It’s not like winning is a new feeling for Canada’s Alex Harvey. After all, the Quebec-based cross-country skier won a World Cup just six days ago in Toblach, Italy.
But winning a long individual-start race? Yes, that’s something else. Harvey picked up his fifth individual win in Ulricehamn, Sweden, today, and the first in an individual-start race longer than a prologue.
“It’s for sure the win that gives me the most satisfaction,” Harvey said after besting every other skier in the 15 k freestyle. “In mass starts or sprints, in the tactical game sometimes I can play it pretty well. I can use the others a bit, and kind of wait for the last sprint. But today — I didn’t have a ride or anything. I had to make it on my own. That’s true skiing, pure skiing, more old school in a way. So it’s the win that gives the most satisfaction in my career, I think.”
It wasn’t just Harvey who saw the difference between his previous victories and today’s 15 k freestyle. Harvey’s whole team felt like it was a moment where Canada truly had arrived.
“Today was a legendary day for our team,” Harvey’s longtime teammate and friend Devon Kershaw wrote in an email. “I mean, when you win an individual start race in our sport – then in my opinion you have really written your name amongst the greats. I’m not saying winning sprints or mass starts are easy – but when it’s just you out there – having to do it totally alone – it’s something pretty special… All I can say is ‘chapeau mon gars’ to Alex… To win in the style he did it in too, and in front of such a wonderful crowd, that will be a memory we will all have for life. Simply fantastic skiing.”
Harvey started hard, and already laid down the fastest split of the field when he crossed the five kilometer mark.
A number of top competitors had later bib numbers. Dario Cologna of Switzerland, Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway, and Marcus Hellner of Sweden were all lurking behind him, hearing his splits and trying to pounce. But none could best his time.
Initially, that made Canadian coach Ivan Babikov nervous.
“When I saw the first split, I kind of got a bit scared,” he admitted. “Like maybe, I hope he didn’t start too fast. Leading by two seconds on the first split — there are some guys who start really fast and then blown up.”
But when he saw how Harvey was skiing, his fears slipped away.
“I was on the biggest hill,” Babikov explained. “He was just so confident, so powerful, one-skating the whole thing. And then did not slow down in the second lap, and got even more time on the second and third place. Then I thought, he is actually doing it. He has his game plan, he started fast, and he was able to keep his pace and speed all the way.”
Harvey agreed: he had things under control.
“I was trying to not put myself too much in the red on the big hill, but to really ski well and fast on everything else for the course,” he explained. “So for maybe 600 meters of the course, on the big hill, let my foot off the gas. Everything else I was able to attack, and recover well on the downhills. At the halfway point I was actually feeling pretty positive still… I was like, ‘Okay, it’s mine to lose now, and I’m not going to let it slip through my fingers.’ It was a good feeling.”
A few racers lost substantial time over the last several kilometers, or on the rolling sections of the course which require focus, momentum, and, as Harvey said, “punch”.
But this was a course well-suited to Harvey, and he took advantage.
“Short uphills that you can really punch it, and then recover quickly again,” he explained. “Skiing it the last two days, I thought it was a great course for me. I was looking for a good result and I know I’ve been feeling good since I took a few days off after the Tour. I was looking forward to the race, but winning… I did not think I could win until the midway point of the race.”
When all was done, Harvey landed a six-second victory over Sundby. Hellner was third, +14.3, and managed to hold off fourth-place Cologna by just 0.4 seconds.
Daniel Stock of Norway, who got the call to race within the last week, posted a huge career best in fifth place (+16.2). Britain’s Andrew Musgrave was sixth (+18.7).
“I don’t believe that I am this good, so I just go out there and do what I’m supposed to do,” Stock told NRK. “And then I finish fifth and that’s indescribable… I got a phone call from Tor-Arne [Hetland, the Norwegian men’s coach] Sunday night and I totally panicked. I had been training like crazy lately. So I just had to eat, lay down with legs elevated and find some extra energy. And I was able to do that.”
As for the winner, the Canadians were still high on the feeling hours later. Babikov, a former World Cup racer who once won the time-of-the-day on the Tour de Ski final climb, knows a thing or two about how hard it is to win a race on your own.
