Alex Harvey admits he is anything but in top form, but the leader of the Canadian Cross-Country Ski Team still put down another impressive sixth-place finish in the 30-kilometre skiathlon race at the World Cup in Lillehammer, Norway on Sunday.
Harvey, of St-Férréol-les-Neiges, Que., put in a hard effort on what is arguably the most difficult course on the World Cup Tour that features a punishing four-minute climb to clock a sixth-place time of 1:17:00.2.
“It was a really good day with a steady, hard pace right from the gun. I felt good all day and the skis were great,” said the 29-year-old Harvey, who was the lone Canadian to crack the top-30 in Saturday’s sprint race, finishing 28th. “I’m missing my top speed right now, but the base is really good – maybe better than it has ever been. To finish sixth when I know I’m not in the best shape yet is really good.”
The skiathlon combines 15 kilometres of classic-skiing, followed by 15 more kilometres of skate-skiing. Athletes enter a transition zone to change equipment between the two legs with the clock still running.
Executing his game plan to near perfect, Canada’s two-time Olympian tucked into a large group of nearly 20 athletes that included his World Cup mate, Devon Kershaw, for the classic-ski portion of the race.
With Kershaw capturing the world’s attention while bolting his way into the top of the lead group near the 10-kilometre mark of the classic-ski leg, Harvey settled in the pack to conserve his energy in order to respond to the quick pace that was building towards the final 15 kilometres.
Heading into the transition box in 14th place, Harvey jumped 10 spots into fourth when the world’s best charged out of the ski exchange.
“This course is so hard. Having to ski that large hill which is like 3-4 minutes of sustained climbing, four times in classic and skate is really, really hard.
The plan was really to just stay in contact with the classic, save my energy, and be ready for the skate which is my strength,” said Harvey. “I was well positioned in the front of the group of seven in the skate until the fireworks went off with 1.5-kilometres to go.”
Norway’s Martin Sundby attacked just before the crest of the hill on the final climb where he stretched the lead group. With four Norwegians battling it out to determine the medals, Harvey lacked the jam to respond, and cruised home for sixth place.
“That is what I’m missing right now is really that top level. I wasn’t able to go with Sundby and I slowly drifted from there,” said Harvey. “These other guys have different goals right now. The Norwegians have to be on the podium in these early races if they want to go to the Olympics so they have to do this every race. My goals are to be reaching my top gear by the Tour de Ski. Racing is good training for that.”
When the dust finally settled at the finish line, it was Johannes Klaebo capturing the gold medal with a time of 1:16:47.1. Sundby was forced to settle for the silver medal at 1:16:48.4, while Hans Christer Holund completed the Norwegian sweep with a third-place time of 1:16:53.9.
After showing his strengths on the classic-ski leg, Kershaw continued fighting for a solid 19th-place finish at 1:19:46.8.
Other Canadian finishers in the men’s race included: Russell Kennedy, of Canmore, Alta., placed 53rd (1:24:17.8); Graeme Killick, of Fort McMurray, Alta., was 54th (1:24:28.4); and Knute Johnsgaard (Whitehorse) finished 60th at 1:26:36.1.
Cendrine Browne, of St-Jérôme, Que., put in a solid effort to finish as the top Canadian in the women’s 15-kilometre race. Browne clocked a time of 47:02.0 to finish 45th. Emily Nishikawa, of Whitehorse, finished four spots back in 49th at 47:24.8. Katherine Stewart-Jones, who is slowly working her way back into race form after missing a month of training with injury, did not finish the race.
Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla dusted the women’s field to win with a time of 42:24.7. The Norwegians grabbed the next two spots on the podium. Heidi Weng was second at 42:44.4, while Ragnhild Haga skied to third at 43:08.3.
The World Cup now travels to Davos, Switzerland.