Ce fut une bonne journée pour accrocher votre chapeau.
Quick translation from French — “It was a good day to hold onto your hat.” On Friday, it was also a good day to understand French, as two native French speakers from countries thousands of miles apart, finished 1-2 in the 1.7-kilometer freestyle sprint at the third stage of the Ski Tour Canada in Quebec City.
France’s Baptiste Gros won the men’s final in 3:36.26. It was Gros’ first ever World Cup victory and his fourth career podium. The other French speaker, and local boy done good, was Canada’s Alex Harvey skiing to second (+0.55), for his fifth-career sprint podium. Overall Tour leader, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov finished third, 0.79 seconds behind the winner.
The hat-holding reference made earlier wasn’t for the victorious Francophones or the hell-bent pace of the day, or any strong winds. It was for this: On Friday’s sprint course, outside the gates of Old Quebec City on historic ground called the Plains of Abraham, World Cup-level speeds were matched with racing rife with World Cup-level scuffling. During the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, skiers had to endure cold-induced lung burn, but also a six-person deep scrum of skiers aggressively attempting to position themselves.
Here’s a few anecdotes of the carnage. The second men’s quarterfinal featured two North Americans: U.S. Ski Team sprinter Andy Newell, who qualified 23rd and Canadian Jess Cockney who qualified 29th. Add in Italy’s Federico Pellegrino, Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain, Sweden’s Teodor Peterson, and the day’s winner Gros and it became a perfect storm to start off the tumult.
At 2:54 in, Newell looked fresh as he slotted behind Gros in first. The two bumped boots and suddenly Newell was down. Pellegrino, a breath behind Newell, tripped and buckled over the American.
In the next heat, quarterfinal 3, Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh, wearing bib number 1 as the day’s fastest qualifier, led for most of the heat. Out front, Krogh looked comfortable, even sublime.
At 3:04, still leading, but with the heat’s eventual winner Frenchman Richard Jouve seemingly riding his tails, just as he crested a hill from a furious V1, Krogh tripped.
And another image: Erik Bjornsen, also of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), moments after crossing the line in quarterfinal 5 (Bjornsen qualified 27th and placed fourth in the heat), got into a brief altercation with Great Britain’s Andrew Young, who placed third. Young was seen on TV cameras pushing Bjornsen first and Bjornsen pushed him back.
However, one skier able to navigate all this unscathed was second-place skier in the fifth quarterfinal, Harvey. It was his day to cash in his chips.
No doubt about it, Harvey is a local. He grew up about a 40-minute drive north of Quebec City in Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Quebec. He’s part of Canada’s skiing royalty. His father Pierre was a Canadian Olympian in both cycling and cross-country skiing. There’s the family name to uphold and honoring the home crowd. But sometimes the pressure of performing in front of friends and family can get to athletes. That wasn’t the case for Harvey on Friday.
Instead of buckling under expectations, he rose to the occasion.
Although an all-around skier, Harvey has struggled this year to qualify in the sprints. Here’s his 2015/2016 sprinting rundown in terms of qualifying: Harvey has qualified in only four sprints this season; three of which were in classic technique. The first freestyle sprint he qualified for this season was earlier this week in the first stage of the STC in Gatineau, Quebec. Harvey last podiumed in a skate sprint in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, two seasons ago in January 2014.
Call today a breakthrough or a perfect alignment of timing and place. Either way, Harvey skied like he owned the course.
Friday, Harvey made it a personal two-peat. He began his day qualifying for his second-straight skate sprint. In Quebec, he was 12th in qualifying, 4.63 seconds off of Krogh’s best time of 3:33.14.
Then he finished second in his quarterfinal and first in his semi to cruise to the finals. As each round progressed Harvey noted he could sense the crowd’s energy.
“After each round, the crowd got louder and louder,” Harvey said after the race. “The fans were amazing, they gave me wings.”
