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 — After two medals at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, it was easy for Alex Harvey to think what could have been in the moments after the men’s 50-kilometer classic mass start on Sunday.
He had just been recognized at a snowy medals ceremony, held in the center of the stadium on the final day of Falun’s World Championships. But instead of a gold, silver or bronze, the 26-year-old Canadian received a wooden horse.
Fifth wasn’t what he had gone into the race hoping for, and had he made a few different decisions during it, Harvey couldn’t help but speculate he would have been in podium contention by the finish.
“I should have adapted my strategy better in the race and not try to go for the breaks,” Harvey said, noting the snowfall and choppy conditions made it nearly impossible to ski away from the group. “It is my best championship ever so I am really happy, but today, it felt like I could have got a bit better.”
Conditions were as slow as they get on Sunday, once again a few degrees above freezing and with wet snowfall — which came down heavily at times during the race — that made the salted course even softer.
“It was one of the slowest 50 k’s in modern history,” Harvey said, referring to the winning time of 2 hours, 26 minutes. “It was slow everywhere.”
“Some places it was perfect, really nice, and some places it was just mashed potatoes,” said his teammate, Ivan Babikov. “Couldn’t ski, couldn’t walk it, especially at the beginning of [each] lap, it was really bad. … The last uphill was the worst … just going in knee-deep slush.”
Canada’s third man in the race, 26-year-old Graeme Killick, found the hardest part to be the initial ascent out of the stadium.
“It was so loose, you felt like you needed a canoe to get through [it],” Killick said.
Harvey, Babikov and Killick all put themselves squarely in the lead pack out of the start. At 3.3 k, Harvey and Babikov were in the top seven, within 2.4 seconds of the leader (Norway’s Didrik Tønseth at the time). Upon returning to the stadium at 5 k, Harvey and Babikov skied together in seventh and eighth, still 2.4 seconds back, while Killick was another eight seconds behind in 30th.
After topping the biggest climb on the course, affectionately known as Mördarbacken, Babikov and Harvey led the 49-man pack with American Noah Hoffman and Great Britain’s Andrew Musgrave just behind them. There, at 7.8 k, Killick was 2.4 seconds back in 13th.
“When you’re going easy, you might as well be in the front, because then that’s when everybody’s sketchy on the downhills,” Harvey explained. “There’s guys who are not going easy just to follow that pace, and they’re sketch on the downhills. So when the pace is that slow, it’s good to be at the front.”
At the bottom of the course at 10 k, Babikov was still in the lead, just ahead of Hoffman and Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, as well as Sweden’s defending 50 k world champion, Johan Olsson. Over the next 10-plus kilometers, Olsson took control up front, sharing the workload with competitors like Heikkinen, Tønseth and Russia’s Maxim Vylegzhanin.
But the Swede never made the move that Harvey, for one, was waiting for.
“Everybody thought Olsson would try to break away,” Harvey recalled. “He was trying — he would open 15-second gaps and stuff, but it would always come back on the downhill.
“I should have read the situation better and adapted the plan more than I did,” he added. “I knew Olsson was in good shape and really motivated, but with the snow falling there was … no point trying to break away. [I] spent a lot of energy there.”
Norway’s Niklas Dyrhaug and Sweden’s Anders Södergren spent some time in the limelight leading for much of the third of five 10 k complete laps.
At 27.8 k, once again at the top of Mördarbacken, Harvey led again, ahead of Vylegzhanin and the Czech Republic’s Lukas Bauer, while Olsson hung in seventh, 5 seconds behind. Killick and Babikov were about 12 seconds back in the top 30.
At 30 k, Olsson left the stadium first, 0.9 seconds ahead of Vylegzhanin and 1.5 seconds ahead of Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin in third, while Harvey skied 1.9 seconds back in fourth. Babikov was within four seconds of the lead in sixth, and Killick was just 6.2 seconds back in eighth.
“Our skis were just amazing,” Killick said. “You can feel better than what you’re actually at so I was keeping that in mind, just trying to stay as relaxed as possible and even if I felt like I could be skiing right up at the front, just trying to stay relaxed in the top 15 there and not overdoing it on the steeps and using the skis on the downhills to get back in there.”
Team tactics weren’t a part of the plan, according to Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth. But with three men in the lead pack, it made the race a lot more fun for the Canadians.
“It’s always easier to ski with your teammates,” Wadsworth said. “When they could do that, they were taking advantage of it. Everybody had good skis and you kind of feel a little something extra when you see your whole team up there in the front of the race for most of the race.”
Like everyone else in the race, Harvey and Killick changed their skis twice, but Babikov was one of two skiers out of 45 finishers that switched just once (Japan’s Hiroyuki Miyazawa was the other).
“I couldn’t believe that my skis were so good,” Babikov recalled.
One reporter thought he saw him laughing at one point.
“I was just smiling,” Babikov said. “I was enjoying myself.”
Around 34 k, Babikov went several meters off the front of the pack while Harvey and the rest of the group followed up Lille “Little” Mordarbacken. Both he and Harvey said the pace was slow at the time — Harvey described it as Zone 2 — and at the tops of a series of hills, Babikov glanced back, stopped and waited for everyone else to catch up.
