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 — Alex Harvey may tell you he’s a distance skier, but don’t let him fool you. As demonstrated by his performance in Thursday’s classic sprint at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, Harvey is certainly one of the word’s best all-around skiers.
Starting each of his three heats at the back of the pack, Harvey appeared to be out of the running as skiers traversed the hilly course that featured 1.4 k of twists and turns. However, by the end of every race the 26-year-old from Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Quebec propelled himself into qualifying position. In the final his come-from-behind tactics earned him second overall.
Lunging for a photo finish with Norwegian Petter Northug Harvey topped his previous best individual finish at Worlds – third in the same event in 2013 at Val di Fiemme, Italy. Thursday, he finished 0.05 seconds behind Northug who crossed the line with a time of 3:02.32. Northug’s teammate Ola Vigen Hattestad took the last podium position after a photo finish with Russian Nikita Kriukov. The two trailed the victor by 0.35 and 0.38 seconds, respectively.
Italian sprinter Federico Pellegrino was fifth and finished 0.67 seconds behind Northug. He was followed by Norwegian Thomas Northug to take the last spot in the heat. He was 17.28 seconds behind his brother after leading the first third of the final.
Harvey began his day on a strong note, placing fifth in the qualification round. He finished 2.4 seconds behind the qualifier winner, Kriukov, despite skis that were “too light on kick.”
“The qualifier was a great start for me. I’m never that strong in qualification, usually. I was really happy to see that,” he said in a post-race interview.
Once in the quarterfinals, Harvey explained he struggled tactically, but was able to recover in time to take advantage of several strategic openings near the end of the race. He charged past Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden in the final meters to finish second behind Pellegrino and secure a spot in the semifinals.
According to Harvey, the Canadian regrouped after the close call and thought to himself, “this is on now.”
Harvey’s semifinal would present a different challenge, however, as it featured four Norwegians including the two Northugs, Hattestad, and Eirik Brandsdal. The Canadian knew the Norwegians would push for a fast heat so that all four could advance to the final via automatic qualification and lucky loser positions. Harvey ultimately spoiled their party as he was able to finish in a close fourth position. The heat was one of the quickest on the day, and Harvey’s time was fast enough to advance him to the final.
“[I] just [had to] bite my teeth on the climbs and be strong in the finish,” he said of his effort in the semifinal.
The much anticipated final began with strong push from Thomas Northug, who led each of his heats to much success throughout the day. He powered out of the stadium and up the largest climb with Hattestad and the rest of the pack following closely behind. As the six skiers tackled the steep pitch, Petter Northug made a forceful move on the inside and bounded past his two teammates to take the lead.
Heading into the downhill, Harvey was in sixth and close to losing contact with the group. “I’m just too slow at the start so I couldn’t contend near the front,” he said of his position.
But Harvey wasn’t about to give up. As the skiers entered the second major climb of the course, the Canadian took advantage of a slowing Thomas Northug to surge past the Norwegian and Kriukov into fourth position.
Pellegrino led Northug and Hattestad into the stadium to the cheers of 18,000 fans, as Harvey rapidly gained. With 200 meters to go, Harvey powered past Hattestad to ski alongside Pellegrino and behind Northug. The Canadian soon realized he had the energy to overcome the leading Norwegian, and moved to the left track to challenge Northug.
The top four skiers were tightly grouped as each meter progressed, with Harvey leading the charge just inches behind Northug. The Canadian nearly pulled even with Northug at the finish line and attempted to out-lunge him. While the initial results reflected a near-tie, it was Northug who was able to outlast the Canadian by 0.05 seconds for the win.
“It’s a big relief when you’re crossing the line first. A sprint day is really long you have to focus for many hours,” he said in a post-race press conference. “You just try to stay focused and have your plan. For sure, I wanted to have everyone as tired as possible. That was my plan when I felt that the speed was going a little bit down on the first climb. I’m happy with my tactic and my final … I think I couldn’t do anything else.”
Northug, who had a turbulent year after an arrest for drunk driving in May, explained the focus of the season has beenWorld Championships and that the dates of the event had been “marked with red.” Northug has yet to win a World Cup in the 2015 season and said that he earned his starting spot in the World Championships sprint after winning the Norwegian National Championships sprint earlier this month. The Norwegian has now won every single competition at World Championships over the course of his career with the sprint victory in Falun.
