Minutes after passing the rusty-brown steel arch that serves as the gateway to Faubourg Olympique, Alex Harvey enters a cross-country skier’s fantasyland. The late afternoon sun beams around semi-detached country-style homes and skinny birch trees, creating an image fit for a postcard. But Harvey, gliding over the asphalt on roller skis, isn’t out to admire the breathtaking views of Mont Sainte-Anne. He’s busy right now.
This is merely a recovery session, a mild workout to close out the mid-September day. This morning, Harvey strapped on his bike helmet, T-shirt, shorts and wheeled skis, and pushed and poled for 55 kilometres. He later went running to work up a dinner appetite. Eat. Sleep. Train. At any point in time, it’s a safe assumption Harvey’s doing one of the three. And while the scenery provides the ideal backdrop for all that effort, the signs that mark the undulating pavement help explain his life’s path. The roads in the community of Faubourg Olympique feature the names of cities that have hosted the Games and people important to the Olympic movement. Harvey’s evening journey mostly takes him along Turin, the last winter stop before he became an Olympian. He passes Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC. Calgary, where his father read the athletes’ oath in 1988, is one of the final signs he sees before passing back under the arch.
No Canadian male has ever won a medal in cross-country skiing at the Olympics. Harvey, who finished eighth in the 30 km on Sunday and is a threat in the sprint, 15 km and 50 km individual disciplines in Pyeongchang, is in a good position to change that. He won the 50-km mass start at the men’s world championship last March in Lahti, Finland, becoming the first North American skier to do so since the event began in 1925. Two weeks later, he topped the podium at a 1.5-km sprint World Cup race in Quebec City. Those results made him a finalist for the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year and showcased the rare breadth of his range.
“Alex is a guy who’s talented for sure, but when he has a goal he will really focus on that; he will do everything it takes to make it happen,” says his father, Pierre, himself a four-time Olympian, twice in cross-country skiing. “He could cut his foot [off] if he has to cut it to do it.”
Pyeongchang is Harvey’s third Games and, at 29, he’s at the ideal age and in the perfect physical condition to make Canadian Olympic history. It’s something he’s been raised to do growing up a 45-minute drive northeast of Quebec City in the village of Saint-Ferreol-les-Neiges. All that’s left for him is to make the most of that training.
Slide open the white-trimmed glass door that leads to the back deck at Harvey’s house and good skiing is immediately in sight. Equipment is never stored away when he’s home in the winter because there’s a tree-lined path to the trail a few strides beyond the first step onto the backyard snow. Three hundred metres to paradise.
The house — shared with girlfriend Sophie Ringuet, a dentistry student at Laval University — isn’t the one where Harvey grew up. But it’s nearby and its setup mimics what he was exposed to as a child — except that when he was a boy, the trails were even closer. As a baby, Harvey was carried or put in a glider while his parents skied. He was on a pair of his own by the time he was three and really started moving when he was five. Harvey is currently studying labour law at Laval and was always a strong student as a kid, but he had a habit of quickly finishing his work and then causing problems. His parents needed to keep him active. They agreed to let him ski after school if his homework was done. Harvey worked on the bus and hit the snow from the moment he got home until dinner was served. “That was my routine as a kid,” he says.
Sometimes, he’d hit the alpine slopes at Mont Sainte-Anne on the weekends, but cross-country skiing with his father was also part of the routine. Pierre’s rookie appearance at the Five-Ring Circus was as a road cyclist in Montreal in 1976. Four years later, Canada boycotted the Moscow Games for political reasons. Pierre had used cross-country skiing to train in the winter. Even though he went to the 1984 Los Angeles Games in the summer, his perspective changed after Moscow. “I realized I was maybe a better skier than a cyclist,” he says. He loved the sport and the lifestyle and reached the Winter Olympics in 1984 and 1988 on the snow. It was a decision that would impact his son’s athletic career, too. “I never pushed,” says Pierre, a three-time winner on the World Cup circuit. “When you live here … you love being outside in the winter.”
Pierre had skied early in the morning with the family’s next-door neighbour, aspiring Olympian Guido Visser, for years before his son started tagging along. From the age of seven, Harvey joined the men every day — unless there were any problems. “As punishment when he wasn’t nice to his sisters, he wasn’t allowed to ski or mountain bike with us in the morning. It would seem like a punishment to most kids to go skiing at 6:30 in the morning,” Visser says, laughing.
Harvey’s first skiing role model was his father. Living with an Olympian can have that effect. But his skiing hero became Visser. Seeing a neighbour compete in the Games can have that effect — even if he doesn’t place particularly well. Visser had terrible luck in Nagano in 1998. The forecasts never seemed to match the weather and attempts to find the appropriate ski wax for the ever-changing conditions proved worthless. Visser finished last in the 30- and 50-km events, but made sure to get close to the leaders as he was being lapped, just so he could get on TV. Back in Saint-Ferreol-les-Neiges, nine-year-old Alex was watching.
