Alex Harvey wasn’t feeling 100 percent on Sunday, but he didn’t need to be. Within three seconds of the leaders and eighth place at the finish of the men’s 10-kilometer classic mass start was essentially what he needed to secure one of the most coveted positions on the Tour de Ski right now: third place.
Ahead of him, Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby have built a nearly one-minute and 40-second lead on third place, respectively. With another victory on Sunday, Ustiugov has back-to-back wins in the first two stages of the Tour. Sundby was fourth in Saturday’s freestyle sprint and second on Sunday, good enough for second in the Tour, 18.9 seconds behind Ustiugov.
Then there’s Harvey, of Canada, who finished sixth on Saturday then eighth on Sunday for third in the Tour. He realized during the mass start that it was all about whom he was ahead of rather than a specific place he needed to finish in.
For instance, Finn Hågen Krogh. The Norwegian was third going into Sunday and finished 34th in the mass start, 50.1 seconds behind Ustiugov. That puts him 11th after two stages, nearly 1 1/2 minutes out of first.
“Not a lot happened, I just skied really slow,” Krogh told VG after Sunday’s race. “It was boring to do such a slow race.”
He wasn’t sure exactly what went awry on Day 2 of the Tour, but Krogh — expected to be one of Norway’s biggest threats aside from Sundby — was considering dropping out.
“Yeah, that might happen, but I should probably calm down a little before I make such a decision,” he said.
(His teammate Emil Iversen assured reporters that Krogh wouldn’t quit this early. “It’s about inspiring each other regardless of good or bad performances,” he told VG. “It’ll work out, I’ll show him some nice pictures of women on Instagram and then we’ll get him back on track.”)
During the race, which included nearly 80 starters on a 2.5 k course in Val Müstair, Switzerland, Harvey took note of Krogh’s off day. Same thing with Iversen, another all-around contender, who started the mass start in eighth and ended up 18th for fifth overall in the Tour, 9.6 seconds behind Harvey.
“When I started looking at the overall map after yesterday, I knew of course Dario [Cologna], Sundby, Ustiugov and then Finn and Emil were the main threats up there .. and [Sweden’s Marcus] Hellner, too,” Harvey recalled on the phone. “When I saw that Finn and Emil where having a tougher day, I knew it was going to be good for me in the overall standings. I was still able to finish hard and my skis were really fast so I could make up some ground on the downhill, but I was still seven seconds off the pace so I didn’t lose too too much time.”
Exactly seven seconds behind Ustiugov at the finish, he finished less than a hundredth of a second ahead of Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, who placed ninth. In addition to the first and second finishers, Harvey followed five others across the line: Norway’s Didrik Tønseth (who finished 2.3 seconds back in third) and Sjur Røthe (+3.3 in fourth), Switzerland’s Cologna in fifth (+5.5), Finland’s Matti Heikkinen in sixth (+5.6), and Hellner in seventh (+6.0). But he’s ahead of all of them in the Tour standings.
“The finish was real good. Actually, I didn’t think I was eighth at the line, I thought I was more like 12th or 13th, so I made up a lot of ground on the last kilometer,” Harvey said. “Once we hit the sprint hill I passed three guys there, and then two guys out of the last curve, so that’s five guys in the last 500 meters. I passed a few guys before that, too, so I just didn’t know… I was really happy with being in the top 10 again.”
For Harvey, that’s his third-straight top 10 on the World Cup circuit and seventh this season.
“Over Christmas, I was feeling really, like, really good,” he said. “… I was hoping to be in the top five [overall] from the beginning, so I would say the results are like what I was feeling over Christmas, but the feeling is not so. I don’t know if that is a good thing or bad thing, but I chose it’s a good thing.”
The race feeling Harvey was referring to was a lack of snap on Val Müstair’s climbs. The highest point on the course is 1,700 meters, he explained, compared to Davos, Switzerland, where he trained over the holiday break at 1,530 meters.
“It’s not a huge difference, but I didn’t have great feelings, same as yesterday,” Harvey said. “Even though we spent Christmas in Davos and we should be climatized, it was tough so it was kind of going the same as yesterday, trying to go tactical a bit and position myself well at the base of the hills and then kind of drift, lose position and then gain it back on the flats.”
While Harvey seemed to be skiing within the top 10 for most of the race, he said he slipped outside it on the downhills.
“Some guys were really aggressive, the skaters especially, so I kind of drifted back a bit by the end of the first lap,” he recalled.
For the second and third lap, he anticipated that drift and positioned himself more competitively.
“I was wearing skiathlon boots so in the corners I could really corner well and my skis were really fast, so I could kind of gain some positions out of the corners there to position myself well for the third and fourth lap,” he said. “But then, when the pace really went in the fourth lap on the hill I just drifted. I could really feel the altitude.”
Like he said, he finished strong, and that’s what mattered. Heading into the Tour’s third and fourth stages in Oberstdorf, Germany, Harvey knows the 20 k skiathlon is an important race. But perhaps more so than the result, he’s mindful of the bonus sprints — for valuable bonus seconds in the overall standings.
“It’s at sea level in Oberstdorf, so hopefully the feeling is a bit better there and I can go for [those sprint bonuses], and now I am defending the third spot. I mean, the two guys out front are clearly ahead — already it’s a minute to Ustiugov and 40 seconds to Sundby, but it’s a lot of guys behind me so I am just going to try to defend my position.”
Are Ustiugov and Sundby untouchable? In a multi-stage series, Harvey didn’t rule anything out. He pointed out that last year Sundby lost nearly a minute in his overall lead after placing 23rd in the 15 k classic mass start in Oberstdorf (although he was still left with 45 seconds wiggle room to second place).