Wings are a good way of describing the lightness one feels when a collective mass of people are willing the win. Harvey flew to a semifinal win in 3:40.68, besting Norway’s Petter Northug by 0.14 seconds.
In the final, it was Gros, Ustiugov, Northug, Poland’s Maciej Starega, Jouve, and Harvey lined up as a northern sun kissed only the tallest buildings in Quebec City. By finals time, the course was shaded and looking cold.
Ustiugov started out hammering in front and Northug kept the tension high as he shadowed in the rear. A minute in, Harvey skied just to the side, in third, keeping a lane open for an acceleration. Thirty seconds later, he was nearly side-by-side with Ustiugov as they skied along the old city’s fortress-like walls.
By 2:30, there was no doubt, Harvey was on form. He matched a steamrolling Ustiugov up a decisive climb. Cresting the top, it looked for a moment that the Russian would run away with a sizable lead. But Harvey kept the finish in sight amongst the deafening crowd.
In the home stretch the Canadian slingshotted to the outside around Ustiugov who was on fumes as he faded to third. Elusively charging up on the inside was Gros, taking the win.
“At the top of the last uphill, I was right behind Ustiugov in the best position possible,” Harvey said about coming so close to the win. “I thought I could win this one, but then Baptiste passed me on my right and surprised everyone.”
Harvey even outclassed the master of outclassing on the final sprint, Northug. Evidently, Harvey winked at the Norwegian in the finishing pen.
“Few people can say they were faster than Northug in the last hundred meters of a sprint finish,” Harvey explained in a press conference. “He’s the best finisher since 2006, so it was my way of telling him I could hang with him!”
Harvey, winner of four World Championship medals, two of which came in individual classic sprints, could have been off some competitors’ radars this season. In Canada, during the final race series of the World Cup season, it’s Harvey making the statement.
“Right now, I’m in the best shape of this season,” Harvey said. “That was the goal.”
Historically, it has been a bit rough for the Canadians racing in Quebec. The last time the World Cup visited the city, back in 2012, Harvey had the best showing for the Canadians in the individual skate sprint in 21st place. Then a week later in a skate sprint in Canmore, Alberta, Harvey didn’t qualify in 52nd.
Fast-forward to 2016: Friday was a big day for the Canadians.
Harvey moved up two spots into fourth overall in the Tour standings — 1:56.8 back from Ustiugov, who continues to lead the Tour. Northug is second overall (+16.7), and Iversen is third (+24.3).
One parent asked after the race if they were confident their son would make it to the finals was Alex’s father Pierre.
“No! He didn’t do it once this season, but you dream of that one time where you can do it in front of your friends and family,” Pierre Harvey told FasterSkier. “He’s on a cloud right now. … During the Tour de Ski, they were tough moments for Alex. At one point, I thought he would call saying he’s coming back home. With all the waxing setbacks, it’s hard when you’re training like crazy.”
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth, for one, wasn’t surprised with the result.
“Alex can podium in every day on the right day,” Wadsworth wrote in an email. “His skating has come up a notch, most likely due to the surgery he had last spring, but he’s always been solid in every aspect of WC [World Cup] racing.”
Last spring, Harvey had surgery on his iliac arteries in both legs to relieve pain that worsened in hilly skate races. He went on to start the season with a confirmation it was the right move: he placed second in the 10 k skate at the World Cup opener in Finland.
As for how he commanded Friday’s final on home turf, Wadsworth said, “He knew where he had to be and when he had to be there, and stuck to this perfectly. He is one of the best tactical skiers out there. This course had a couple choke points, and if you were back on those it was hard to move into the right position toward the finish.”
He stressed the importance of Harvey’s podium for the team, at home with its coaches, wax techs and a large number of athletes representing Canada as well “many whom have not had a chance to be part of a WC podium before,” Wadsworth wrote. “It’s been a really great working team of staff here that normally don’t work together, so having something to celebrate together is important.”
“He is one of the best tactical skiers out there.” — Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth, on Alex Harvey’s second place in Friday’s freestyle sprint
Cross Country Canada’s new CEO, Pierre Lafontaine told FasterSkier that a strong program is built success by success.
