FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — The Canadian team chef better get cooking. After promising cakes in exchange for medals at 2015 FIS World Ski Championships, the man by the first name of Mattias will have to get working on his second batch following Alex Harvey’s second medal in as many races so far in Falun.
When the team hired the Swedish chef for the two-week championships, some of its athletes requested cakes, according to Canadian World Cup Team member Ivan Babikov.
“He joked back, ‘Well if there will be medals, there will be cakes,’ ” Babikov said. “Now he makes more cakes for Alex to celebrate with another medal.”
Babikov’s teammate, Harvey became the first Canadian to rack up two medals at a single Nordic World Championships, and he did so in the first two races. Harvey, 26, found a final gear to rise from fourth to third in Saturday’s 30-kilometer skiathlon, passing Norway’s Didrik Tønseth late in the finishing stretch for bronze.
After spending most of the six-lap race in the lead, Harvey was pleased to end up third, 1.6 seconds behind the winner, after Switzerland’s Dario Cologna attacked the last time up the most grueling climb on the course: Mördarbacken. Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin went with him, and Tønseth eventually latched onto the two leaders with just over two kilometers remaining.
Meanwhile, Harvey in fourth concentrated on reining in the leaders, while Cologna and Vylegzhanin duked it out up front. On the last major climb, Vylegzhanin maneuvered around Cologna and boxed him out over the top before descending into the stadium.
The defending Olympic champion (in both the skiathlon and 15 k classic), Cologna hung on tight, but wasn’t able to get ahead of the Russian, as Vylegzhanin sealed his first World Championships title in 1:16:25.9 hours, 0.4 seconds ahead of Cologna.
“I simply don’t have the words to describe how happy I am over this gold medal,” said Vylegzhanin, a three-time runner up at World Championships (twice in the 50 k freestyle mass start and once in the 30 k pursuit), during a press conference. “It has been a really long journey here.
“Throughout the race it seemed like everyone around me was really, really strong,” he added. “I gave it everything I had in the final spurt and didn’t really get the feeling that it was enough for gold until I passed the goal line.”
Harvey finished 1.6 seconds back in third and 1.8 seconds ahead of Tønseth in fourth. France’s Maurice Manificat took fifth (+10.2), and Calle Halfvarsson finished as the top Swede racing for 44,300 adoring spectators in sixth (+22.8).
After slipping about seven seconds back from the three leaders with about 1 1/2 k to go, Harvey charged hard to close the gap, and nearly caught them on the second-to-last climb. While Cologna and Vylegzhanin skied out of reach, Harvey trailed Tønseth closely, passing him 5 seconds before the finish.
“It was so mushy and I was starting to not see clearly,” Harvey recalled, noting that his legs felt extremely spent after 15 k of classic followed by 15 k of skating on Falun’s notoriously tough course — and in soft conditions on an above-freezing afternoon. “I knew my legs were not 100 percent, so I wouldn’t have an amazing sprint, but it was good enough to grab one place, that was good for the podium.
“I had two medals in my career in World Championships, and now I have two in three days,” he added after achieving his fourth medal. “It’s crazy.”
“I had two medals in my career in World Championships, and now I have two in three days. It’s crazy.” — Canada’s Alex Harvey after winning bronze in Saturday’s skiathlon
An early leader with Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, Harvey skied in second for much of the first few kilometers before following Sweden’s Lars Nelson, France’s Jean Marc Gaillard and Swedish race-favorite Marcus Hellner, respectively, at the 5 k checkpoint.
As the climbs began on the second classic lap, Gaillard initiated a break from the large lead group, and Nelson went with him. Nelson looked back at one point to gauge the space behind them and nearly tripped up in the tracks, but he regained his composure and the two skied together up front until about 8.5 k. There, Harvey at the front of the chase pack caught them.
“I was trying to see if guys would want to break away. When I saw that it was Gaillard and Lars Nelson, I mean, they are good skiers, but not the favorites, I decided not to go with [them],” Harvey said.
Had it been someone like Cologna or Russia’s Evgeniy Belov “or some guys I think can go all the way, then I would have pushed it to break away [with them],” he added. “The plan was to try to break away if it was possible, but it just didn’t happen.”
