Alex Harvey ended his career in style, putting together back-to-back silver-medal performances this weekend on home snow at the World Cup Finals in Quebec City.
Nicknamed by teammates the “Prince of Quebec,’ the 30-year-old Harvey solidified his title as the King of Canadian cross-country skiing following a spirited battle on the Plains of Abraham while going head-to-head with two of the sport’s newest stars. Harvey finished second in the men’s 15-kilometre skate-ski pursuit race with a time of 29:08.2.
“It’s a special day, but I really focused on the race this morning and got ready the same way I usually do. I wanted to give my best because I knew the podium was mine to lose,” said Harvey. “To end my career with two podiums makes me feel even better about my decision.
“I always wanted to stop while being at the top, and even if it was a tough season for me, I think the last two weeks have been really good. The time is right.”
Harvey started the four-lap skate-ski pursuit race on Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov’s tail, 52 seconds behind Norway’s Johannes Klaebo based on the results of the first two races in this weekend’s World Cup Finals.
With a sizeable gap ahead of the chase pack, Harvey drafted the Russian around Quebec City’s famed battle grounds where they wasted no time closing the gap on Klaebo. Gaining time on the frontrunner at each split around the course, Bolshunov and Harvey caught the World Cup leader at the 7.5 kilometre mark on the course where the trio played cat and mouse over the final two laps.
“I was starting with a big advantage over the other guys, so I knew the podium was mine to lose. At the end of the season, everyone is tired, and feels the same in the legs so motivation is a huge thing,” added Harvey.
Spurred on by the tens of thousands of passionate Nordic ski fans who lined the course three and four deep to catch the three-time Olympian’s final race, Harvey fed off the adrenaline of the crowd to deliver a memorable final lap.
With Klaebo pulling away up the final hill with two kilometres to go, Harvey continued to draft Bolshunov in the final downhill into the stadium. Making his move while circling into the finishing stretch, Harvey outsprinted the Russian in the final 200 metre stretch, erupting the Canadian crowd on the Plains of Abraham into pandemonium.
“In the last lap, I knew I would be on the podium, so I wanted to remain strategic. Klaebo had more legs than us on the last hill, but I had a good sprint at the end, so I am happy,” said Harvey.
“I told Bolshunov that he was the strongest today, even though he finished third. It’s not always the strongest who wins in cross-country skiing and that is the beauty of our sport. That’s why I’ve won races because I was never the strongest, but strategically, technically, and sometimes equipment is more important. He was the strongest today, but two were faster than him in the end.”
While Harvey clocked the fastest time on the day in the 15-kilometre pursuit, it was Klaebo who crossed the line first with a time of 29:05.4. Bolshunov was forced to settle for the bronze at 29: 08.3 after a photo-finish with the Canadian hero.
Following a trail to the international podium by his father, Pierre, along with Beckie Scott and Sara Renner, Harvey and teammate, Devon Kershaw, led a medal-charged era for Canada’s cross-country skiers that spanned more than a decade.
The Canadian duo took things to a new level in 2011 when they became the first Canadian men ever to win a World Championship cross-country ski race, claiming the gold in the team sprint at the birthplace of the sport in Oslo, Norway. They celebrated the breakthrough by playing air guitar with their skis in the finish corral.
Strumming one final tune on Sunday that turned into one of the most electric World Cup scenes ever on Canadian soil, rivaling any rock concert, Harvey put the finishing touches to a Nordic album that included 32 World Cup podiums, including seven victories, and five World Championship medals. His first World Cup podium also occurred on home snow in 2009 when he teamed up with George Grey to win the bronze in Whistler, B.C.
Harvey twice finished third in the Overall World Cup standings (2013-14, and 2016-17). He also finished third overall at the prestigious Tour de Ski in 2018. His biggest win came in 2017 when he became Canada’s first World Champion in an individual cross-country ski race, winning the feature event – the men’s 50-kilometre race. In three trips to the Olympic Winter Games, his best finish came last year when he finished six seconds off the podium in fourth in the marathon event in PyeongChang.
Struggling to find his top form after sprinting to the bronze-medal step of the podium in the second week of the 2018-19 season, the nordic phenom put a silver bow on his storybook career this weekend.
“In October I was dreaming about it ending this way, but in February I couldn’t really dream about that anymore because things weren’t going well. I held on to the idea that I could get on the podium one more time, but I really didn’t know,” said Harvey, who was overcome with emotion after reaching that goal Saturday.
“Emotionally this is the number one weekend for me in my career. Yesterday was really emotional because I still believed I could be on the podium, but I needed help to see it. Today, it was easier to believe, so I could appreciate the day more. On that last lap I was really able to savor the moment. It was great.”
Caught in the shadows of Harvey and Kershaw’s trail was another stellar men’s cross-country ski career by Toronto’s Lenny Valjas that also came to an end on Sunday. The gentle giant of the World Cup circuit bid farewell by finishing 38th with a time of 33:23.2.
“Today was special to retire with Alex. I know it is a bigger deal for him, but it is special for me to end my career in front of the Canadian crowd. They were so supportive of me,” said the 30-year-old Valjas. “To finish at home with my parents, friends, family and wax techs there is really special. I’m so glad I went one more year after the Olympics to finish here.”
Valjas retires as the third most successful men’s skier in Canadian history, having won seven World Cup medals. One of the most naturally gifted athletes in the Canadian program, he brought it to the start line in all race distances and formats, reaching the podium in both classic and skate-skiing as well as sprints, middle distances and team events.
Two of his podium finishes were with Harvey. The Canadian duo teamed up to win a World Cup team sprint race in 2017 in Toblach, Italy. The golden triumph came just one week before adding another chapter in the history books when they teamed up with Kershaw and Knute Johnsgaard to become the first Canadians ever to reach the World Cup podium in a cross-country ski relay, winning the bronze in the 4×7.5 km event.
“I never expected to win that many medals, and even now looking back, can’t believe it,” said Valjas. “We were such a great team and kept making each other better. Alex and Devon brought me along to the podium, and then we were all able to help the women’s team and Knute to his first medal. We’ve had a great time. It’s sad that it is all over. I’m just so happy Alex was able to end it all by having his best races of the season.”
Meanwhile, Emily Nishikawa will be amongst a group of Canadians who will carry the torch into a new direction for Nordiq Canada’s high-performance program.
The two-time Olympian finished strong in 31st place in the women’s 10-kilometre pursuit Sunday. Nishikawa, of Whitehorse, climbed six spots up the standings with a time of 27:49.0.
“I had a really good race. It was a ton of fun skiing today and I was really happy,” said Nishikawa. “I felt really strong, was skiing comfortably up near the front of our chase pack. It was definitely one of my best races of the season. Racing here in Quebec is incredible.”
Sweden’s Stina Nilsson completed her golden sweep of the women’s three-race mini-tour at the World Cup Finals, winning with a time of 23:55.1. Norway’s Therese Johaug was second at 24:08.0. Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, also of Norway, was third at 24:10.2.