Although it’s only Day 2 of a young World Cup season, the image of Alex Harvey posing for cameras amongst the podium trio could become common. It has been in the past for the four-time world championship medalist; it just doesn’t usually come this early in the season.
In the men’s 10-kilometer freestyle on Saturday, the second day of the Ruka Triple mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby skated to the win in 21:05.5. Harvey of the Canadian World Cup Team finished in second, 11.2 seconds off the pace, and Swiss Olympic champion Dario Cologna rounded out the podium in third, 0.4 seconds back from Harvey.
Harvey, 27 is not exactly “green” when it comes to top-three results on the World Cup. But many things are new to Harvey and for the Canadian team.
First there’s the early results.
“It’s my first podium ever before Christmas and in Kuusamo it has been quite bad for me in skating. In the past, my best skating result here was 17th,” Harvey said in a post-race phone interview.
A fast start for Harvey is something new; a common thread in his skiing had been about building into the season and progressively into races. Although one distance race is a small sample size, Harvey and Canada’s head coach Justin Wadsworth believe this will be among many data points marking Harvey’s rise as a contender for the overall World Cup crown.
Second, there’s the seemingly “new” legs under Harvey. That’s the result from surgery on his iliac arteries this summer. Postoperative, Harvey says the blood flow in his legs make it so he can sustain harder efforts on steep uphills.
“The first thing that I noticed this summer and running training, I could actually push,” Harvey said. “In the past, I couldn’t get my heart rate past 155 in running because I was purely relying on my legs. And in skiing, I was able to have good results because I could compensate with the upper body. But any time there was a course where the legs were involved, a lot like Kuusamo, like the Tour de Ski climb, I could not really play for the top ten.”
Wadsworth predicted Harvey’s second place would be part of a trend. “From what we’ve seen from Alex in training this year, it’s been everything pointing to this,” he said.
The second stage of the Ruka Triple, the 10 k skate, was a proving ground. Kuusamo’s course is a grind. The type of course where it’s all about steep uphills with little recovery time. A course where if Harvey’s legs were going to flood or be sluggish, he’d know right away.
“I was pretty confident that it would be good in racing but you never know until you get a result. Black on white, written on paper,” Harvey said.
Starting 23rd, Harvey motored as soon as he tripped the gate. Building into the race, with increasingly faster splits is a Harvey hallmark. However, on this race day, the new sensations made for a change of strategy — he wanted to go sustainably fast enough to clock top-five splits throughout the race.
“Today, 1.5 k atop of the first big hill when I was getting good splits and my legs were not completely seizing up, I knew it was going to be a good day,” he said.
The consistency of Harvey’s effort is reflected by his splits: at 3.1 k, he was fourth, and fourth again at 6.2 k. At 8.1 k, fourth again. He picked up his pace towards the end.
“In an individual start I always try to pick it up for the last ‘k’ for sure,” he said. “That’s when a lot of guys are coming undone and I think for me historically in the past, that’s where I’ve been able to move from top five to the podium.”
Harvey crossed the line in first, bumping Norway’s Anders Gløersen out of the leader’s chair with a time that was 3.4 seconds faster than Gløersen’s. His work done, Harvey watched the adjacent screen with live results. Deciphering the list of splits, it became clear: Cologna was a threat.
With about one kilometer to go, there’s a steep headwall of a climb. Wadsworth positioned himself there with friend and Swiss coach Christian Flury, who used to coach in Canada. They provided splits for their skiers, and noticed the duel evolving.
“Oh yeah, when Dario went by on the last lap there when Christian was giving him all the info, how tight it was with Alex, we knew it was going to be tight at the finish,” Wadsworth said.
Cologna bested Harvey at every split, except the one that matters. Cologna slotted into second at the finish, 0.4 seconds behind.
With many big names still on the course — Northug and Sundby among them— Harvey knew any one of them could ski him out of contention.
Sundby remained in the hunt. Having secured the overall World Cup the past two years, it seems Sundby rarely has an off day. Saturday’s race confirmed that consistency; he posted the fastest splits at every checkpoint after 1.2 k.
Awaiting Sundby’s finish, Harvey said he knew what was coming.
“I was excited, but, I mean Sundby had quite a bit gap on me throughout the whole race. Like 5-10 seconds the whole race,” he said. “Unless he crashed … I didn’t really think I was going to beat him.”
Harvey’s exit from the leader’s chair came at the hands of Sundby, who finished in just over 21 minutes — a super-human effort even for Sundby.
“It was hard today, tougher than I had envisioned beforehand. In this course you get no rest for two seconds,” Sundby told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
With the win, Sundby becomes the Ruka Triple’s overall leader by 13.8 seconds followed by teammate Finn Hågen Krogh in second.
Another notable finish was Harvey’s teammate, Devon Kershaw in 24th. That stood as Kershaw’s best freestyle distance result since he won the 15 k skate in Rybinsk, Russia, in 2012. (He placed second in a 4.5 k freestyle prologue at the 2013/2014 Tour de Ski behind Harvey.)
“I mean, for me in an individual start skate to hit the points is a solid outing — so that shows that I must have felt ok,” Kershaw wrote in email.
Kershaw’s start bib number, 53, played into his race strategy. He started a bit conservatively, knowing eventual winner Sundby started next, only 30 seconds behind him.
“If you can catch a ride from the best skier in the World — you try your darnedest to do just that for as long as you possibly can,” he wrote.
Kershaw skated behind Sundby for 5 k.
“Of course the upside when you start 30 seconds up on the World #1 the last two years in a row is that if you can stay on his pace — it can help you….but the real goal was to stay on Sundby the whole way once he caught me — and I completely came undone with about 1.8km to go — and lost oodles of time (about 15 seconds) to the line,” he added. “When he launched his attack to the line I completely blew up and I was on fumes to the finish from there.”
Sunday’s final stage, a 15 k classic pursuit, will see Sundby start with nearly a 14-second head start. He’ll be chased by a who’s-who of skiing. But the duo to watch may be Harvey and Cologna starting 25 seconds back in fifth and sixth behind him — they’ve struck an alliance.
“I talked with Dario already. We are going to share the workload tomorrow,” Harvey said. “I don’t really expect Petter [Northug], to be doing much work. We have an advantage over Sundby, just cause we can share that. Today was quite windy in the stadium and on the flat sections. It’s good to take a different leads.”
Whether that alliance and those tactics succeed remains to be seen: Sundby is a force.
Also for Canada, Ivan Babikov placed 52nd, Graeme Killick 57th, Michael Somppi 93rd, Len Valjas 95th, and Jess Cockney 101st of 111 finishers.
Simi Hamilton led the U.S. men in 49th, Erik Bjornsen placed 54th, Noah Hoffman 58th, Andy Newell 85th, and Kris Freeman finished 88th after falling and breaking his pole. According to U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb, he was skiing just outside of the top 30 before that.
“It was a good race from Simi Hamilton who was flirting with the top 30 through 5 k,” Whitcomb said. “He started fading a bit in the second lap, but grabbed a couple more spots the last 2k to finish 49th. He demonstrated some great skate fitness and is going to be an exciting athlete to watch in Davos in two weeks.”
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.