Harvey joined the training centre at Mont Sainte-Anne in the hopes of fulfilling the dream of following in his father’s and Visser’s tracks. Success on the snow didn’t come easy early on. He earned plenty of top-five and top-10 finishes on the juvenile circuit, but was bereft of podiums. The members of the Harvey family are an athletic bunch. Pierre was the two-sport Olympian who also swam. Mireille Belzile, Harvey’s mother, was a competitive skier and cyclist and is the longtime national cross-country team doctor. (She and Pierre separated when Alex was in high school.) Harvey’s two younger sisters, Sophie and Laurence, followed their parents on their skis and bikes. Alex, also a mountain biker and swimmer, would end up being the only member of his family to go medal-less at the Quebec Games.
The lack of early success served Harvey well. He joined the junior circuit when he was 16 and began putting in place the types of professional training habits that his coach Louis Bouchard says he’s known for today. He reached the world junior championship podium at 18 and again a year later. The success spurred the Canadian cross-country ski federation to ask him to move west to the main training centre in Canmore, Alta., but Harvey opted to stay in Quebec. He was never comfortable racing at the centre and it was too far from friends and family.
See the view from the second floor of Pierre’s home, a five-minute drive from Alex’s place, and it’s easy to understand why Harvey wanted to stay put. The sprawling mountains appear on one side of the floor-to-ceiling windows; the St. Lawrence River is visible off in the distance to the south. Harvey’s desire was to run up those mountains and roller ski in the summer, and train at the Centre National d’Entraînement Pierre-Harvey, where his mom continues to serve as the chief medical officer. So, that’s what he did.
Harvey won his first World Cup medal when he was 20, a bronze in a 50-km event. He nearly claimed another at the 2010 Olympics. While teaming with Devon Kershaw, Harvey finished fourth in the team sprint, Canada’s best result in men’s cross-country skiing ever at the Olympics. “It really just gave us a bunch of confidence,” Harvey says. “We were [close] enough from the podium to believe in it, but far enough to really still have the will and grit and to train hard and to be able to keep improving. The timing for it was perfect. Had we been third, it would have been a big achievement then. But I don’t know how motivated we would have been later on. It kept us really hungry.”
In 2011, Harvey won his first World Cup race and earned a team sprint gold medal with Kershaw at the world championship in Oslo, Norway. The pair busted out some air guitar after crossing the finish line, a move that Harvey’s claimed as his signature post-race celebration. He is now the most decorated Canadian cross-country skier in history, with 23 World Cup individual podiums (including two this season) and four individual world championship medals. Add in the one with Kershaw and he has five — the only five Canada has ever produced on the men’s side.
But it wasn’t until last March that he truly showed his star power.
Harvey is centimetres behind the leader as he carefully shuffles his way around the final downhill turn before the entrance to Lahti Stadium. He pushes hard off his left ski and glides to his right to take the inside lane and poles furiously to pick up speed. By the time he reaches flat ground, Harvey has edged past Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov and into first place. As he leads the field to the finish line in the men’s 50-km mass start at the 2017 world championship, the crowd and the TV commentators are roaring.
Harvey widens his advantage over the last two short turns. By the final straightaway it’s clear there’s no stopping him. He raises his right arm a stride before he crosses the line and punches the air in jubilation to punctuate his historic achievement. Less than an hour and 47 minutes after the crack of the starter’s pistol, he’s held off Ustiugov by six-tenths of a second for gold in the sport’s toughest and most prestigious race. Harvey comes to a stop and lets out three primal screams.
“At the halfway point, I felt in control,” he says, thinking back to that day in Finland. “I knew there had been a couple attacks already. Guys were trying to push the pace and it was always quite easy for me just to follow. I knew the skis were running really well. I knew the body was good. I was just in really good control, good headspace. I knew that at least the podium was a real, real option. As soon as I crossed the line, I was ecstatic.”
Even more than the 50-km result itself, Harvey is proud that he overcame the frustration of finishing fifth in his favourite distance — the 30 km — just days before. “The first few hours after the [30 km] race, I was really down,” he says. “I tried to really live the disappointment — get sad, get down, push it away. That’s what I did. That evening was really shitty. The next day I went out for an easy ski. Then we were going to prepare for the next day’s races.” That ability to refocus quickly will serve Harvey well as Sunday’s 30 km was the first of three individual events scheduled in a six-day stretch in South Korea. The 50-km mass start comes on the second-last day of competition.
Harvey capped off his 2017 season by winning the 1.5-km World Cup sprint in Quebec City. He calls that victory on the Plains of Abraham the most emotional of his career because it happened in front of friends who don’t normally see him race.
It also served as a wake-up call to anyone in the sport who’d failed to take notice of his rise. After the win, Dominick Gauthier, an Olympic analyst for Radio-Canada, explained the magnitude of Harvey’s accomplishments in an interview with Postmedia. “Just imagine if someone came to Canada from Japan and ended up being the best hockey player. Imagine how stunned and surprised and shocked we all would be,” he said. “Well, Alex Harvey is that to the Scandinavians.”
