MONT SAINTE-ANNE, Québec – Alex Harvey had no idea what he was in for. Or maybe he did.
Fourteen hours after he and several other Canadian National Team members stepped off a plane in Québec City and concluded a 32-hour trip back from the World Cup Finals in Sweden, Harvey was back in his native Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Québec, preparing to race again.
If it had been up to Harvey, he would have slept in a little later. His mom woke him up with a kiss on the cheek at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday before she left for work. Regardless, he was pretty excited about his his first day at Canadian Ski Nationals, hosted by his Club Nordique Monte St. Anne.
The 23-year-old generated about as much hype as one can expect at a cross-country ski race in North America. Several news outlets flocked to the Quebec City International Airport at 10:30 Monday night to see Harvey and his celebrated teammates, including overall World Cup runner-up Devon Kershaw and Lenny Valjas.
Late Wednesday morning, Harvey’s fans followed him to the trails where he warmed up. They asked for his autograph, snapped photos and showered Kershaw with attention as well.
After both finished Wednesday’s 15-kilometer freestyle individual start, Harvey and Kershaw hardly made it out of the finish pen. Sweaty and spent after racing in nearly 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), both found they were even more sought after as two of the top finishers.
Harvey crushed his competition with the help of resounding cheers every time he skied through the stadium, winning the three-lap race in 40:54.1. His World Cup teammate, Ivan Babikov was second, 32.9 seconds back, and Kershaw finished third (+1:44.8).
“It was hard,” Harvey said of the combination of travel, lack of sleep and challenging snow conditions on Tuesday. “I talked with Devon after the race. It might have been the hardest race of the season for both of us. It was so slow out there.”
Harvey pulled through by pushing hard from the start. Five kilometers in, he led by 18.6 seconds over Babikov, Tuesday’s 10 k classic champion. Kershaw was 19.7 seconds back in third, affirming that the local hero was truly on a roll.
He kept up the pace through the second lap, coming into the stadium 11.7 seconds ahead of Babikov. Kershaw was still in third, but nearly 52 seconds back.
“I didn’t know how it was going to be here,” Harvey said, referring to his recent highs, including a World Cup Finals victory in Falun, as well as some of the lows this season.
“It ended up being good and with the fans, the crowd, just everybody being so psyched. I didn’t have a choice to ski fast or not,” he said.
Just minutes before his race, Harvey spoke to a group of young children in French. They sent him off with a chant that echoed around the stadium throughout the afternoon: “Ahh-lex! Ahh-lex!”
“They had banners and singing songs so it was really special to see all these 8-year-olds just having the best time,” Harvey said. “It motivated me for the win, for sure.”
Kershaw said the homecoming experience was humbling. Seeing how famous Harvey was in Québec and how excited people got about him, the team and the sport, was great for cross-country skiing, he said.
It also made Harvey that much harder to outdo.
“There was no chance I was going to beat Alex today,” Kershaw said.
With a tendency to open hard in races, especially individual starts, Kershaw discovered he was six seconds down on Harvey about 2 or 3 kilometers in.
“He closes way harder than me so the victory was going to be Alex’s, absolutely,” Kershaw added.
While skating in soft conditions wasn’t his specialty, Kershaw said he felt good until about 7 k, where he broke a pole. The handle ripped off and he skied the next kilometer without a pole.
“There was nobody out there; it’s not the World Cup,” he laughed.
When he did get a pole, it was 140-centimeters long, which was about 20 centimeters too short. He found better replacement soon after and finished the race with a 157 ½.
“It was a real struggle today and the conditions were really hard,” Kershaw said. “It’s kind of frustrating for some bad luck to happen, but the World Cup season’s over so let’s not get too greedy.”
Babikov was happy with his result considering he started ahead of Kershaw, Harvey and nearly 160 others in the men’s open race.
“I was just trying to ski my race, ski strong throughout the whole three laps,” Babikov said. “It was really hard to do because it’s so soft and it was hard to pole. It didn’t matter if you had poles or no poles.”
He was impressed with his teammates’ performances after one long day of travel.
Upon leaving Falun, Sweden, at 2 a.m. on Monday, they flew to Frankfurt, where their flight to Canada was delayed. Once in Montreal, the men’s and women’s national team members found they had five hours to kill because of a missed connection. Harvey said they enjoyed some St-Hubert Chicken for a pre-race meal and arrived in Québec City around 10:30 p.m.
By the time Harvey fell asleep, he said it was 6 a.m. Falun time.
While he and the rest of the national team planned to recover for Thursday’s sprints, recently moved from Québec City’s Plains of Abraham to Mont Sainte-Anne, several outsiders to Canadian cross-country were also looking forward to the competitive sprint day.
Canadian biathlete and World Championships team member Marc-André Bédard was encouraged by his performance in Tuesday’s 15 k, where he placed fourth (+2:25.7) despite starting nearly 45 minutes after the frontrunners. Because he and several other biathletes didn’t have FIS points, they were seeded near last.
“What was really hard was to pass people all race,” Bédard said. “It felt like I said ‘track’ 200 times today.”
Without any splits throughout the race, he had no idea where he stood or where he finished for several minutes after the race.
“I had no expectations … I was hoping to be in the top 20, top 30, it’s hard to say,” he said. “I’m really tired, too. I wanted to have fun and I’m really happy with the result.”
Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre athletes David Greer and Brent McMurtry placed fifth and sixth, respectively. Baptiste Gros of France was seventh and Erik Carleton (Rocky Mountain Racers/National Para-Nordic Team) finished eighth before catching a flight to Finland with Brian McKeever for the IPC World Cup on Thursday.
Michael Somppi (Thunder Bay National Development Centre/NST) was ninth and Kevin Sandau (Alberta World Cup Academy/NST), who flew in with the national team Tuesday night, was 10th.