“It’s not a mass start,” Babikov said. “If you win by yourself, it you’re off the start leading the whole race, it shows great form… Individual start, it doesn’t show good tactics, or being more smart or lucky than other people, it’s all endurance and it’s all physical ability. Today [Harvey] showed that he is the best in the world, and to win like that with authority from the gun, leading most of the splits — oh it was impressive, it was really impressive. He is one of the best in the world and he is only getting better and better, and hopefully he can keep this shape for the World Championships.”
In taking the win, Harvey also became the first Canadian to ever win back-to-back World Cups on consecutive weekends.
“We’ve had a lot great champions in Canada,” he said in a Cross Country Canada press release. “It is nice to be able to own a statistic like that, but I do it for the result and to be the best I can be each race. If that means that I win back-to-back then that is a bonus.”
With Strong Performances, Canada Looks to Relay
While Harvey’s win certainly highlighted the day for Canada, the team was also pleased with some other results.
Lenny Valjas finished 35th (+1:17.7), his best result in a distance race over 5 k since 2013. That season, he and Harvey shared the podium in a 15 k mass start stage of the Tour de Ski. But ever since, Valjas has been battling injuries and has primarily succeeded in sprinting.
“Len had a good starting position and he started well,” Babikov explained. “He kind of tried to pull Alex when Alex caught him, and maybe slowed up a bit on the second lap. But then he recovered and finished actually really, really, strong so I am really proud of him and just happy with it. It’s just kind of bittersweet that he is almost in the points [top 30]. But it’s his best distance race of the season so far… Len is a way that now it’s not about training, it’s about races. The more races he does, he is getting better in shape.”
Close behind Valjas was Kershaw. The veteran was on track to score points with a top-30 finish, but lagged in the course’s final kilometers and landed 38th (+1:22.2).
“The last 2km were just absolutely horrendous apparently (based on the splits),” Kershaw wrote in an email. “I was skiing alone – and of course I was tired – but I didn’t think I was SO tired. Very disappointed with the last few kilometres… The terrain was really gradual, undulating and turny – perhaps in my tired state I fell asleep through some of that terrain and I really, really paid for that on the results board… I may have opened a tad hot, but fortune favours the bold – or so they say – so I do not regret my strategy there.”
Despite an imperfect race, Kershaw was not too disappointed.
“I was not hoping for anything this weekend if I’m honest,” he wrote. “15km skate individual start is by far my least favourite race in skiing…. The race today had its moments. Both good moments and some tough moments.”
Canada’s fourth athlete, Knute Johnsgaard, did not end up starting, with Babikov saying that Johnsgaard was still suffering a bit after only recently arriving in Europe from North America.
Still, the gang will contest Sunday’s 4 x 7.5 k relay, and are particularly pumped after the results of the 15 k.
“I’m excited,” Harvey said. “The big hill is only in the classic part, so the classic will be harder. Maybe things will go down a bit earlier, because after that the skate is quite… there are no easy courses on the World Cup, but I think this is one that can be a big advantage to be able to follow in a group. Devon and I are going to go in the classic legs. We will try to lay down a good race and stay with the group, and if we’re still with the group after the classic, then we’re allowed to believe in a good result. Top eight would be good for us, after that you never know.”
Bjornsen 28th to lead Americans
Erik Bjornsen was the top American finisher in 28th (+1:09.2), scoring World Cup points for the third time this season.
Bjornsen had to drop out of the Tour de Ski partway through, but seems to be back in top form.
“He obviously needed some time to go and get healthy, or recover from the Tour,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “He had a really good training block in France. Conditions were good he had a lot of skiing at his disposal, so he was able to recover and then he was able to build in some good training. It was great to see him out there have a good race today. He started I would say fairly conservatively and then he ended up getting behind the Lari Lehtonen of Finland and catch a ride with him for maybe ten kilometers. That really propelled him into another good skate race.”
Also for the United States, Noah Hoffman finished 41st (+1:28.8), Simi Hamilton 53rd (+1:56.2), and Matt Gelso 68th (+3:00.3).
-Aleks Tangen, Jake Ellis, Gabby Naranja, and Ian Tovell contributed