—Development athletes, Knute Johnsgaard and Maya MacIsaac-Jones, enjoy career best days qualifying for heats—
GATINEAU, Que.—Alex Harvey had the nation’s eyes on his every stride through Gatineau’s Jacques-Cartier Park while kicking off the eight-stage Ski Tour Canada with an 11th place finish in a skate-ski sprint race on Tuesday afternoon.
Capitalizing on one of his best qualifiers of the season where he posted the 15th fastest time to secure a spot in the head-to-head heats with the top-30 athletes, the 27-year-old thrilled the boisterous Canadian crowd who could be heard at Parliament Hill which towered above the Nordic sprint track that snaked alongside the Ottawa River.
“It was a great start to the Tour. I felt really good out there as the day went on,” said Harvey, whose best sprint finish is seventh on the World Cup this year. “I haven’t had much success this year qualifying in the sprint races so to be 15th was a good sign.”
Harvey sat in the back of the pack of six during his quarter-final round until his second rip around the challenging .8-kilometre loop that left the best athletes in the world screaming for a break. The Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que. resident hammered the pace around the final corner to the uphill finish where he stretched out for fourth spot in a photo finish in the fastest heat of the day, securing him one of two lucky loser spots for the next round.
The top-two athletes in each heat advance to the next round along with the next fastest two times.
“We had three of the fastest men pushing the pace in the quarter-finals,” said Harvey. “We get to pick our heats that we want to race in and I wanted that one because I knew it would be fast and a good chance to have a lucky loser spot.”
Exercising a similar tactic to trail the pack off the start again in his semifinal round, Harvey was set to make his move once again while rounding into the finish stretch, but was forced to put his hand down on the snow to secure his balance, killing his speed and any hopes of reaching the podium in the opening stage.
“I was better positioned in the semis, but I almost crashed in that final corner and it scrubbed my speed. That was it for me,” added Harvey. “I felt really good as the day went on. The crowd was awesome today and really loud so it was a great start.”
Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov won the opening stage. Richard Jouve, of France, skied to the second spot on the podium, while American Simeon Hamilton got the Tour off to strong start with a bronze-medal finish.
Harvey may have led the way for the Canucks, but it was two young guns who captured the fan’s attention in the Nation’s Capital Region.
National Development Team athlete, Knute Johnsgaard of Whitehorse, and Maya MacIsaac-Jones of Athabasca, Alta., both qualified for their first heats in World Cup competition.
Competing in just his second World Cup sprint race ever, the 23-year-old Johnsgaard, was the 29th fastest qualifier to earn him his first spot on the start line against many of the legends in the sport in the quarter-finals. Johnsgaard dug deep in his heat, but was last to cross the finish line, and placed 30th overall.
“That was pretty awesome. My goal all year was to qualify for the sprint heats so to do it is a great feeling,” said Johnsgaard. “I wasn’t really intimidated racing against these guys. I really wanted to make the best of the experience. I thought my shape was pretty good coming into the Tour so this shows me that it is and I should be fine for the rest of the way. I hope to be able to build on this and qualify again in Quebec City.”
Just 20-years old, MacIsaac-Jones had the race of her life in Gatineau, finishing 29th after earning the final spot in the heats.
“I’m so excited. It means a lot to me to be in the points. I think it is great for Canadian women to have someone in the points, and I hope this inspires the other women skiers on the Tour with me. I think this shows we can be in the mix,” said MacIsaac-Jones, who was recently 31st at a World Cup in Planica, Slovenia while taking part in Cross Country Ski de Fond Canada’s development strategy to provide elite race opportunities for its next generation of athletes.
The young Albertan skied at the back of her heat throughout the 1.7-kilometre race, but was able to hold her own with the fastest women in the world on skinny skis.
“My goal was to just to stick with them,” said MacIsaac-Jones. “I honestly have never skied that fast in my life. I really just wanted to hang on. I was happy I was able to do that and not finish too far off the pace.”
Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla won the opening stage for the women. Sweden’s Stina Nilsson was second, while American Jessica Diggins skied to third place.