QUEBEC â€” Ending the season at home was an unexpected bonus for Alex Harvey and the rest of Canada’s cross-country skiing team.
Harvey, from Saint- Ferreol-Les-Neiges, north of Quebec City, will be the star attraction for the World Cup finals that begin Friday on the Plains of Abraham in the centre of the city.
The three-day meet was originally to be held in Tyumen, Russia, but organizers gave it up after six Russian cross country skiers were suspended for doping violations. Quebec City beat out two other bidders and will be the host of World Cup races for the third time since 2012.
Harvey, crowned 50-kilometre world champion on March 5 in Finland, hopes the home crowd backing will help put him back on the podium and secure third place in men’s overall standings.
It may help that Norwegian star Martin Johnsrud Sundby, uncatchable in first place, and second place Russian Sergey Ustiugov opted to skip the last competition of the season. Fourth-place Matti Heikkinen of Finland is expected to race, however.
“I’m really confident,” said Harvey, the 28-year-old son of cross country and cycling legend Pierre Harvey. “I’m third in the overall World Cup so my goal is to consolidate that position.
“And I have good memories from here last year. I was second in the skate sprint and, to this day, it’s one of the greatest memories of my whole sporting career to have the home crowd behind me and being able to deliver like that. I’m really excited to have another chance to do that.”
The meet opens Friday with sprints followed by mass start races on Saturday and pursuit on Sunday. All three have men’s and women’s events. Harvey intends to take part in all three, although his best chance could be in the sprint.
He hopes that having had the rare chance to sleep in his own bed and eat at home since he returned Sunday to a hero’s welcome will nullify any fatigue from his sixth place in a World Cup 50 kilometres last weekend in Norway.
“There was a huge crowd of people waiting for me at the airport, not just media, but fans as well,” he said. “And at the grocery store this week a lady that I’ve never seen in my life looked at me and gave me a big hug and said thank you.
“Those are the things that make you say ‘man, I actually did that.’ That’s pretty special.”
World championship gold was not his only feat this season. On Jan. 15, he and Len Valjas won team pursuit gold in Italy and a week later Harvey took 15-km gold in Sweden and got bronze with Canada’s 4X7.5-km relay squad. In his career, Harvey has 19 top-three World Cup finishes, including five wins.
The six-foot-six Valjas also got to spend time at home in Toronto.
“I couldn’t be happier being in Canada,” he said. “When we heard the news I was thrilled.
“Russia’s amazing. There’s always a time and a place for travelling and exploring new places, but when you have the opportunity at the end of a long season to come home, we were all so excited. I feel more prepared and energized. I got some home cooked meals from my mum. It’s way better to come home and make the Europeans travel. See how they feel jet-lagged.”
The entire Canadian team got a charge from Harvey’s world championship, but it was extra special for Valjas. He acted as a feeder for Harvey, handing him small shots of a sugary sports drink during the race for an energy boost.
“It was fun to be part of the race, not just watching at home,” said Valjas. “It was great to help him out.
”It’s amazing for the program. We had a good season before that, but that race was the cherry on top.”
Mild weather is expected for the weekend after the city was buried in more than 40 centimetres of snow on Tuesday and Wednesday. Valjas was confident that groomers will have the race trails in top shape.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press