“I think it’s a sum of things, you know,” Lafontaine said. “Like Alex’s position and he is getting better and better as the season goes on. It’s powerful. It’s powerful that it happened at home in front of Canadians. We got two guys in the top twelve that’s powerful. Two or three days ago we had three guys in the top 30, one girl scored [points] that had never scored before. So it’s by hosting at home, it empowers these kids to push themselves even more.”
The celebration for Harvey’s second place was noted by sprint winner Gros.
“It’s funny because it’s almost as if Alex won today!” Gros said after the race.“It’s a big deal for him, he didn’t perform well this season in sprints. He’s looking to do well on the overall rankings, while I’m primarily focused on freestyle sprints. So you could say, I’m a ‘casse-pieds’ [ translation: pain in the neck!]”
Having skied on the World Cup since 2014, this was Gros’ first World Cup win. He’s placed third once, and second on three occasions.
“It’s funny because it’s almost as if Alex won today … So you could say, I’m a ‘casse-pieds’ [pain in the neck!]” — France’s Baptiste Gros, 25, after winning his first World Cup on Friday in Quebec City
“In the past, I placed second in a World Cup, I kept finishing second, but I really wanted to win and I knew I had better chances in freestyle,” Gros said. “This morning, it was my last chance to win a freestyle sprint this season, so I told myself ‘I got to win today!’
“I find it magical! To do a course on the Plaines d’Abraham, with the crowd and the city laying in the background, it’s so surprising. We’re not used to that kind of crazy atmosphere.”
Other North Americans in the Heats and Beyond
Canada’s Cockney eked into the heats by qualifying 29th, 8.48 seconds out of first and 0.52 seconds ahead of 30th. Once in the heats, Cockney made the most of it.
He skied a stellar quarterfinal assuring himself a place in the semis by finishing second, 0.54 seconds back from Gros as the winner of that second quarterfinal. That was the heat where Newell tumbled out of contention.
Cockney raced in the second semifinal and finished in fifth (+2.49). Ustiugov won that semi in 3:37.42.
Post-race, Cockney, a 26-year-old National Senior Development Team skier, was elated with his 10th place on the day.
“Man, I have had a really hard go of it this year,” Cockney said. “Nothing was working at the start of the year … So this is a big lift. I’m really happy with that. Skiing a semifinal is always awesome. Nice to have a two heat day again.”
This was Cockney’s third time qualifying in a sprint and only his second time racing in a World Cup semifinal. His other semifinal came in 2012 at the skate sprint in Canmore, where he raced to ninth overall.
For American Simi Hamilton, who raced to second in Stage 1 sprint three days earlier, anything was possible. Hamilton qualified 13th. Again proving he’s no fluke, Hamilton won quarterfinal 4 in a photo finish with Finland’s Martti Jylhä.
In his semifinal, which Harvey won, Hamilton finished fourth (+0.86). Although Hamilton was a sliver from automatically advancing by placing first or second, his semifinal was just over three seconds slower than the first semifinal. As a result, no lucky losers advanced from Hamilton’s semi.
The U.S. sprinter told FasterSkier that Friday’s rounds were difficult.
“It was crazy, it was really hard,” he said. “A minute-fifteen longer than pretty much anything.”
Hamilton also mentioned he felt better as the day progressed.
“It didn’t feel great qualifying, but felt better in my quarter and actually felt good in my semi,” he said. “But I really wanted to conserve energy early on so you know we had a really slow heat. I was happy just kind of tucked in towards the back, and focusing on relaxing.”
Hamilton also referenced a make-or-break move by Northug in his semifinal that he didn’t have an answer for. “Petter made a move at the top of the first climb,” Hamilton said. “I was little too far back and I didn’t react to it quick enough. So I when I tried to get back up and bridge that gap, when we got to the second climb here, I actually felt really good on the climb, and put a bit of a surge to see what would happen. But I couldn’t really go anywhere so I had to just hoped for the best coming into the finish.”
