It’s a thought that crosses most racers minds: if only I’d been that much faster…
For Canada’s Alex Harvey on Wednesday, it was 10 seconds he was looking for. Ten fewer seconds would have elevated him from 14th to ninth in the men’s 10-kilometer classic individual start, the fourth stage of the Tour de Ski in Toblach, Italy.
And that would have put him closer to Switzerland’s Dario Cologna in the overall Tour de Ski standings heading into Thursday’s 25 k freestyle pursuit in Toblach.
Harvey started the day in fifth overall in the Tour through three stages, with a nine-second margin to Cologna in sixth. The Canadian World Cup Team member ended the fourth stage in seventh, 1:08 behind Tour leader Petter Northug of Norway and 13 seconds behind Cologna, who will start Thursday’s pursuit in sixth.
“A top 15 is always satisfying, but … I was probably hoping for something a bit better than that,” Harvey said on the phone about his 10 k classic result on Wednesday. “I wish I could have skied at least 10 seconds faster to start with [Cologna] tomorrow, but yeah, it is not a bad day.”
Harvey’s 14th-place finish came a day after he placed 16th in Stage 3, the freestyle sprint in Val Müstair, Switzerland — where he missed out on the semifinals after losing a quarterfinal lunge, which he called a “rookie mistake” at the time.
“I didn’t go too far in the rounds yesterday so I didn’t feel too spent and I’m feeling good right now,” Harvey said.
His biggest problem in the two-lap individual start on Wednesday was he started too slow, he said.
“I started a bit too conservative, so the first few splits were having me 20th or 25th,” Harvey recalled.
At 1.7 k, his time ranked 22nd, about 10 seconds behind the race leader at that point: Daniel Richardsson of Sweden.
“That wasn’t so good so I reacted to those, but I think too aggressively,” Harvey said.
He jolted to 14th at the halfway mark and 11th with about 3 k to go, but that might’ve been too much of an effort at the wrong point in the race, he explained.
“Looking back, I should have started a bit faster and kept it steady the whole way rather than starting a bit too slow, then try to punch it and pay for it later on,” he said. “Sometimes you try that and then you end up starting too hard, but that is what I wish I could have done.”
In the end, he finished 36.4 seconds behind winner Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan, who posted the top time of 22:51.8. The result put Harvey seventh overall in the Tour, and he’ll start Thursday’s pursuit in that spot, 1:08 behind Northug.
The thing about the pursuit is — it isn’t the usual 35 k trek from Cortina to Toblach, where Harvey has found success with a Tour de Ski podium as recent as last year.
Without enough snow on that route, organizers shortened the distance to 25 k and decided hold it on the 5 k loop in Toblach.
“In the past, it’s [been] 17 kilometers of nonstop effort and then kind of glide back down to the stadium for 15 k, and then you finish with a little loop,” Harvey said of the Cortina-to-Toblach stage. “But this year, it is on the 5 k [course in Toblach], so it is more like real skiing. There is going to be little climbs and little downhills to recover, so it will be a bit of a different dynamic because in Cortina, you have to start off at a pace that you know you can hold for 17 kilometers … so this is more like a normal race tomorrow.”
That might be good for some people, but Harvey’s teammate Ivan Babikov wasn’t ecstatic about it. Babikov placed 32nd on Wednesday, 1:11.1 back from the winner. Canada’s Devon Kershaw took 21st, 48.4 seconds back, with consistent skiing and a faster last few kilometers.
“I have never really done so well [on this course]; it’s really more for like big guys,” Babikov said on the phone Wednesday. “It is really flat and lots of kick-double pole so [you’ve] really got to be producing a lot of power there to ski fast. [There’s] not so much climbing, not so much striding there.”
Several men double poled Wednesday’s race — which wouldn’t be unusual except for the distance: 10 k.
“When you hear there are people that double poled the course it means that it is not quite as hard some other classic courses,” Babikov explained. “I didn’t know what to expect; I knew it was going to be something like that, but it sucks not being able to get in the top 30 or ski a bit faster. I am not really sure where I lost all that time, but I guess double-pole kind of got me in some places.”
Harvey said considered double poling on Wednesday and brought his skate skis to the start line, but opted for to go on classic.
“If it had been a normal World Cup weekend, I think a lot more guys would have double poled because I think it was a bit faster, but you have to think ahead,” Harvey said. “Tomorrow is going to be really long and really hard. There is still [the last two stages in] Val di Fiemme coming so moving forward, it might not be the most efficient way to spend your energy just because you really blast your upper body muscle doing that.
“Poltoranin won [on skate skis] by half-a-second, so that is really good for him, but I think that is costing a lot to take that risk,” he added. “So I chose classic skis to try to have energy for tomorrow.”
With his sights set on moving up on Thursday, Harvey in seventh will start with a 13-second gap to Cologna in sixth and Poltoranin will start 41 seconds ahead of him in fifth. He predicted that the top-four men (Northug, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Russia’s Evgeniy Belov, and Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson, respectively) would be out of his reach, “unless something bad happens,” he said.
“I am in a bit of a tricky spot because of course I am going to try to catch Dario, but Dario has been a machine before on that stage so I’ve got to make sure I don’t blow up just trying to catch him,” Harvey said. “I will try to ski fast on the flats and chill on the climbs; there is nothing too steep here so that is good. I will have him in my sights for a while so hopefully [I can] slowly make some time up on him.”
Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug will start 8 seconds behind Harvey, which the Canadian also saw as a potential opportunity.
“If he catches me, he will have spent a bit of energy just to close that gap and if we don’t explode, I think we have a good chance to catch and pull Poltoranin in and then ski for the top five,” Harvey said. “So that would probably be the ideal scenario because the top-four. yeah, unless they have a fight…”
He predicted that Northug, starting just 1.5 seconds ahead of Sundby, would let Sundby lead and pull him for most of the race.
“Sundby will get pissed at one point and then the other guys like Belov, who had a huge race today and a really big race [in the sprint] — he is better in classic so I am not sure how much work he would do,” Harvey hypothesized. “Then, if Sundby is good on the climb, but Petter is not that good so he might just be pissed and say, ‘Dude you’ve got to keep Dario away,’ and then I don’t know, I could see them getting in a fight on the tracks, so that could happen…
“Then Dario, Niklas and I could just come and ‘Hey-yo!’ ” he added with a laugh. “But no, we will see.”
Kershaw will start 29th, 3:13 after Northug, and Babikov will head out 45 seconds later in 32nd. While Babikov explained he’ll try to put some time into the top-20 men, he wasn’t sure how that would play out in a fast distance race.
“People may be feeling tired now, you never know for the Tour,” he said. “You are always planning for some stuff and then it doesn’t happen. The 25 k is quite long, but it is going to be quite fast so I am not sure it is going to take too much time to ski 25 k tomorrow.
“I will still do my best tomorrow and try to catch some people ahead of me,” Babikov added. “I’m not afraid to die tomorrow on the course, it is more, do I have enough speed to go fast on those gradual uphills and be able to close some time on the group ahead?”
The team’s fourth World Cup Team member, Lenny Valjas ended his Tour on Tuesday following the sprint.
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.