According to the 29-year-old, Thursday’s final was especially meaningful because it gave him the opportunity to race his younger brother, Thomas.
“For sure it’s big. It means a lot to me, maybe more than my brother, that we were racing together.” Northug said. “It gives you a little bit extra to be fighting with your brother.”
Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said he believed Harvey could have overcome Northug, had the finishing straightaway been longer.
“I think if it would have been five more meters, he would have won the race,” Wadsworth said in a post-race interview. “[Harvey] said ‘oh i timed it kind of bad,’ but I think it was an amazing race, especially after being in last place at the top of the hill.”
Harvey reflected a similar sentiment, saying that he was gaining on Northug as they approached the finish. However, the Canadian was cautious in his speculation, adding, “I wouldn’t redo the race just to take that chance.”
When asked how he was able to advance from dead-last to a podium position, Harvey explained that his come-from-behind day wasn’t necessarily planned.
“I would like to lead on this course on the first hill if I could. [The course] is a bit more endurance-based and I am a bit more of an endurance-based athlete.” he said.
Despite trailing the pack at the key point in the race, Harvey explained the first hill was more of a “warmup” and the second hill was where he needed to make his move. The Canadian added that he was confident in his skiing despite his position, because he knew his finishing speed was strong.
Wadsworth agreed, adding that fast skis also played a large role in Harvey’s performance.
“I think he knows what he’s capable of and he knew the skis were good enough to do that,” he said. “This course has such a fast downhill. Then all you have to do is run up that and everyone is going to run the same. Then you have to have enough speed for the end and his double poling has been really good.”
Louis Bouchard, Harvey’s personal coach for the last 10 years and head coach of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, said the course largely favored the 26-year-old because of its lengthy hills and prolonged finish. He explained that as the day went on, Harvey grew in strength while his competitors became tired.
Bouchard pointed to his athlete’s development as another piece of the Harvey success story. “The maturity and he’s more stable, he has less injury, he can train more and recover more, so I think it’s normal to expect to see him get better and better at 26 years old,” he siad.
Bouchard also explained that Harvey’s best-ever individual finish at a World Championships was meaningful, both on the individual level and because of the implications for the team. Cross Country Canada’s funding was reduced after a medal-less 2014 Olympics, and a strong result such as Harvey’s at the World Championships will help many within the organization to argue for increased finances.
“Now we can expect so many things,” he said. “You need it for the program. You need it for the development. That is a benefit for everybody in Canada, so that is good.”
As Harvey looks to the remainder of the Championships he will focus on Sunday’s 30 k skiathlon and the following week’s 50 k classic mass start. Last year in the 2014 World Cup finals Harvey won the 30 k skiathlon on the trails of Falun. While the course is slightly different in 2015, Harvey is hopeful that he will find similar success. He also joked that if either distance race were similar to Thursday’s sprint, he would have a longer time to win a final sprint.
“The 50 k will take longer to do that last stretch so maybe I will have time to go around him,” Harvey said, referring to his finishing battle with Northug.
In third, Hattestad said he was relieved to have won the photo finish over Kriukov.
“If I had lost the photo finish against Kriukov, it would be a black day.” he said to Fædrelandsvennen. “There are small margins between success and failure. He came quickly, and I thought I lost it. It was lovely to see that I was ahead.”
Hattestad added that he entered the championships with high hopes due to his fitness since the new year.
Only 0.32 seconds from the podium, Pellegrino finished his day in fifth, marking his best classic sprint result to date. The Italian won the last three freestyle sprints on the World Cup circuit and considers himself a freestyle specialist.
“I am satisfied because I did 100 percent of my possibilities, not only physically, but also mentally. I tried to make the best tactic that my abilities could do so I am satisfied,” he said expressing his excitement for Sunday’s team sprint.
“This season for me was a very good season in free technique, today was classic technique. I know that physically I have to grow up, I have to be more strong, so for me in fifth place is good,” he added.
Cross country competition at the 2015 Nordic World Ski Championships continues Saturday with the 15/30 k skiathlons.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.