“You never know, but they have a huge advantage already,” Harvey said. “I think Finn Hågen lost the Tour; I don’t think he can win anymore. In my head he was one of the favorites to win this year, but I think it is going to be between those two guys, but it is not a guarantee. It’s still the tour and a lot of skiing to do.”
“We’re going to help Finn back on his feet,” Sundby told VG. “It’s the same thing that happened to me last year in Oberstdorf. I had a horrible day and lost a minute. Finn has that kind of day today, which is really boring in a Tour. We will pull back up from the mud so he can be in the fight again.”
While Sundby was the first to set the pace in the mass start, Ustiugov closely shadowed him and took control around 7.5 k and then for good with less than 2 k to go.
“He’s an incredible skier,” Sundby told NRK after. “He’s got it in his head and I hear it during the race that he’s tired. He sounds like a locomotive when he’s skiing. And he’s got an incredible finish.”
“I had great skis,” the 24-year-old Russian said, according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “The service team did a great job. The pace was very high from the beginning. I did not expect I would be leaving Val Müstair with two wins and the lead in the Tour de Ski.”
After Harvey in third overall, Russia’s Andrey Larkov is less than 2 seconds behind him in fourth after two stages, with a seventh place on Saturday and 11th place on Sunday. Iversen is another 7.7 seconds back in fifth (+1:09.2) and Cologna is sixth (+1:10.4) after a ninth place followed by a fifth place on Sunday.
“I’m not yet at 100 percent, but I felt good and was able to keep up,” Cologna told Swiss TV broadcaster SRF after hanging in the top four and even leading at times during the race, along with Sweden’s Hellner. “On the climb when Sundby attacked, it was fast, but I was able to get in contact again, and then on the steep sprint climb my pole did not find grip twice, went into the void a bit, and then I lost contact. But I think it was fine, a small step ahead. And I could show and also show to myself, that everything is OK.”
Of note, Cologna grew up about 500 meters from the Val Müstair course.
“That’s very special. It’s always fun,” he said of the third-straight year of the Tour de Ski being held at the venue. “A good atmosphere and a lot of people, you know? It’s not always easy to meet all demands, but it’s quite fun…”
Kershaw, Killick and Bjornsen Move Up
Two Canadians made up considerable ground on Sunday, with Devon Kershaw racing to 27th (+42.9), putting him 32nd overall in the Tour (+2:22.5), and Graeme Killick finishing 33rd in the mass start (+49.3) for 36th overall (+2:29.5). In Saturday’s sprint, the two finished 51st and 57th, respectively.
That kind of starting position put Kershaw and Killick toward the back of the mass start, with only five tracks across and more than 50 men ahead of them.
“… Most of the race was rather hectic — but to be honest it was better than I thought,” Kershaw wrote in an email. “The conditions were perfect and the descents weren’t nearly as icy as the day before when I was skiing around testing out the course.”
He explained it was difficult to pass on a twisty 2.5 k loop, but he focused on being patient.
“It cost me a chance to get into the top 10-15 for sure, but by just biding my time and skiing smooth and relaxed without getting caught up in the mayhem allowed me to have decent energy the whole way,” he wrote. “I just kind of kept picking off a few guys were I could — which happened to be on the climbing section — which I felt decent on.”
In terms of his standalone result — 27th — Kershaw said it was closer to his goal of a top 20 in classic races.
“This year in the three classic races on the World Cup I’ve been 33rd, 23rd (time in Lillehammer where I moved up to 27th in the overall) and today 27th — so I guess I’m consistent — but I’d be lying if I said that’s where I want to live,” he wrote.
And while he might be in 32nd, he’s within 20 seconds of 22nd.
“There is a lot of skating this year — so perhaps not as good for me as years past which lean heavier on classic — it’s all good,” Kershaw wrote. “I will take it day by day and of course I am really looking forward to the classic race in Val di Femme (15km mass start). The [skiathlon] in two days will be fun too (the 20km) so I am looking forward to that as well since I’ve had some OK [skiathlons] in my day.”
Like Harvey, he was looking forward to racing at lower elevations.
Canada’s fourth finisher on Sunday, Len Valjas placed 38th (+54.3) after starting in bib 14. That puts him in 26th overall (+2:13.5).
The U.S. men were led by Erik Bjornsen in 42nd (+59.9), after placing 64th in Saturday’s sprint. He started in bib 59 and is up to 42nd overall (+2:41.2).
“Just out of the stadium they had cut it down to just 4 tracks. I just couldn’t move up with that many guys and such limited space,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I had to wait until the second lap and by that time it was so spread out. I definitely don’t have the snap I felt a couple weeks ago, but I put in a hard training block around Christmas and then took some easy days before traveling over to Switzerland.
“I’m hoping coming back down to lower altitude and a couple days of hard efforts will spark the body back into the form I know I have,” he continued.
Noah Hoffman finished 46th (+1:13) for the U.S. after starting in bib 48, and his teammate Simi Hamilton — who planned in advance to withdraw from the Tour after Stage 2 — slipped from 15th overall to 74th after placing 75th (+3:14.8) on Sunday.
Hoffman is currently 48th overall (+2:57.4), about 38 seconds out of the top 30.
The first of two rest days in the nine-day Tour is Monday, then Oberstdorf will host the women’s and men’s 10/20 k skiathlons on Tuesday and 10/15 k classic pursuits on Wednesday.
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.