CANMORE, Alberta — From the roots of patience and perception sprouts performance.
At least, such is the case for Finland’s Matti Heikkinen, who locked away his third World Cup win on Friday in the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle individual start at Stage 7 of the Ski Tour Canada.
“I think it’s five years ago when I’ve been winning race,” Heikkinen, whose last World Cup win was in 2011, told FasterSkier. “A little bit too long time, but it’s a sport you need to be stronger than anybody else if you want to win.”
Five years is a long time to chase after the top of the podium, but for Heikkinen, 32-years of age, it’s only a fraction of his lifelong career and passion: skiing.
“More than 20 years [in] the sport, and that makes me ready,” he said of his victory at the post-race press conference.
Along with persistence, Heikkinen, coming off a third-place finish in Wednesday’s 30 k skiathlon (Stage 6), remained perceptive of his opportunity to pull off the win.
“I [would] be very tired,” Heikkinen told FasterSkier regarding his expectations coming into 15 k. “But I saw yesterday, when we were making some training, I saw [on] other athletes’s faces that everybody will be tired.”
After starting 49th, the Finn was skiing in 10th at the 2.7 k mark, trailing the race leader at the time, Marcus Hellner of Sweden by 9.3 seconds. At 7.7 k, Heikkinen had moved into fourth, just six-tenths of a second behind the Swede.
Heading into his third lap, Heikkinen punched the pace. With 2.3 k to go, he surpassed Hellner, who dropped to third, by 12.3 seconds, as well as Russia’s Evgeniy Belov, who had previously led at that point.
“I know that I can be stronger than anybody else in the uphills,” Heikkinen said of how he made up ground on his competitors.
Heikkinen held his lead from then on, finishing with a time of 35:16.3, with 13.6 seconds to spare on Belov’s previous time to beat.
“It feels good,” Heikkinen said of his victory, “I will go to the sauna [to celebrate].”
After leading the last third of the race until Heikkinen blew through the checkpoints, Belov took second on the day. It marked his first individual podium of the season, and he finished 48.8 seconds ahead of his Russian teammate and current Tour leader, Sergey Ustiugov, sending a clear message about his performance.
“Sergey is not the only strong skier on the team,” 25-year-old Belov said at a press conference. “[Our] entire group was preparing for this specific moment, this specific week.”
Ustiugov placed 12th on Friday, 1:02.4 behind Heikkinen, but remains 32.3 seconds ahead of Norway’s Petter Northug in the Tour standings with one stage to go.
Hellner also achieved his first individual podium of the season, placing third, just 0.3 seconds out of second place.
“I’m a bit surprised because it’s been a tough season for me,” Hellner told FasterSkier. “It was one of my goals to come back and be in this kind of result, but I don’t know if I believed it all the time.”
The 30-year-old Swede has fought a few illnesses and injuries this season, none of which held him back from fortifying his presence on the circuit in time for the finale of the Ski Tour Canada (STC).
“How it felt today in the morning when I woke up I didn’t believe that I could be this high in the results,” Hellner said. “But that’s how sport and cross country is, you never know. That’s the beauty of it also. Sometimes it just turns around and you’re surprised by yourself.”
As the athletes head into the final stage of the Tour, Ustuigov continues to lead, while Northug sits in second (after finishing eighth on Friday, 47.4 seconds behind Heikkinen). Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who placed sixth (+37.5) on Friday, is 39.6 seconds back in third. Canada’s Alex Harvey is 2:10.3 minutes back in fourth and Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh (seventh on Friday) is 3:29 behind in fifth overall.
‘Best Race of My Life’ for Harvey in Canmore; Four Canadians in Top 30
At altitude, some racers have to hold on. Harvey is no longer one of them.
“I think it’s one of the best races of my life here [in Canmore],” Harvey said afterward. “I’ve struggled a lot in my life with altitude, on this specific course. It doesn’t suit my style of skiing, but I’m amazed by the day today.”
The 31st starter, Harvey initially finished second behind Belov, in bib 24, until Heikkenen bumped both down to second and third, then Hellner knocked Harvey out of the top three.
Still, Harvey, a 27-year-old Quebec native, considered his fourth-place finish (+21.7) a breakthrough moment dating back to his early years on the Canmore Nordic Centre’s trails.
