MONT SAINTE-ANNE, Québec — Alex Harvey had a lot going for him on Thursday.
The hometown course and its accompanying fans, the helicopter and a little luck were just a few of the things in the 23-year-old’s favor in the 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint final at Canadian Ski Nationals.
Heck, organizers even pushed the weeklong event back in March to accommodate Harvey and his national team’s return. When Harvey nearly missed his quarterfinal on Thursday, they gave him the benefit of the doubt and made several announcements calling him to the start line.
After winning the qualifier, Harvey had the luxury of driving a short distance home before the heats started about 1 ½ hours later. He brought a few buddies with him.
It’s almost an understatement to say Harvey is a celebrity in Québec; he has his own autographs tent at nationals and a cartoon-version of his face on a “Canadian Power” T-shirt with teammates Devon Kershaw and Len Valjas.
He won his first 2012 national title in Tuesday’s 15 k freestyle race; why not pick up another in the sprint?
Harvey tuned out the outside distractions and embraced every piece of positive energy around him to roll through the heats on top. Elbows flailing in the last stretch of the A-final, Harvey edged Kershaw in an-all out free sprint to the line by 0.17 seconds.
Phil Widmer of the Alberta World Cup Academy was third (+1.58) and the defending national classic sprint champion, Len Valjas, was fourth (+2.2).
Harvey said the key to his A-final victory was timing. After Widmer and Valjas initially jumped to the front, Harvey and Kershaw found themselves toward the back with Baptiste Gros of France and Sindre Bjornestad Skar of Norway, which finished fifth and sixth, respectively.
Kershaw said some “shady moves” left him without a pole heading into the first climb, but his coaches anticipated the rough spot and immediately handed him a replacement. For the second-straight heat, Kershaw switched out poles shortly after the start and finished with a mismatched pair.
“We were both on our side of the trail and [Kershaw was] slowly kind of drifting into me,” Harvey said. “I couldn’t go in the woods and I just must’ve hit his pole. The first two-thirds of the race was really slow. He was back in the lead like a minute after.”
While Kershaw used his frustration to move from last to third behind Valjas and Widmer, Harvey tucked behind in fourth. He noted the draft off the downhills, not so much because of the wind (with Harvey’s sponsor’s helicopter hanging low overhead to the watch the action), but rather because of the heavily salted snow, which made the track almost icy.
“It’s a really high-speed course so I tried to stay out of trouble and in the lead,” Harvey said, after losing the basket of his pole early in the quarterfinal.
On the final climb out of the stadium in the A-final, Harvey continued behind Kershaw, who surged ahead and created a gap.
“I was third behind Lenny so I tried to go around him, but by the time I did, Devon was gone,” Harvey said. “I worked really fast over the top and then I was able to get in his draft just at the last second before the last downhill, and I was able to slingshot by him at the finish.”
Kershaw thought he could hold off Harvey for the last few hundred meters, but lost his balance on the slick course and couldn’t recover from the minor slipup.
“My legs were dead, I was dead,” Kershaw said. “And then I saw Alex, just kind of this binding sticking out beside me and that was it. The prince wins, that’s OK. When you’re in Québec you don’t mess with that kind of stuff.”
After Valjas had his pole and both skis stepped on near the finish, he said there were some obvious frustrations at the finish. Going up the last hill, Valjas opted to go up the middle, reasoning that no one could get by.
Harvey and Kershaw passed him on either side, with Harvey first catching Valjas’s pole and Harvey and Kershaw accidently running over his skis. He immediately dropped to fourth as Widmer moved up with them.
“It’s a frustrating way to end the season, but it’s all for fun here,” Valjas said. “I think we forgot it halfway around that course. We started stepping on each other … All yelling at each other when we cross the line. It happens.”
Widmer said he was fortunate to do well enough in the heats and start in the first row of the final. Because of the course’s width and a tight right turn after the start, two rows were necessary to start six racers at once.
After placing second in his quarterfinal to Valjas and edging him by 0.02 seconds in the semifinal, Widmer tried to control the pace early in the final. Valjas moved ahead on the first hill, and the two switched leads before Valjas took the front once more into the stadium. There, Kershaw and Harvey decided the race was on.
“Once they go then it’s time to try to stay with them and fight for podium and the win,” Widmer said. “I was happy with third and the finish was quite fast. I didn’t use my poles at all. I should have thrown them in the woods and saved some weight.”
He said placing third to Harvey and Kershaw was “motivating for the future,” especially going into summer training. Widmer posted the second fastest qualifying time, 0.02 seconds after Harvey, who won in 2:51.27.
Another top qualifier in fourth, Jesse Cockney won his quarterfinal and advanced with Gros, but did not make it out of the semis after placing third to Harvey and Gros. Drew Goldsack was fourth in that heat.
In the second semi, Kershaw had his first mishap of the day, getting tangled with Valjas just after the start. Kershaw broke a pole and dug deep to finish fast enough in third to make the A-final.
Kershaw said his season was most likely over. He did not plan to do the 50 k classic mass start on Saturday.
“I’m dead,” Kershaw said. “I was on fumes and now the fumes have dissipated into the air.”
Looking back on the season, he hadn’t really absorbed everything he and his national team achieved yet.
“I honestly haven’t had a chance to reflect, but I’m just so proud of what our team has been able to do,” Kershaw said. “To see Len’s results at the end of the season was spectacular, Alex to be sixth overall at 23 years old is unbelievable, and for me, it’s just been a big goal of mine for a long time to be in the top three overall and to be second in the distance cup, too, and six podiums.
“To be honest, second in the World Cup finals is a really big thing for me,” he added. “It was a big goal because I just sucked in Falun [Sweden] the last few years. There’s a lot of positives, for sure.”
Valjas was still in awe at what they had accomplished.
“It’s been a historic year for the whole team and I’m so glad I was able to be there with all the guys,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it just on my own and it helps knowing that you’re training with the world’s fastest guys.”
As for Harvey, he was still living in the now, running from warm-up to warm-down with media and autograph-seekers on his heels, and video shoots with sponsors on his off days.
“It’s good to win at home,” Harvey said with a laugh. “It’s good for me to win in front of the fans.”
Complete sprint brackets/heat results (scroll down for men)