“I didn’t realize I had a gap,” Babikov said. “It was maybe a bit foolish, but I had no idea. It was not my intention to drop the pack, I was just trying to keep the pace up [the hill] the same.”
“I couldn’t believe that my skis were so good … I was just smiling. I was enjoying myself.” — Ivan Babikov, Canadian World Cup Team member, after leading several parts of the 2015 World Championships 50 k classic mass start
At 35 k, Babikov and Killick blew past the pit stop to leave the stadium in first and third, respectively, with Bauer between them. Harvey opted to use his second available ski change and emerged from the stadium in 13th, 16 seconds back. Just over a kilometer later, Harvey was back in sixth, 12 seconds behind Södergren, who by then had opened up a nine-second gap on Olsson in second.
“We said change if your skis don’t feel good; we kind of gave him the option,” Wadsworth explained. “Killick kept going and Babs kept going, but Harvey changed, and you never know, maybe that was the right [decision].”
About a kilometer later, on the far side of the course, someone skied over Babikov’s pole and broke it, Babikov said. He dropped to 24th, nearly 28 seconds out.
“I fell out of the group; it took some energy to get back,” Babikov said. “Maybe that cost me.”
By 40 k, the pack had pulled Södergren back in, with France’s Maurice Manificat, Vylegzhanin and Harvey leading the effort. Killick hung in 21st, 36 seconds back, and Babikov was in 27th, nearly 50 seconds out of first.
“It was really good for two-thirds [of the race],” Babikov said. “Last 10 k, that was really rough, I started cramping everywhere. I couldn’t even sit down on the downhill.”
Throughout the final 10 k, the pace picked up considerably, with Harvey pushing to keep himself in the medal hunt while skiing in the top 10.
“He looked strong, but the pace was going hard and I could tell he was trying to position himself, but not quite getting into the top four,” Wadsworth said.
That is, until he put himself in fifth by passing Switzerland’s Dario Cologna in the stadium before the finish. Coming off a high-speed downhill, he used his momentum to slip past Cologna and stay ahead of him on the final rise and curving descent toward the finishing straight.
“With five k to go, or by the top of Mördarbacken, I started getting low-energy levels,” Harvey said. “I was still in contention on the [final steep uphill] and then I was completely spent. … There was just four guys ahead of me by [the last rise], so I was still within reach of the podium, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t make any speed.”
He finished 6 seconds after Norwegian winner Petter Northug, while Bauer took silver, 1.7 seconds back, and Olsson edged Vylegzhanin for third by 0.8 seconds. Harvey finished 3.2 seconds later in fifth.
“I didn’t have anything left,” he said.
Killick placed 19th (+1:44.1) for his best international result after placing 28th in the 50 k freestyle mass start at the Olympics last year. With that performance in mind, he said he aimed for a top 30 on Sunday.
“I was just hoping I would hang in there and not cramp on the last few laps,” Killick said. “[When it comes to] 50 k’s, it seems like they’re really hit and miss for me. Domestically I’ve struggled to get top 15, but internationally, my best results have been in the 50. If I’m in shape, they can go really well, but I would say the focus for me [at World Championships] was the pursuit [skiathlon], which I didn’t end up doing because I got sick in Östersund two weeks ago. When that was out, the 50 became the main focus.”
He said the fans lining the course, which included his parents and girlfriend, helped motivate him in the tough conditions.
“Just the whole way up Mördarbacken, they’re cheering you the whole way,” he said. “It gives you the little bit extra to get up the hard hill like that.”
Reflecting on his season so far and first World Championships, Killick, a Canadian National Development B-team member, said he was excited about his prospects.
“This year I was able to start on the World Cup for the first time in my career and spend a significant portion of the year over here,” he said. “Just seeing the level and seeing how these guys train and race I think has given me a lot of ideas for next year. I’m really excited to try to take the next step and become a contender here on the World Cup.”
Babikov finished 30th (+3:48.4), and he said he was pleased with his effort, all things considered.
“It was a bit too much for me at the end, just a bit of the on-and-off pace, and that’s what put me under,” he explained. “I used what I had today. I gave my 110-percent for sure.”
With three men competing out of a possible four (Kershaw had to skip the one race he planned to compete in at World Championships after being diagnosed with walking pneumonia), Wadsworth spoke positively about their results.
“They all skied pretty strong, and fifth place is not bad,” Wadsworth said. “We were obviously hoping for a medal, but it’s been a good championships.”
For most everyone on the team, he said the results met or exceeded expectations. And it took a total team effort, from the wax technicians, who “nailed the skis so many times in a row” to Cross Country Canada’s high-performance director Tom Holland “running around the grocery store, buying food for our cook,” Wadsworth said.
“We brought a strong team that came here and all did well,” he said. “That’s awesome. That’s what we’re looking for.”
— Lander Karath, Chelsea Little and Gerry Furseth contributed reporting
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.