kershaw said with a laugh. “It’s so unfair because the last few years, I’ve been off that mark. I’ve been talking a lot with T.A. about that, just to build through the season and not get down on myself and really focus on the process.”
“What the past [was] is not so important,” Hetland said. “We’re racing now and what is the slogan this year? ‘This is our time.’ So we are concentrating on the races this year and we will try to improve for each weekend now. The races have been very good and the team has been performing well. Of course there is somebody that is happy with the results and some that are not so happy.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.