Alex Harvey says the time is coming for him to ski with the big boys of the World Cup circuit.
The 21-year-old rising star of Canada's cross-country team has long anticipated the coming weekend's 30-km classic race in Rogla, Slovenia, as a key step in his march from back of the pack to contender in the February Olympics.
"It's the first mass start of the year, and the first long distance of the year," He said in an interview from Switzerland.
"I want to be active in the group, not at the back of the pack, trying to hang on for dear life. I want to try to be able to ski strong around the front...for most of the race."
Harvey has struggled in the early World Cup races in his first full season on the World Cup circuit, but recently has improved.
In Kuusamo, Finland, two weeks ago, Harvey was 62nd in a 15-kilometre classic race. However, he rose up the standings in last weekend's race in Davos, Switzerland, placing 34th in the 15-kilometre race.
This weekend will see Harvey and his older teammate Devon Kershaw, 26, competing in the 30-kilometre mass start race - skiing's rough equivalent of a gruelling half-marathon running race. Turin silver medallist Sara Renner of Canmore, Alta., will also race for Canada.
The course involves over 1,000 metres of climbing and about an hour and 10 minutes of moving your body at over 20 kilometres an hour with the long, smooth strides of the classic style.
The lanky and lean skier from St.-Ferreol-des-Neiges, Que. said he's not expecting a podium finish, but wants to be in contention for the majority of the race as the days tick down to the Olympic races in the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, B.C.
"This is my first full season on the circuit. Usually at this time of year I'm skiing in North America, where I'm able to win quite often, but the level here (in Europe) is quite different," he said.
"For me...this is my best physical shape ever for November and December. That's what I was expecting...I've been skiing right where I expected to be."
Expectations for Harvey's performance in Europe this season were heightened last March 14, after the young racer surprised veterans of the circuit with a spectacular breakaway from the pack during a 50-km race in Trondheim, Norway.
In that World Cup race, Harvey surged ahead with over 30 kilometres remaining, an unusual move that forced veterans to exert themselves to stay in contact.
The lead group broke into a group of seven, and then a group of five. Harvey kept with the leaders until the final minutes and then held on for a jubilant bronze-medal finish.
The Laval University law student came up with the unorthodox tactic in the early part of the season, as he sat reviewing hours of video of World Cup races.
Harvey said he observed veteran racers seemed to be conserving energy in the middle of the race, and he decided to find a way to shake up the field with an early burst of speed.
"People thought it would be crazy to go out alone that early, but it worked...There's different ways of skiing than just sitting in the pack. You have to create things."
So far this year Harvey says he hasn't had the fitness levels needed to repeat this feat.
But he predicts that will change.
"I know I can be in the top-10 when I'm in good shape. I just can't get in such a level of conditioning that fast."
Coaches say if Harvey follows last year's pattern, the dominant skiers such as Finland's Matti Heikkenen and Norway's Ronny Hafsaas should expect to see the Canadian threatening them by the World Cup in Canmore, Alta., on Feb. 5 and 6.
"Those guys who are flying in mid-November, I almost guarantee that by mid-February they'll be out of gas," said Dave Wood, team leader of the Canadian cross country ski team.
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