“When I was a junior I was struggling to be top three in Canada just on this course,” Harvey explained. “And I’d be top three at World Juniors. Canmore has been really hard on me in the past … I never thought I would be strong internationally on a course like this. Now today I’m fourth, so anything is possible.
“Today, to me, that’s what it shows,” he added. “That anything is possible.”
When it comes to their home course, the Canadian men know how to crank. Counting Harvey’s fourth-place finish, four athletes from Canada landed well within the top 30, ending the season on a high note before the final stage of the STC.
“We skipped Lahti [World Cups in Finland] and we’ve trained here at altitude to prepare for Canmore because we knew these four races are kind of the crux [of the Tour],” Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth explained. “I’m really happy that the guys did a good job in their prep camp here and it’s paying off.”
For the second-straight race, Ivan Babikov placed 10th (+1:00.2) on Friday, after notching a season-best 10th in the skiathlon.
“Alex has been solid the whole season, pushing our team,” Babikov, 35, said of his teammate Harvey. “He’s still young and I think he has some of his best races of his career ahead of him.”
In regards to his own top 10, Babikov, a Canmore local, credited his family, friends and fans teeming the trail sides.
“For all of us, here at home we got to deliver for our people and community here,” he said.
Babikov moved up two spots to 15th overall in the Tour, 7:43.5 out of first and 18.7 seconds from 14th.
Devon Kershaw was the third Canadian in the top 20 on Friday in 20th (+1:30.0), putting him in 17th (+8:27.9) overall.
“I felt really really good for 12 k and then the last 3 k I think I died,” Kershaw said. “The soft snow got me and I really struggle to the line which is too bad because I think I was putting together a really good race until that time.”
Kershaw, who also has a home in Canmore, attributed much of his success to the home crowd.
“It’s just so fun to race at home,” Kershaw said. “It’s my mom’s birthday is tomorrow and she’s here and of course, friends and family … I’ve been pretty nervous this week because I haven’t had that many great races in Canmore before. So today was an exception to that and I’m pretty happy.”
Graeme Killick rounded out Canada’s top 30 finishers in 29th (+1:48.4).
“I’m super pumped on that,” Killick said. “I didn’t know what to expect … It’s just a brutal course; every lap adds up. You start as easy as you can and then just try to maintain.”
For the Americans, U.S. ski team member Noah Hoffman led the team, finishing in 23rd (+1:34.1).
“I’m just happy to be skiing clean and little closer to what I feel like is a representative effort,” Hoffman said. “I’m really impressed with the Canadians. I mean they’re going to have three in the top  again, which is really cool.”
Though Harvey and Hoffman did overlap each other on course, Hoffman was by himself for most of the 3 x 5 k course.
“Alex came by me but he was too much to stick on,” Hoffman said. “At the very end I got bib 55 from Russia, which was nice kind of down the last hill. But other than that, I was on my own, which was fine. It’s a course where rides are less important because it’s so hard and not a lot of drafting to be had.”
U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb found Hoffman’s result on Friday a good sign for the final STC stage, the 15 k classic pursuit.
“It’s hard to put together a more difficult course,” Whitcomb said. “And yet Hoff still put together a good race, placing [23rd]. He was dancing right around the edge of top 30 through the first couple laps and I think was able to ratchet it up and really finished strong today. So I think that bodes well for tomorrow.”
Also for the U.S., Erik Bjornsen finished 34th (+2:08.1) on Friday, tired, but tenacious to tag back onto a group in Saturday’s pursuit.
“I’m starting to feel a little tired,” Bjornsen said afterward. “Hopefully I can get a good night of sleep and recovery. Fifteen k classics are usually the best events for me … should be some good opportunities to fight with some fast guys.”
Tad Elliott (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail) finished in 41st for the U.S., and Canadians Kevin Sandau (Alberta World Cup Academy) and Russell Kennedy (Canmore Nordic) followed in 43rd and 45th, respectively. American Scott Patterson finished 47th, while Canada’s Lenny Valjas (Canadian World Cup Team) and Michael Somppi (Thunder Bay National Development Centre) came in 49th and 50th, respectively.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.