Hamilton finished the day eighth overall.
Another U.S. skier in the top 20, Bjornsen ended up 20th overall for a career-best in an individual World Cup sprint.
The skier from Washington’s Methow Valley, who lives and trains with Alaska Pacific University (APU) in Anchorage, qualified in 27th. Bjornsen was ultimately bumped from competition when he placed fourth in his quarterfinal, 2.56 seconds behind heat winner Emil Iversen of Norway.
In his interview with FasterSkier, Bjornsen mentioned the compact nature of the group in his quarterfinal.
“Like most of them, it was pretty tight,” Bjornsen said. “Hard to make passes. I kind of went for a fast start out of it so I felt like I was in a pretty good position. I was just not quite strong enough to have that surge to make to that semifinal.”
Asked about his brief finish-line scuffle with Young, who finished third, 0.18 seconds ahead of him, Bjornsen said, “There was just quite a bit of tangle the whole time. We were just stepping all over each other’s stuff, and we were both just disappointed at the end. It’s all fine. We talked right afterward in the pen so it’s all good.”
Team veteran Newell had a tough run in the quarters. He got there by qualifying 23rd. Yet in his heat, the second quarterfinal, he tripped up while skiing behind Gros.
“Disappointing crash, ’cause I felt this is actually kind of a fun course,” Newell told FasterSkier afterward. “I thought I skied a good heat, tactically well. I was feeling strong and ready to attack the last hill. So it’s too bad with the crash. Greatly disappointing, but what can you do?”
Newell described his tangle and nasty spill in more detail. “I was behind Baptiste [Gros], I came out of the draft, and we both started to skate at the same time. So we bumped boots, you know? I went down hard. Nobody’s fault. It’s what happens.”
Newell sat stunned for a few moments and finished sixth in the heat, 52 seconds out of first. Pellegrino recovered quicker and ended up fifth, 2.73 seconds behind Gros as the winner.
That put Newell in 29th and Pellegrino in 21st overall; for Pellegrino, it was enough to secure his first Sprint World Cup Crystal Globe and he became the first non-Scandinavian male to win the season-long title. (He needed to finish in the top 22 to do so.)
As of late, Newell has tried to jump start what he has considered to have been a difficult season.
“Just trying to take it one day at a time,” Newell said. “I am obviously not in my best shape right now. I’m kind of suffering a little bit, and just trying to make it through the season. It hasn’t been a great last month for me. I haven’t been sick, I’ve just not been feeling very good. So that’s hard, at the end of a season, when you are not feeling well. It’s no fun to race when you are not at your best. It’s one of the hardest things for an athlete to do. So just trying to make it through some of these races. And then, yeah, take it one day at a time.”
Also for the U.S., Reese Hanneman (APU) placed 45th, Eric Packer (APU) was 48th, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) 64th, Noah Hoffman (SSCV/USST) 65th, Scott Patterson (APU) 70th, Tad Elliott (SSCV) 76th, Brian Gregg (Team Gregg) 79th, Matt Liebsch (Gear West) 80th.
Also for Canada, Len Valjas (CNST) finished 38th, Devon Kershaw (CNST) 53rd, Knute Johnsgaard (AWCA/CNST) 54th, Andy Shields (NDC Thunder Bay) 56th, Michael Somppi (NDC Thunder Bay) 59th, Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA) 68th, Graeme Killick (CNST) 71st, Ivan Babikov (CNST) 72nd, (Russell Kennedy (Canmore Nordic) 73rd, Kevin Sandau (AWCA) 74th, Bob Thompson (NDC Thunder Bay) 78th, and Simon Lapointe (Skinouk) 81st.
The STC continues Saturday with Stage 4, the men’s 15 k and women’s 10 k freestyle pursuits in Quebec City.
— Gerry Furseth, François Léger Dionne, Harald Zimmer, and Alex Kochon contributed
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.