Within two weeks, Harvey had topped the podium in the sport’s longest race and its shortest. The 1.5-km length takes about three and a half minutes to finish and must be completed three times in roughly three hours just to get to the final. But just because it’s more of an endurance event than “sprints” in other sports doesn’t mean mastering both ends of the cross-country spectrum is easy for even the world’s best skiers. “He’s good everywhere,” says Bouchard, Harvey’s coach of more than 13 years. “There’s not many athletes in the world in our sport that can do that — maybe eight to 10.”
The morning after the picturesque roller ski around the Faubourg Olympique is the most beautiful of September days. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun’s rays provide just enough warmth to justify shedding a sweatshirt.
Harvey needs no such layers. Fresh off a trip to the Italian Alps to train with the national team, he leads a group of 15 mostly development-level skiers. He’s shirtless, wearing nothing but a bike helmet and heart-rate monitor on the top half of his body. The trip to Livigno, Italy at the end of August provided a chance to train at altitude — the second of four such camps Canadian team members will attend before the Olympics. The “artificial doping,” as Harvey puts it, increases red blood cell counts and blood volume, benefits he’s brought back with him to Quebec.
Strength and conditioning coach Charles Castonguay guides today’s first session armed with a whistle in the driver’s seat of a golf cart. The athletes roller ski up and down the road, alternating between maximum intensity and rest — gliding — at the sound of Castonguay’s blasts. It’s like clockwork for Harvey. “Most of the time I don’t have to tell him what to do,” Castonguay says.
The training helps build endurance, but is also great for the 1.5-km sprint and to finish off longer races. As the veteran of the group, Harvey leads the pack. When he goes full bore, each stride is quick yet smooth and powerful. He’s poling on every stride and his back, triceps, shoulder and calf muscles are bulging. He looks like Superman — minus the cape. “We see what he’s doing here,” says Philippe Boucher, a young skier in his fourth year at the Centre National d’Entraînement Pierre-Harvey. “We know that’s a world championship training. It’s super inspiring.”
By the time the group reaches the bottom of the hill to close out an hour-long session on the paved track, Harvey is flying. He says he can reach 72 kilometres per hour on the roller skis. “Every year, he gets better and better and better,” Castonguay says. “I don’t see him reaching the plateau yet.” Harvey set new personal bests across the board in physical testing last June.
Harvey glances at his watch regularly throughout the session to monitor the intervals and his heart rate. Bouchard explains that January is reserved for fine-tuning and improving sprints, but the weeks before the season starts is the time to make hay. “When we get this kind of training done, it stays forever — the rest of the winter,” he says.
Harvey knows that better than anyone. He follows the routine so closely its details might as well be tattooed on his arm. As national team member Graeme Killick notes, if Harvey is supposed to keep his heart rate in a certain training zone, you can bet that’s what he’ll be doing. Eating, training and sleeping schedules are followed precisely. And if he’s supposed to ski, nothing is getting in his way. While in Italy in August, rain and snow pelted down as they trained in the mountains. It wasn’t enough to stop Harvey. “When it’s really hard, he’s able to push through those situations and view everything in a positive lens,” Killick says.
Killick has roomed with Harvey on the road, but came to appreciate him even more in September. Harvey opened his home to Killick and teammate Jesse Cockney when wildfires in Alberta made the air too hazardous to train in. “He’s always very supportive of everyone,” says Killick, a native of Fort McMurray. “He’s really good at keeping a level head. He’s such a good teammate and has handled the success really well all the way through his career.”
Harvey’s also had to handle his fair share of defeat, specifically four years ago when he didn’t finish inside the top 10 in any event in Sochi. After the Games, he and Bouchard felt they’d been too concerned with details away from the course. They took it as a learning experience. “You just try to follow along instead of trying to control and micromanage every little thing,” Harvey says. To that end, his sole concern in South Korea is skiing. He visited the country last March to test the Olympic course, so he’d be able to visualize himself on the terrain as part of his preparation.
“He’s got a really good shot and he’s due for something big in Pyeongchang,” Killick says.
Harvey isn’t the only person from his village attending the Games. His mom is there to watch the national team members compete after guiding them through their final altitude camp. His dad is taking a break from his job as a mechanical engineering consultant to work as a French-language colour commentator — the seventh time he’s done so in the past eight Winter Olympics. His teammate, Anne-Marie Comeau, 21, qualified for her first Games. Visser, Harvey’s childhood neighbour, is coaching his wife, Jaqueline Mourao of Brazil. And then there’s his wax technician, Yves Bilodeau, a former Olympic teammate of Pierre’s and the godfather of Harvey’s youngest sister, Laurence.
Must be something in the water — or the mountains. “The environment we make him grow in was good,” Pierre says of his son. “We didn’t push too much so he wouldn’t quit, and we let him do what he likes. I’m really, really happy to see him doing that. It goes above what I could ever expect.”
If Harvey has anything to say about it, he hasn’t finished making his mark — at the Games or in his hometown. The Faubourg Olympique community still has room for development. And should he stand on the podium in Pyeongchang, Harvey may just see his name on a road sign as he roller skis on through.
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