Instead, Harvey aimed to control the pace from the driver’s seat, leading Nelson into the stadium at the end of 10 k. With one 5 k classic lap to go, 25 men remained within eight seconds of the lead and 18 of them were 3 seconds from Harvey.
By 11.5 k, Niskanen was back up front again, just ahead of Harvey, and Tønseth held his position in third while Nelson skied in fourth. Vylegzhanin hovered in fifth while Cologna was a few seconds back in seventh. Throughout the next lap, the lead switched several times between the frontrunners, including Tønseth and Gaillard, but by the ski change at 15 k, Harvey was back in first.
He and Gaillard entered the transition simultaneously, and Harvey emerged 0.3 seconds faster. On the following skate lap, the Canadian sensed something he hadn’t felt during the classic — his body wasn’t feeling so great. In fact, it hadn’t felt very good in freestyle races this season, he later explained.
Harvey reasoned his best chance for staying in the race required that he keep leading, and he did so for the next five kilometers.
“[I decided] I am going to stay in the front and go slow on the climbs, because that is where I am weak in skating, and try to do that for as long as I can,” Harvey said.
By the end of the first skate loop, he led 15 men within seven seconds of him through the stadium.
With two laps to go, the Canadian sprint silver medalist started to show some wear as Hellner moved to the front ahead of Belov, Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug, Tønseth, Vylegzhanin, Cologna, and Harvey, respectively. At 21.3 k, Harvey was 4.5 seconds back in seventh.
Even there, though, Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth wasn’t concerned.
“[Leading is] what he did a lot last year in the skiathlon that he won here in the World Cup Finals, and he said he felt like that was the way he wanted to do it,” Wadsworth said. “He wanted to control and not let people make surges, and he knows that a lot of people respect him right now … no one attacked him; they knew he was one of the favorites. When you can play or use that as your advantage, I think it’s huge.”
“When Hellner went on the second lap, I just had to drift back,” Harvey explained. “If I pass the line, it just doesn’t come back. [My leg started to cramp], so I just had to feather it a little bit.”
That same lap, by the second-to-last climb, Harvey worked his way back up front while the two Russians in the mix — Belov and Vylegzhanin — clung tight to him.
Wadsworth noticed how Harvey one-skated (V2-ed) most of the course while others relied on the more labor-intensive offset (V1).
“The speed was slow enough that he could do that,” Wadsworth said. “He knew he was saving himself and he knew the legs were going to get tired at the end no matter what.”
Hellner led the last time through the lap zone, followed by Belov, Harvey, Vylegzhanin, Dyrhaug, Gaillard, and Manificat, in that order. Cologna came through with the pack, 2.3 seconds back in eighth, just ahead of Halfvarsson, Tønseth and Norway’s Petter Northug.
With 5 k remaining, Cologna advanced to third early in the lap to prepare for the final push. Meanwhile, Harvey skied in seventh leaving the stadium, then rose to third once more before the start of the big climbs.
There, Cologna made what he hoped would be the game-changing attack: “I knew that I’m strong in the uphill so I was not sure what I have to do and when I have to go, but in the end I was in front on Mördarbacken the last time,” he told FasterSkier. “So I said, I will try everything, and I think it was the right tactic.”
Tønseth worked hard to get back in contact with Cologna and Vylegzhanin, who immediately went with him up the remainder of the hill, while Harvey and Manificat fell off the pace in fourth and fifth.
Along the next flat, Harvey decided to go hard in pursuit of third place or better.
“You’ve just got to be selfish; I made [Manificat] work on the flat and downhill stuff to get the draft and then as soon as we hit the next little hill, I just went by him and I went full blast,” he said.
Harvey dropped Manificat and bridged the gap to Tønseth on the penultimate climb. Up front, Cologna let up slightly to prepare for the finishing showdown with Vylegzhanin.
“I let him go in the last uphill because I thought maybe it’s a little better to relax on the last downhill to focus for the sprint, but I was not able to pass him again in the finish,” Cologna said. “Vylegzhanin was still there and a little bit fresher at the end.”
Despite missing out on gold by four-tenths of a second, Cologna was happy with silver.
“It’s always great to win a medal,” he said. “Everybody wants to be in good shape and to win, so it was a very good start for me, these championships, and it’s good to have the medal already in the first race. Now I’m looking forward to the next one.”
For Canada, ‘The biggest thing is redemption’
A few seconds behind, Harvey concentrated on staying on his feet before going for bronze.
“I was first trying to just stay on my skis because my legs were pretty jammed,” he said.
“It’s a great day for me. Hard to believe,” he said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “The skis were fantastic. I had really good training over the summer, and I think the wax team are doing such a great job, it’s hard for me not to be on the podium these days.”
“We’re so pumped about this,” Wadsworth said. “I think we came into the day really feeling like Alex could win the race, but realistically, how his legs are doing skating these days, a medal today is as good as gold. We couldn’t want anything more.
“The biggest thing is redemption for our wax team,” he added. “We really battled after Sochi last year, and we added some new people and took a lot of time in the summer to meet together and to get communication working. There’s been some hiccups through the winter, but we’ve kept really pushing to get on top of it and it’s paid off. That’s the thing that’s the most exciting.”
Babikov, who placed 23rd on Saturday after skiing up from 30th at the transition, said the team was beyond excited for Harvey — even when some of them weren’t personally having their best races.
“Compared to Alex’s medal, [23rd is] not so good, but I’m just really happy and pumped for him,” Babikov said. “Every single person on the team … we’re just so psyched. It’s the best world championships so far for Cross Country Canada. We’re so happy for Alex. It’s good for us, it’s good for our team, it’s awesome that one of the best guys in the world is on our team and we train together.”
“It’s the best world championships so far for Cross Country Canada.” — Ivan Babikov, Canada’s second man in Saturday’s skiathlon in 23rd
For Harvey, it was his fourth World Championships medal of his career. In 2011, he won the classic team sprint with Devon Kershaw, and in 2013, he was third in the individual classic sprint — the event he claimed silver in two days ago.
Wadsworth noted the impact this had on the program after Canada took home one medal between the last two previous championships (2013 World Championships and the 2014 Olympics).
“To have two medals [in Falun], it’s more [about] showing that we do have one of the best programs for waxing and we’ve invested a lot in it,” he said. “We’ve also done things that are a little bit different than other teams or the U.S. by having a little bit smaller team. We’re here to get medals and this is what’s going to help our program in the long run, where we can put it back into development and other things. We have to go for it at these big events like this.”
While Canada’s plan for Sunday’s team sprint was originally to start Harvey and Lenny Valjas, Wadsworth explained that would likely change out of a need to rest Harvey.
On Saturday night, Jess Cockney and Valjas were listed to start.
“It was [going to be Alex] and Len, but the way his legs were kind of acting at the end of [today’s] race, we’re … thinking that he might not do it and start to recover for the 50 k, maybe use the relay as a tuneup for that,” Wadsworth said.
During Saturday’s race, Babikov explained he struggled with the sugary conditions during his classic leg and couldn’t blame it on his skis.
“[Alex and I] had the same skis prepared so I think it was just me, I was just struggling with those conditions,” he said. “Maybe I was too tight … Most of the time in the skiathlon I have a problem with classic so I maybe worked too hard to stay with the pack so that made me too tired. That’s why I was surprised I felt so good in skate.”
A minute behind Harvey at the halfway point, Babikov had the seventh-fastest transition time and immediately started picking off places during the freestyle leg. Twenty-eighth at 20 k, he was up to 23rd at 21.3 k.
“[I came into the ski change] ten or 15 seconds behind [Italy’s Roland] Clara, some Germans [Jonas Dobler and Florian Notz] and some Japanese athletes [Keishin Yoshida and Akira Lenting],” he said. “I think I was with [Finland’s Sami] Jauhojaervi. I started fighting them and catching them one by one, and the group kind of exploded … I worked my way up. It took me half a lap to catch that group ahead of me, maybe on the Mördarbacken, I caught them.
“I had a good feeling skating and was feeling pretty satisfied with my skate part,” Babikov concluded after finishing 2:43.8 behind Vylegzhanin in 23rd.
For the rest of World Championships, he was looking forward to the 15 k freestyle “and maybe the relay,” he said.
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.